Middle Relievers As Prime Assets

The new high-strikeout, pitching-focused environment has changed the game in many ways, but one of the more significant ways is the rising value of middle relievers. For years I used to roster 2-3 middle relievers in an AL- or NL-only league to supplement my staff instead going with the fourth- or fifth-starter from some middling team. The linked article was done in 2011 when it was still kind of a niche strategy that maybe a couple of teams could pull off. There wasn’t the overwhelming volume of viable relievers that we see now with gaudy strikeout rates and microscopic ratios.

In 2011, there were just 12 guys with a 30% or better strikeout rate in 50+ innings. Last year saw 26 such instances, including four at 40% or better (led by Aroldis Chapman’s ridiculous 53% rate). Chapman obviously doesn’t fit this gameplan because he’s a closer, but the other three guys at 40% or better were middle relievers who were freely available in a lot of leagues for long time: Andrew Miller (43%), Brad Boxberger (42%), and Dellin Betances (40%). I don’t imagine that this year’s iterations of those guys will linger quite as long as more and more fantasy players are realizing the impact these middle relievers can have on a fantasy team, even in a deeper mixed league or even a shallow one with daily transactions where you can flip your middle relief studs in on your starter’s off-days.

Furthermore the quickness with which strikeout rate stabilizes (70 BF) means we need less time to identify the potential studs in this field. Nobody is at 70 batters faced yet (Anthony Bass is pacing the league among relievers at 59), but we’re taking an early look so we can jump some of these guys before everyone is aware and tabbing them as the next Betances or Wade Davis. By the way, Davis just missed on the 40% strikeout rate with a 39% mark in his 72 innings. That is still over-the-top elite, of course. I was just using the 40% threshold to point out the super-ridiculous.

I’ve got a handful of guys who might be ready to bolster your staff via strikeouts and ratios. I didn’t do a hard series of statistical thresholds here, though I’m obviously looking for big strikeout rates (usually north of 30%), big K%-BB% numbers (ideally 20%+), and big stuff (this is more nebulous, I obviously looked at SwStr%, but the absence of a huge one didn’t rule someone out). Here are 10 names to consider:

Yimi Garcia, LAD (46% K, 42% K-BB, & 15% SwStr) – Garcia came through the Dodgers’ system as a reliever so the early success out of the bullpen for the 24-year old isn’t too surprising. He posted strikeout rates from 27% to 37% with an ERA of 3.10 or better each of the last four seasons in the minors. He got a 10-inning look with the big club last September and looked sharp (25% K rate, 22% K-BB, and 11% SwStr), but he’s been even better in his first seven innings of 2015. Garcia leans on a 93-96 MPH fastball for most of his damage, using it 71% of the time, but he does have an 82 MPH slider to change speeds on batters.

It seems that some are already taking notice of Garcia’s work as he on 5% of rosters in ESPN leagues. He’s obviously still available in the overwhelming majority of leagues, but given that ESPN caters to 10-team leagues, his ownership percentage at that outlet is noteworthy. CBS usually caters to a deep league and he’s on 23% of rosters over there. The early season usage of Garcia has him on pace for 80 innings and while that will likely taper off some, he could log 100 strikeouts in 60 innings of work at his current rate.

Aaron Barrett, WAS (42% K, 32% K-BB, & 18% SwStr) – You likely know Barrett from his intentional walk mishap in the playoffs last year. In fact, that flub is the reason that some people don’t want to see intentional walks be automatic instead of throwing the four pitches. That’s stupid because of how incredible rare a mistake like Barrett’s is, but we’re not here to talk about that right now. Barrett is aiming to make us forget that memory and his early season work is a good start. The 27-year old was pretty good in 50 appearances last year (28% K, 12% SwStr), but a few too many base runners kept him from being an elite middle relief option (1.30 WHIP).

