In combing through last season’s reliever rankings, something looked a little different. Among CBSSports.com’s top 25 relief-eligible pitchers in Roto value, there were five relievers with fewer than five saves and no more than one start who made the cut. If you toss in Mike Minor, who notched six saves, he joins Chris Devenski, Chad Green, Yusmeiro Petit, Andrew Miller and Matt Albers to make it an even half-dozen. In 2016, only Brad Brach and Nate Jones met those criteria and finished among the top 25.
What Brach and Jones had in common was tossing 70-plus innings with strong strikeout rates, decent control and low BABIPs. Brach also helped himself by vulturing 10 wins. From the 2017 cohort, Devenski and Petit both exceeded 80 innings, and Green threw 69 frames. Miller was limited to 62.2 innings, but he was still good enough to squeak in at No. 23. It’s hardly surprising that the number of non-closers in the upper echelons of fantasy relievers grew, given that starting pitchers threw fewer innings per start. The trend of managers relying more on relievers doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so targeting the top non-closers now needs to be a part of the draft prep process.
I found a dozen candidates who have at least a decent chance to contribute as an RP2 in a 12-team Roto league for the coming season. The list includes four of the five who placed in the top 25 last year. (The exception is Albers, whom I do like, but he threw just 61 innings and appears regression-bound.) Not on the list are pitchers like Archie Bradley and Anthony Swarzak, who should be in the mix for saves. I’ve also excluded Brad Peacock, who is expected to begin the season as a reliever, but could easily make several starts for the Astros.
I don’t expect all 12 to crack the top 25 — that would truly be a paradigm shift. Each has a chance, though, and I have ranked them accordingly. While not every reliever featured here is a slam dunk to contribute in 12-team mixed leagues, even the ones toward the bottom of the list could make an impact in a 15-team mixed league.
1. Andrew Miller, Indians
There were some mild danger signs in 2017, including a slight drop in velocity, his lowest strikeout rate in four years and a 39.5 percent ground ball rate. Miller saw his Z-Swing rate shoot up from 53.5 percent in 2016 to 60.7 percent in 2017, and a reduction in his called strike rate played a prominent role in his shrinking K-rate. Barring a reversal, he might fall short of 100 strikeouts, but he should still be the most productive non-closing reliever in fantasy. He remains elite at avoiding contact and not giving up much hard contact when opponents do manage to connect.
2. Dellin Betances, Yankees
For someone who doesn’t pound the zone, Betances’ 23.6 percent O-Swing rate from last season is a little concerning. Then again, he has had one of the three lowest Z-Swing rates in each of the last three seasons, so he will get an outrageous number of called strikes to go along with a robust swinging strike rate. He may not be the best non-closer for ERA and WHIP, but he should help enough in those categories to complement a strikeout total that could be well in excess of 100.
3. Chad Green, Yankees
Green looked like the complete non-closer package in 2017. Among qualified relievers, only Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen bested his 34.4 percent K-BB%, and he racked up innings once he stuck with the team in mid-May. The biggest questions are whether he will moderate his extreme flyball tendencies (46.5 percent flyball rate) and, if he doesn’t, whether they will get him into trouble. According to xStats.org, Green’s popup rate was 64.7 percent above the major league average, while his rate of value hits allowed — those with a high probability of becoming extra-base hits — was 46.5 percent below the major league average. If he can come close to a repeat performance, Green will be a must-own reliever.
4. Chris Devenski, Astros
He has thrown 164.1 innings out of the bullpen the last two seasons, and if Peacock finds himself back in the Astros’ rotation, Devenski could be called upon to make plenty of multiple-inning appearances. We should probably expect some K-rate regression, as last year’s 31.7 percent mark was skewed by a 52.5 percent rate in April. However, he should be able to lower your staff’s WHIP, thanks to good control, an above-average O-Swing rate and low BABIP and home run rates.
