Looking for The Next Great Middle Reliever

There’s this phenomenon in writing where you have an idea and you start putting together the piece. In the midst of writing it, you may take a random break and pop onto your Twitter feed. Whilst scanning said feed, you may run across an article posted with not only your exact premise, but damn near the same title, too. This is what Nick Pollack and Alex Fast at PitcherList have termed “Getting Sullivan’d” based on outstanding Fangraphs alumnus Jeff Sullivan.

Well, PitcherList got one back on Fangraphs:

I got Sullivan’d… and how! Instead of scrapping it altogether, I talked with Nick and we decided it was still worth posting mine primarily because Eric Dadmun, the PitcherList author of Searching for This Year’s Devin Williams, had a completely different list than I did so why not offer up even more names in hopes of find this year’s middle relief gem. Plus, it rightfully exposes more people to the phenomenon known as “Getting Sullivan’d”… just great work by Nick & Alex on that one. Please go read Eric’s piece because it’s really good and includes GIFs of his recommended pitchers, something I’m depriving you of here, but hopefully between the two pieces, we help you find 50-70 innings of great ratios, a ton of strikeouts, and a handful of vulture wins and saves.

Jonathan Loaisiga – NYY | 3 IP, 44% K, 0% BB, 21% SwStr

I put him up on the radar before Spring Training finished as he might be my favorite middle reliever target this year. I have been tracking Jonny Lasagna – I’m sorry, it’s just a fun nickname – over the course of his career, hoping he could take Domingo German’s on-field trajectory and become a legitimate starter, but as that dream has faded, the idea of him a fireman reliever has taken its place.

A three-pitch mix, good velocity, and some previous success drive my interest, plus he has the trust of Aaron Boone to go multiple innings in a lot of outings. It’s not just his half-starts, either. He has 44 innings in 27 relief appearances over his career plus another 38 via 11 starts.

While they likely wouldn’t choose him to fill a rotation spot if someone went down, it would likely signify an increase in his workload because the call-ups would be working in that 3-5 IP range and then turning it over to Loaisiga in a lot of instances. We have seen the pieces; it is time to take the next step.

Matt Foster – CWS | 1.7 IP, 50% K, 13% BB, 26% SwStr

Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet are high profile versions of this role meaning they are probably rostered in leagues that value non-closing relievers in any capacity (i.e. holds or just deep leagues that don’t always have enough SPs to go around), but if you are trying the ol’ Middle Reliever Methodology in standard mixers where only a handful of non-closers are rostered, check on Kopech and Crochet before going to Foster as I do like both of them more.

Foster broke out a bit last year, but it was lost in the midst of an obscene White Sox bullpen (btw, that makes the Liam Hendriks pickup more of luxury and while they obviously don’t want anything bad to happen to him, the pen’s success does not hinge on him remaining the best reliever in baseball) with 28.7 IP of a 2.20 ERA and 0.87 WHIP along with a 28% K rate and 13% SwStr rate. Crochet, Codi Heuer, Evan Marshall were all studly in building the bridge to Colome, who was also great.

He doesn’t have the overpowering high-90s fastball as so many relievers do these days, but his 94-mph heater pairs very well with an 84-mph changeup to do a lot of damage. The pitches have allowed near-identical batting averages of .161 for the heater and .162 for changeup. He has also racked up a 36% K rate with the fastball (10th among RP, min. 200 thrown since 2020).

David Bednar – PIT | 3 IP, 36% K, 0% BB, 18% SwStr

OK, pretend he didn’t give up two homers this afternoon and as I write this addendum about the two homers, Foster is struggling in Seattle. Is writing about someone who gets smoked on the day the article goes up another form of getting Sullivan’d?

I included Bednar in my Watchlist piece from March 29th, but perhaps you missed that piece and didn’t see him! As I mentioned there, he garnered some attention with a massive Spring Training performance that has many believing he’s Richard Rodriguez’s backfill, either if Rodriguez falters or when he gets traded… yes, when… no chance they keep a 31-year-old reliever, right? He does have some team control, but still, sell high, right?

Anyway, the potential saves down the line for Bednar should not be your driving force to rostering him (except if you have Rodriguez, I guess), but rather strikeouts and ratios. The fastball was up as high as 99 in spring and paired with his splitter and curve can make him a premier setup man. Heck, even with the 2-HR debacle in Cincinnati today, he still fanned two in his inning of work.

Ryne Stanek – HOU | 3.7 IP, 46% K, 8% BB, 15% SwStr

Stanek has a couple of quality seasons under his belt already as a go-to guy for Tampa Bay in 2018 and a lot of 2019 before his trade to the Marlins. Things didn’t go so well with them as his walk rate spiked from 11% in 2018-19 with Tampa Bay to 18% with Miami, albeit in just 31.3 innings. Early on, it is hard to say if there has been any major influence from Houston but here are some observed changes: his splitter has experienced a 21-point jump in usage to 39% and his fastball has added over 2 inches of horizontal movement as it tails away from righties and down and in to lefties.

Notice how the spin animation of both his fastball and splitter are the same per the graphic on Baseball Savant so they start off looking the same, but the fastball is 10 mph faster while the splitter drops 18 more inches.

Reigning in the walk rate will go a long way to determining Stanek’s success as a fantasy viable reliever. He has been capable of multi-inning outings and a raw pen like Houston’s could certainly utilize such a skill and push him for 70+ innings in 60 or so appearances.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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1 year ago

well matt foster heard you like him and thought today would be a great day to lay an ostrich egg to all ratios

1 year ago

Yeah it’s best not to look at season roto standings for at least a month. The early churn feels like being on a too-small boat in the open ocean.

1 year ago
Reply to  docgooden85

Yup, even per-pitch metrics will take a few more appearances to sort through. But if you want to speculate on something with incomplete data, speculate on increased velocity. Guys don’t luck their way into gas.