Middle Reliever Targets, 6/22/21 — NL

Today we continue our look into middle reliever targets (AL is here), switching over to the National League. As a reminder, here are my filters:

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

I also required a minimum of 20 innings pitched.

NL MR Targets
Name Team IP K% BB% K-BB% SwStr%
Jimmy Nelson LAD 22.2 41.1% 13.3% 27.8% 15.6%
Devin Williams MIL 27.1 37.8% 14.3% 23.5% 17.7%
Daniel Hudson WSN 24.1 37.2% 7.4% 29.8% 16.0%
David Bednar PIT 26.1 33.6% 7.5% 26.2% 15.8%
Giovanny Gallegos STL 37.2 31.7% 5.8% 25.9% 16.0%
Trevor May NYM 24.2 31.4% 6.7% 24.8% 16.2%
Ryan Tepera CHC 34.2 31.0% 5.6% 25.4% 17.7%

Remember when Jimmy Nelson had that big breakout year we had been awaiting back in 2017? Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the entire 2018 season and then he returned in 2019 to throw just 22 innings split between the rotation and bullpen. His velocity was down in 2019 as well and so the Brewers released him. The Dodgers picked him up for the 2020 season, but he underwent surgery again, this time on his back, and he once again missed the season.

Now finally we’re in 2021 and Nelson is a full-time reliever — and a dominant one at that. His velocity has returned, though in a relief role, you would have hoped it would be higher than when he was a starter. That’s nitpicking though. He has gotten rid of his sinker and thrown both his curveball and slider significantly more, both pitches having generated high teen SwStk% marks. Walks have been an issue and he’s been an extreme fly ball pitcher, but it hasn’t mattered while he strikes out over 40% of batters faced. Saves won’t be in his future, but he’ll be a strong non-save reliever with the potential for some multi-inning wins.

Devin Williams was video game dominant last year, but hasn’t quite been able to maintain that level of success. However, his strikeout rate has surged each month and he’s suddenly struck out 48.5% of batters faced in June. Walks have been a problem, but again, when you’re striking out so many batters, it’s not as big a deal. Backing one of the best closers in baseball means saves will be few, if any, but the strikeout rate means he could still earn some value without them.

Suddenly at age 34, Daniel Hudson is an elite reliever. Both his strikeout rate and SwStk% easily sit at career highs, which is actually pretty surprising given that his fastball usage is over 70% for the second straight season. But his fastball velocity is at the highest average it’s ever been, which again, is surprising to see at his age. He complements that with a slider that has been elite, generating a SwStk% over 20%. Closer Brad Hand’s skills have eroded this year, but he’s unlikely to lose his job. The bigger possibility is the Nationals continue falling out of the race and decide to sell at the deadline, which makes Hand and his one year contract a good candidate to be traded, making Hudson the likely replacement closer. Or, of course, Hudson himself could be traded, and depending on which team picks him up, could increase his value or result in no change.

There was some speculation that David Bednar would open the season as the Pirates closer instead of Richard Rodriguez. That didn’t happen, but Bednar has been fantastic and with the Pirates certainly selling, it’s possible Rodriguez is traded and Bednar ultimately ends up with the closer role…just a little later than some had hoped.

Earlier in the season, I continued to hold Giovanny Gallegos. First, I figured he would get first crack at the Cardinals closer job, but instead that went to Alex Reyes. Then, I figured Reyes’ insane walk rate, which still stands above 20%, would cause him to implode and he would quickly lose the closer role. Eventually I gave up waiting and had to cut Gallegos as Reyes continued to perform a miracle act. But even if Gallegos never takes over the closer role this year, he remains one of the best middle relievers, combining strikeout ability with excellent control.

A little while back, it looked like Mets closer Edwin Diaz may have been hurt, so I rushed to pick up Trevor May. It turned out to be nothing and I subsequently dropped May, but he could still be a valuable deeper league asset even if Diaz remains healthy all season. May stumbled a bit in 2019, but outside that season, from 2016 and onward (he missed 2017), his strikeout rate has remained above 30% with mostly good control.

You know how it’s hard to trust relievers for multiple years as they sometimes just suddenly lose it and remain ineffective for the rest of their careers? Craig Kimbrel is a good example of how they also sometimes regain it suddenly just when you write them off. As a result of Kimbrel’s return to greatness, Ryan Tepera has little shot at saves, but he’s carried over his strikeout rate breakout from last year. It hasn’t been due to a jump in velocity. Instead, he began transforming his pitch mix last year. He upped the usage of his cutter, which has been elite, last year and has maintained that higher usage this season, while he has dropped his sinker usage in favor of more splitters, which has also generated a high teen SwStk%. The cutter has been incredible for him and for as long as that’s working and he’s throwing it 40%+ of the time, he’ll continue to be one of the best middle relievers.

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

I always enjoy a good middle relief article. Underrated aspect on the game. Thank you!