He has logged at least one strikeout in each of his six appearances so far this season. I would like to see the walk rate come down (it was at 11.5% last year, and 10.5% so far this season), but as filthy as his stuff has been this year, the opposition might not get enough hits to make the elevate walk rate matter. The ninth-round college product has regularly been a closer in the minors while posting a 31% strikeout rate and he would likely be next-in-line if Drew Storen faltered. Storen has been excellent in all but one of his five MLB regular seasons thus far, though, so he will probably get a decent leash. Keep in mind that we’re primarily interested in the big strikeouts and tiny ratios, though, so being next-in-line for saves is merely an added benefit as opposed to something necessary for inclusion here.

Junichi Tazawa, BOS (38% K, 33% K-BB, & 12% SwStr) –Tazawa has been getting it done for a while. He has back-to-back 71-outing seasons with better than a strikeout per inning and he was brilliant for about half that workload in 2012 (37 games, 1.43 ERA). He is off to a fast start and while the safe bet suggests he will drift back to levels we’re used to from him, his intrigue comes from the added bonus that he could eventually log some saves for the Sox. I reiterate: the potential for saves isn’t a prerequisite for this list primarily because those guys are often already snapped up or carry a much higher price tag on draft day, but Tazawa never seems to have the closer-in-waiting tax tacked onto his cost.

It was made clear that Edward Mujica was going to fill-in for the injured Koji Uehara to start 2015 and now the incumbent is back after a short time off. However, Uehara is now 40 years old and has long had issues with health so the role could definitely re-open at some point this season and I’m not sure Mujica would be the optimal fill-in. Tazawa has a mid-90s fastball (sits 94 MPH), but it’s his curve and splitter that generate his swings-and-misses. Like I said, I can definitely see his strikeout rate dipping back toward the upper-20s or maybe even lower-30s, but his rock solid ratios and the potential for a bigger, more impactful role helps him make the list.

Cody Martin (38% K, 32% K-BB, & 11% SwStr) – Command-and-control guys are rarely huge prospects and while Martin was occasionally found on the backend of Braves lists a couple years, there weren’t overwhelming expectations for him. After this winter’s rebuild effort, the Braves had some room on the roster and Martin made the club as a reliever, a role that wasn’t foreign to him, but something he hadn’t done regularly since 2011. He doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but he has been a standout early performer with 13 strikeouts in nine innings.

His recent work as a starter puts him in line for a hefty workload out of the bullpen, too. Four of his seven outings have been multi-inning efforts and he has multiple strikeouts in five of his outings (including all four times he’s gone more than an inning). As a command-and-control guy, he doesn’t have the overwhelming velocity seen throughout the rest of this list, but he has three different levels with his 90 MPH fastball, 82 MPH slider, and 74 MPH curveball. The breakers give him the whiffs he needs to post his massive strikeout rate while the fastball is yielding a 54% groundball rate which is a deadly combo. There are usually a small handful of guys with 80+ innings out of the pen each year and Martin is tracking to be one of those this year.

Pedro Baez, LAD (33% K, 29% K-BB, & 17% SwStr) –With the injury to Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers bullpen was looking like a weakness entering the season. Nobody was too excited about Brandon League, and then he got hurt, too. So they were looking at Joel Peralta and J.P. Howell as their two main arms out of the ‘pen and not much else. Well, the not much else has been “a lot else” as Garcia and Baez have joined forces with lefty Paco Rodriguez and the two aforementioned veterans to be one of the best relief groups in the game early on.

Like Jansen (catcher), Baez is a converted hitter who jumped to the mound in 2013 after struggling to really get going at the dish (career .701 OPS in 2051 minor lg. PA) and thanks in large part to his mid-90s heater, he has found instant success. He relies heavily on that fastball, using it 72% of the time so far this year, but so would you if you averaged 96.5 MPH and netted an 18% swinging strike rate with it. The slider can get the whiffs, too, though. He has a show-me changeup in the upper-80s, as well. This bullpen could get really silly once Jansen returns.

OTHER NAMES TO CONSIDER: Jordan Walden, Carson Smith, R.J. Alvarez, Shawn Tolleson, and Carter Capps (once he’s recalled since he was just sent back down).

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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Paul, I’ve always liked this strategy and whether or not it’s actually based on real-live-actually-not-fake statistics or not, I’ve always tried to grab guys who play on teams that’re at least .500 or better to get those totally unpredictable, but super awesome, reliever wins.