Seven Game-Changing Middle Relievers

The Strikeout Era has created a burgeoning market for middle relievers over the last few years. There have always been middle relievers with great ratios and vulture win potential, but with strikeouts continually on the rise, a good handful of them have become even mixed league viable with their ability to fan 30%+ of the batters they face. It took some time for fantasy players to adjust, though.

I remember Dellin Betances was out on the wire in many mixed leagues for a large part of his breakout 2014 season even as he logged 135 strikeouts in just 90 innings, more than Rick Porcello (132) and Alfredo Simon (127) logged in 204.7 and 196.3 innings, respectively. Heck, even someone with pretty good stuff (at least back in ’14) like Shelby Miller only fanned 127 in 183 innings that season. After that season, everyone was hot to Betances as he’s was drafted in virtually every mixed league last year and again this year even as Andrew Miller was named the replacement for Aroldis Chapman during his suspension.

Truth be told, I’ve been keen on studly middle relievers for a while now as I like to use a couple at the backend of an AL/NL only league staff instead taking some lame fifth starter who is likely to do more harm than good. The really good ones can have mixed league viability (12+ teams, even Betances isn’t an automatic in 10-teamers) as the wire dries up or if you’re just looking to protect ERA/WHIP while awaiting the return of a DL’d arm or something. Betances, Wade Davis, and Carter Capps have been some of the biggest standouts in this category the last couple of years. Davis has now become a stud closer and Capps was on way to the same fate before losing the year to TJ this spring.

So who are the next guys? I’ve got seven names for you.

By the way, I was going to include Sean Doolittle as he has settled in after a shaky start (15 Ks, 9 base runners, and 1.64 ERA in last 11 IP), but he’s still likely on a lot of teams speculating for saves as Ryan Madson isn’t exactly dominating and taking a stranglehold on the job. But if he’s available, go ahead and scoop Doolittle.

Looking at CBS roster rates, all of these guys are available in 74% or more leagues and because CBS caters to deeper leagues than Yahoo! and ESPN, they are almost certainly more widely available at both of those outlets.

Hector Neris – PHI – 36% K – 19% SwStr – 28% K-BB%

The Phillies bullpen was mess coming into the season with David Hernandez as the assumed closer and not much worth betting on behind him. Hernandez allowed 3 runs without logging an out in his first appearance of the season and it didn’t take long for Jeanmar Gomez to wrest the job from him. Gomez has logged an MLB-high 16 saves, though he’s hardly their best reliever.

Maybe they realize it’s better to have your best RPs available in the 6th-7th-8th innings when the biggest fires often occur as Hernandez has gotten on track (38% K, 0.94 WHIP, and 1.33 ERA in 20.3 IP since his season debut) and Neris has emerged as their relief ace. They haven’t been afraid to use him, either. He has an MLB-high 24 appearances, allowing runs in just three of them with absolutely dominant skills. The 27-year old righty showed some skills last year (24% K, 14% SwStr, 18% K-BB), but a change in pitch mix has turned him into a total beast.

After using three pitches last, he has completely dumped his slider and gone fastball-splitter while also severely dialing up the splitter usage to a whopping 58%. If you add the totals of the next two splitter usage rates behind Neris, it barely tops him (Tanaka & Guerra at 62%) and the pitch has been stupid-good. The league has just .082/.132/.204 line off of his splitter in 53 PA with a 47% strikeout rate. Fastballs up, splitters down. He’s putting a whopping 72% of his splitters in the lower third of the zone.

It’s so gross:

If there is a downside to Neris right now it’s that he has appeared in the aforementioned MLB-high 24 games, or 57% of the Phillies games. That puts him on pace for 92 appearances and about 100 innings. I’m actually OK with the innings count, but they should cut the appearance rate and just lengthen his outings. He’s gone more than an inning four times this year, including twice going 2+ innings. He went more than an inning in 12 of his 32 MLB appearances last year and in 13 of his 27 appearances at Triple-A.


Kevin Siegrist – STL – 39% K – 13% SwStr – 34% K-BB%

Speaking of high appearance counts, Siegrist led baseball last year with 81. By the way, not all of these guys will be available in Holds leagues (Neris is tied for the league lead with 11), but some will which of course gives them even more usefulness than just a standard league. Siegrist is one such guy because he’s off to a slow start with Holds after logging 28 last year. He just logged his first hold on May 11th and has only logged two this year so he might still be lingering on the wire in leagues that count ‘em. I said some form of “log” a lot in those last couple of sentences. He seems to have reclaimed the eighth inning so he should be good for another 20 or so the rest of the way.

Siegrist was amazing in 2013, fell back in 2014, and was strong again last year, but this year is actually his best yet from a skills standpoint. He has cut his walk rate significantly, down to a career-best 5% (career 11%) and his swinging strike rate has climbed yearly, up to this year’s career-best 13%. He was essentially fastball-only in 2013-14 before introducing a changeup last year (18%). He has really ramped it up this year with 30% usage, but the fastball is behind the strikeout and walk improvements.