5. Josh Hader, Brewers
I may be cheating a little by including Hader, as he could join the Brewers’ rotation at some point in 2018, even though he is starting out the year in the bullpen. His situation isn’t quite like Peacock’s though, as Hader is not necessarily next in line if the Brewers need rotation reinforcements. He is certainly worth owning, even if he doesn’t make a single start or get a save. Like Green, Hader could pile up innings while missing bats and getting easy flyball outs. His 11.7 percent walk rate from his rookie season could prevent him from posting an elite WHIP. Then again, his 48.3 percent Zone% and 30.5 percent O-Swing% could portend for a much lower rate in 2018.
6. Yusmeiro Petit, Athletics
Petit led all relievers with 87.1 innings (excluding innings from his one start), and 96 of his 101 strikeouts came out of the bullpen. Even if he regresses from a 28.5 percent K-rate, Petit should provide strikeouts as a function of a high innings count. He is consistently far above the major league norm for popup rate, and combined with his penchant for low walk rates, Petit stands a good chance to deliver a WHIP below 1.10. Pitching at Oakland Coliseum should also aid him in preventing home runs and not damaging your staff’s ERA.
7. Mychal Givens, Orioles
Givens dipped below a 30 percent K-rate for the first time in his three-year career, but he contributed more than 70 innings for the second year in a row. Not only could the 27-year-old produce 90-plus strikeouts to go with a sub-3.00 ERA and sub-1.10 WHIP, but given the lack of reliable starting pitchers in Baltimore, he could get regular opportunities to vulture wins. He is coming off back-to-back eight-win seasons.
On another team, I would have ranked Robertson higher, but I don’t see him getting many multiple-inning appearances with Betances and Green sucking up innings. While his inning total may wind up being ordinary, he still has a shot at delivering 1oo strikeouts to go with a useful ERA and WHIP. In fact, Robertson has posted a WHIP below 1.10 in four of the last five seasons.
9. Emilio Pagan, Athletics
In his rookie season, Pagan emerged as the Mariners’ answer to the Angels’ Petit — a swing-inducing long reliever with strong flyball tendencies. Also like Petit, he gets a lot of popups, and he may actually be a better bet for a low WHIP, given his pinpoint control. Unfortunately, he will have to compete with Petit for innings, now that both are in Oakland. Otherwise, I’d rank him a spot or two higher.
10. Adam Morgan, Phillies
Morgan really hit his stride over the last two months of last season. Over the 26.2 innings he pitched in August and Septemeber, Morgan held opponents to a .168/.218/.211 slash line. Increased sinker velocity was a key to his newfound success, and he compiled a 54.8 percent ground ball rate overall, as compared to a 34.8 percent rate over his career prior to that period. He didn’t rely solely on grounders, as he struck batters out at a 32.7 percent rate. It’s always a risk to invest in a player based on two months worth of work, but Morgan is outside of the top 600 in NFBC ADP, so you can count on taking him as late as you want in practically any format.
11. Tyler Lyons, Cardinals
Lyons missed most of April and May, due to recovery from knee surgery and an intercostal strain, and he had some initial struggles upon return. It didn’t take long for him to hit a higher gear, as he did a superb job of freezing batters. His 2016 called strike rate of 20.6 percent wasn’t bad, but he raised it to 23.5 percent last season. Over his final 37.2 innings, he posted a 1.91 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP, and a 34.0 percent K-rate. As with Morgan, fantasy owners will have to put some faith in an admittedly limited sample. Also like his Phillies counterpart, Lyons is a former starter who could be called upon to pitch multiple innings.
12. Chris Rusin, Rockies
Rusin claims the last spot on this list, not because he’s a Rockies pitcher, but because he is the least likely to help with strikeouts. His 20.9 percent K-rate from last season was a career high, so that pedestrian rate may be his upside. Even though he is coming off consecutive seasons of 80-plus innings, Rusin can’t be counted on to make a difference in the strikeout category, but he could be a boon for owners looking to shave their ERA and WHIP and pick up some vulture wins. In his three years with the Rockies, Rusin has a 55.4 percent ground ball rate and a 27.4 percent hard contact rate.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.