These Non-Closing Relievers Are Dominating — June 10, 2024

Let’s get back to discussing those non-closing middle relievers, the ones you generally ignore in 12-team mixed leagues and shallower, but deliver real value in deep mixed and mono leagues, despite the lack of saves.

Dominating Middle Relievers
Name Team SwStr% K% BB% xERA
Fernando Cruz CIN 19.6% 43.4% 11.5% 2.36
Dylan Lee ATL 18.2% 22.1% 8.0% 3.11
Jason Adam TBR 17.7% 22.1% 10.6% 4.25
Reed Garrett NYM 17.2% 36.6% 11.9% 2.44
Nick Sandlin CLE 17.0% 27.6% 8.6% 2.56
Griffin Jax MIN 17.0% 33.0% 6.8% 2.32
Ian Hamilton NYY 16.9% 21.0% 10.1% 3.81
Jeremiah Estrada SDP 16.6% 42.5% 8.8% 2.52
Jeff Hoffman PHI 16.2% 32.1% 7.3% 2.48

Once again, I simply sorted in descending order of SwStk%, as relatively small samples could mess with strikeout rate, so I’m mostly focused on a reliever’s ability to generate whiffs when seeking a non-closing one.

Fernando Cruz remains atop the middle reliever domination board, upping last year’s strong strikeout rate, pushing that mark over 40% with an absurd SwStk% of nearly 20%. It’s possible that his high BABIP and low LOB%, causing a massive gap between his ERA and xERA, has allowed incumbent Alexis Díaz to hold his closer job, despite an ugly 5.55 ERA and 4.11 xERA. Of course, even with the gap, Cruz has been far superior to Díaz in both actual run prevention and expected run prevention. Maybe the Reds just don’t care for their best reliever to serve as closer, which I’m totally cool with! Cruz clearly owns the skills to close games, so if the Reds ever get tired of Díaz, or we learn he’s been pitching hurt, I’d imagine Cruz would take over the job.

It’s not often you see a SwStk% nearly as high as a strikeout rate, but Dylan Lee is getting close! With an 18.2% SwStk%, it’s crazy to see his strikeout rate at just 22.1%. Much of it has to do with a lowly 12.8% CStr%, but still, a 31% CSW% almost always matches with a significantly higher strikeout rate. Lee has been generating whiffs galore with an unbelievable slider, while his changeup has also been fantastic. All this while averaging just over 92 MPH with his fastball. There’s likely some regression here in his ERA if his strikeout rate doesn’t improve, but I’d have to think his strikeout rate will rise if he could maintain that elite SwStk%, which of course will be difficult to do.

Jason Adam is trying to join the same club as Lee by posting an elite 17.7% SwStk%, but only striking out an identical 22.1% of opposing batters. He owns a far higher SwStk% and a slightly higher CSW% compared to last year, but somehow his strikeout rate has slipped nine percentage points! It’s all around bizarre, as his fastball velocity sits at a career best and all four of his pitches sport double digit SwStk% marks. Like Lee, his ERA figures to rise if his strikeout rate remains where it is, but there’s just no chance it doesn’t surge. Adam got a chance to record some saves while Pete Fairbanks was out, but the Rays have been going with a sole closer, so there might be few save chances in his future.

After absolutely dominating through the end of April, Reed Garrett has been much more human ever since, as his strikeout rate has tumbled, and his walk rate remains in double digits. His velocity has remained stable, but his SwStk% has declined a bit, which isn’t surprising given how difficult it is to maintain an 18.8% SwStk%, which was his April mark. Still, he’s posted a 16% mark since, and that’s still elite. As the Mets closing situation remains up in the air, he needs to be held onto.

While Nick Sandlin’s strikeout rate isn’t much higher than Lee and Adam’s, it’s odd to see him post a career best SwStk% and significantly higher than last year, but an identical strikeout rate. He has clearly cracked the code of generating a low BABIP, as he sports a career 14.7% LD% and .213 BABIP, and his xERA, which accounts for his contact quality against, is actually slightly lower than his actual mark, even with a .164 BABIP. That suggests that the insanely low BABIP hasn’t been a mirage, even though the kneejerk reaction has to be that it is. While he’s no threat for saves in the future, he’s solid enough as an AL-Only guy to remain active instead of a starting pitcher who risks harming your ratios.

Griffin Jax is yet another whose SwStk% has spiked this year, but unlike some other names on this list, his strikeout rate has come along for the ride, jumping over 30% for the first time. His velocity has jumped yet again, while he’s seemingly done the impossible — post double digit SwStk% on all five of his pitches. He, too, is unlikely to see many more saves opps thanks to a strong incumbent ahead of him, but he should remain one of the most valuable non-closing relievers in baseball.

Gosh, throw Ian Hamilton into the high SwStk%, but low and non-matching strikeout rate club as well! Both his SwStk% and CSW% are higher than last year, but his strikeout rate has tumbled for no apparent reason. Thanks to a tiny 3.8% HR/FB rate, he’s still managed to post a 3.00 ERA, but that’s at risk of rising if the strikeout rate doesn’t jump to match that excellent SwStk%. I would think it will, especially with stable velocity versus last year and everything else looking normal. The control isn’t great though so he might not earn as much fantasy value as some other names unless his strikeout rate gets to the 30% plateau.

Where did Jeremiah Estrada come from?! Last ranked 49th (not a typo) among Cubs prospects (he’s a Padre now), Estrada has posted an unbelievable 42.5% strikeout rate. However, he looks to have the opposite scenario as most of the other names on this list — a CSW% not quite high enough to justify such an elite strikeout rate. The SwStk% is very good, of course, but a 30.6% CSW% should never result in a strikeout rate over 40%, and usually not even 30%. Heck, Hamilton’s CSW% is higher and his strikeout rate is half Estrada’s!

Estrada has gained velocity, throwing nearly a mile and a half harder this year than last, while using his fastball far less often, and featuring his changeup more instead. Both that changeup and his slider have generated SwStk% marks of at least 20%, while his fastball, which has peaked at 100.2 MPH sits in the low double digits. It’s a fantastic three-pitch mix, but hasn’t been that good to justify that high a strikeout rate. So I think we do see regression here in the strikeout department, but his repertoire is plenty strong to maintain non-closing fantasy value all season long.

Jeff Hoffman has recorded five saves as incumbent José Alvarado hasn’t snagged every opportunity the Phillies have had. He has continued to ascent from top prospect to poor starting pitcher to dominant reliever, as he has maintains last year’s skills breakout. A velocity surge has been behind the breakout as he’s up over two miles per hour over his pre-2023 years, while he has doubled his slider usage, a pitch recording a SwStk% just over 20%. Like Jax above, all four of Hoffman’s pitches have recorded a double digit SwStk%, even his sinker! Obviously he’s not going to maintain a sub-1.00 ERA, but he should remain plenty good over the rest of the season to hold onto, even if Alvarado garners the lion’s share of future 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 month ago

In a 12 team league, what is the approximate cutoff in SP ranking when we should begin looking at elite middle relievers? 60, 70, 80?

1 month ago
Reply to  Moelicious

In my 12 team league, which is pretty active (with 5 IL slots), reducing the quality of the waiver wire, I sometimes go to a MR when I have an injury to one of my SP. For me, the cutoff seems to be right around what is rosterable. Sometimes I will just roll with a 2 start streamer if I like his match-ups better. I would think they would be much more rosterable in a 15-team league