He has actually dropped a mile-per-hour to 94 on average, but it’s getting a 46% K and 7% BB rate in 46 PA. The zone rate with the pitch is up to 60% (after sitting 53% over the last three seasons) and he’s working it inside a lot more, something he’s improved yearly since joining the league: 27%, 33%, 35%, and 41%. One issue so far is that he’s allowing homers at a higher clip. He allowed 4 HRs all of last year and has already allowed 3 this year – all off the fastball.

Siegrist is a known commodity among those who play in holds leagues or leverage middle relievers for some quality innings throughout the season, but outside of the three homers, he’s having his best year yet. Trevor Rosenthal has a couple ugly outings and has been walking way too many this year, but he has a pretty sizeable leash with the job and even if they removed him, I could see Seung-hwan Oh getting first crack. He was a long-time closer in Korea and Siegrist is their primary lefty in the bullpen.


Shawn Kelley – WAS – 38% K – 19% SwStr – 34% K-BB%

Kelley quietly started putting up big skills in 2013, but he couldn’t avoid the meltdown outing so his results were unimpressive. He had 13 outings of 2+ ER in his 116 appearances in 2013-14 leaving him with a 4.46 ERA in 105 innings despite a healthy 31% K and 21% K-BB rates. He still had four 2+ ER outings last year, but also 44 scoreless outings in his 53 appearances en route to a career-best 2.45 ERA to go with is 31% K and 23% K-BB rates. Through 19 appearances this year, he’s been even better.

In fact, he’s having the best year of his career. He hasn’t allowed a run in 15 innings with a 38% K rate and 4% BB rate – both career-bests. The 32-year old has upped his swinging strike from 15% in 2014-15 to 19% so far this year. He’s only got 4 holds this year and has never logged more than 12 so he’s probably not on the radar in those leagues, but he is inching closer to the ninth inning and could be in line for saves if Jonathan Papelbon doesn’t improve.

Blake Treinen has started ceding the eighth to Kelley this month and Papelbon’s stranglehold on the ninth appears to be waning. Pap has a career-worst 18% K rate and his 7% BB rate is his highest since 2010. The 1.36 WHIP is the worst since his debut season in 2005, but a .340 BABIP is contributing there so I’m not sure it’s a perfect indicator of declining skills. But his 90.8 MPH fastball is a career-low to go with drop in strikeouts and rise in walks. Kelley is a worthwhile spec for anyone in dire need of saves who can also use some cheap strikeouts and quality innings.



Seung-hwan Oh – STL – 37% K – 20% SwStr – 28% K-BB%

The aforementioned Oh has the dopest nickname going: The Final Boss and while I’m not rooting for Rosenthal to fail, the silver lining if he did would likely be Oh’s insertion into the ninth inning where his nickname would be in full effect. The 33-year old righty has used a fastball-slider-splitter mix to devastate the league so far, allowing just 3 runs in 22.7 IP. He’s also logged four multi-inning outings among his 21 appearances.

Justin Wilson – DET – 31% K – 15% SwStr – 26% K-BB%

Newsflash: The Tigers bullpen is a mess again, but Wilson is having his best year yet. His ERA is inflated (4.76) by four multi-run outings, but he’s still the best thing going for the Tigers (though “best Tigers RP” isn’t exactly a high bar).

Kelvin Herrera – KC – 29% K – 15% SwStr – 26% K-BB%

Herrera has been an established stud and a key piece in the Royals’ ascension, but he is also having his best year ever so far in 2016. Wade Davis isn’t relinquishing that role anytime soon and Herrera is a holds stud, so he’ll only be available in leagues that don’t normally have a focus on middle relievers. He has peaked at 84.3 IP (2012), but the Royals have really cut back his multi-inning outings since that peak: 25, 10, 12, and just 4 last year (0 this year).

Luke Hochevar – KC – 33% K – 16% SwStr – 27% K-BB%

The former 1.1 pick from 2006 never made it as a starter, but has turned into a dynamite reliever. He broke out in 2013, but then missed 2014 due to Tommy John. The Royals weren’t afraid to use him for multi-inning outings in 2013 (19 of 58 appearances), but then dialed it back last year (8 of 50) and have only allowed him 3 such outings in 19 appearances this year. Even if he’s only a 65-70 IP guy this year, he’ll push 80-90 Ks with excellent ratios.

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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5 years ago

Hi Paul – what has become of Hunter Strickland? Was a popular sleeper candidate going into the year and now seems nowhere to be found in higher leverage situations. Is there another holds guy you’d recommend in the Giants bullpen?

5 years ago
Reply to  hossclarke

Bochy has been relying more on guerrin (r) and osich (l) in high-leverage situations where some kind of r/l advantage is the goal and using strickland most typically to start new innings. My best guess why would be that guerrin and osich are the kind of pitchers you would expect to be particularly effective vs r or l hitters while strickland isn’t, also a general feeling that strickland doesn’t do well from the stretch so it’s better to have him come in with no one on base. This is just my interpretation.