Middle Reliever Targets, 6/21/21 — AL

Injury or poor performance from your starting pitchers often times leads to a decision — do you want to replace that starting pitcher with a starter from the free agent pool who could potentially harm your ratios, or pluck a strong middle reliever who could stabilize those ratios, but might limit your win and strikeout totals? There’s no correct answer. However, if you do decide on the latter strategy, let’s review some of the names that should be at the top of your shopping list.

Today, I’ll start in the American League. I’ve decided on some very strict filters:

>=30% strikeout rate
>=20% K%-BB%
>=15% SwStk%

I chose K%-BB%, rather than BB%, because a higher BB% is okay the higher the strikeout rate is. I chose SwStk% because I want my reliever’s strikeout rate to be supported by tons of whiffs, rather than a higher rate of called and/or foul strikes. Note what’s not displayed here — ERA! That’s because over 25 innings, it has no predictive value and means nothing to me when deciding between relievers.

AL MR Targets
Name Team IP K% BB% K-BB% SwStr%
Cole Sulser BAL 24.1 36.4% 8.1% 28.3% 15.2%
Phil Maton CLE 26.2 36.0% 8.8% 27.2% 17.2%
Matt Wisler TBR 23.1 33.7% 6.3% 27.4% 16.8%
Josh Sborz TEX 27.1 31.9% 10.1% 21.8% 15.8%
Hirokazu Sawamura BOS 28.1 30.3% 9.8% 20.5% 16.4%

Orioles reliever Cole Sulser heads our list sorted by strikeout rate. Shockingly, Sulser ended up as the Orioles closer for a period last year before he imploded and his ERA shot above 5.00. That was when his skills were poor. This year, he has thrown his elite changeup more at the expense of his weaker slider and his strikeout rate has almost doubled, while his control has improved sharply. Given the sad state of the Orioles bullpen, it’s baffling that now that Sulser is actually good, he’s garnered just one save. Sometimes, you just can’t figure out managers! Even without saves, he’s a target, but given the likelihood he records more saves over the rest of the season, it makes him a prime pickup if you want to avoid the risk of a replacement level starting blowing up your ratios.

While there are likely more saves in Sulser’s future, there may be few, if any, in Phil Maton’s future. The veterans Indians reliever would have to skip past both Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak, and get his results to match his underlying skills, which is a tall order. But Maton’s skills are certainly there and a 17%+ SwStk% isn’t even out of nowhere, as he posted a mark that high last year over 21.2 innings as well. The issue here is a high LD%, resulting in consistently high BABIP marks, and an inability to strand runners. It’s why his career ERA stands at a weak 4.93, versus a 3.52 SIERA. It’s certainly possible he is missing some important skills that will always lead to high BABIP marks or an inability to strand runners (low LOB%), but we definitely won’t know whether that’s the case over just 175.1 innings. So for now, I’m going to bet on the elite whiff-inducing skills and figure his ERA will rapidly decline to match his SIERA sooner than later.

I couldn’t believe the Giants traded away Matt Wisler a week and a half ago for the Rays’ 31st best prospect. With a 2.67 SIERA and huge SwStk%, Wisler is a potentially elite reliever and one that could even go multiple innings given his former life as a starting pitcher. Now in Tampa where they grow elite relievers on trees, he’s a prime pickup. Wisler has the most insane pitch mix — this year he’s thrown his four-seamer just 9.3% of the time, while the remaining 90.7% of the time, he’s throwing his slider! Even though batters know the slider is coming nearly every pitch, they still can’t make contact. It doesn’t seem healthy long-term for his arm, but hey, for as long as that arm and elbow remain attached, Wisler should be a nice fantasy asset. And in the Rays bullpen, everyone is a saves candidate too!

When Ian Kennedy hit the IL, it was assumed Josh Sborz would take over the role until the former returned. Instead, he failed to save a game and has allowed runs in nearly every outing. It has pushed his ERA up to 4.94, but the underlying skills remain pretty strong, as his SIERA sits at a much more acceptable 3.13. With the possibility Kennedy is traded away at or before the trade deadline, someone will be garnering those Rangers saves. Given Sborz’s recent issues allowing runs, it wouldn’t seem to be him just yet. But the HR/FB rate should fall and at the very least, he’s going to start stranding more than 59.2% of baserunners, which is largely to blame for his inflated ERA. He’s a good speculation for both solid reliever production and saves speculation moving forward.

This is Hirokazu Sawamura’s debut season in MLB after coming over from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. It’s been quite a good one as he has induced an elite rate of swings and misses. Both his splitter and slider have generated SwStk% marks over 20%, which is crazy to have two pitches at that level. Red Sox closer Matt Barnes has been lights out this season so Sawamura has little chance of saves in the future. But he could still earn some deep league value even without any saves.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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1 year ago

Sawamura gets a mention! Unlike last year, there are a few names in the Sox bullpen that aren’t uttered with disdain, and it’s good to see that some guy people hadn’t heard of from out of the country has held his own.