Who Got (Un)lucky, Relief Pitcher Edition

Here in Fantasyland, relief pitchers come in three varieties: Closers, Guys Who Aren’t But Might Become Closers, and Everbody Else. Fantasy fortunes are made and broken on the basis of these distinctions. If, say, you were sharp enough to acquire Hector Neris, Felipe Rivero, and Brad Hand on draft day, you won a category and spent essentially nothing to do it. If, conversely, you started the season with Seung Hwan Oh and Francisco Rodriguez as your closers, then you were probably waiting till next year by the All-Star break.

We like unanticipated delight as much as anyone, but for Fantasy players, avoidance of hearbreak seems to us even more essential. And to that end, we reintroduce to you our Who Got Lucky report. The back story: In the middle of the 2015 season, we stumbled upon a simple approach that enabled us to avoid trading for Danny Salazar—an excellent move, although it didn’t help us much. We wondered: which pitchers who’d given up a lot of hard-hit balls had emerged unscarred by virtue of having low BABIPs and HR/FB percentages? We figured those guys had gotten lucky, and that their luck would change. It worked so well in identifying Salazar, and—in the other direction, as a guy who’d been unlucky—Carlos Rodon, that before last season we ran the numbers for both starters and relievers, and even for hitters, on the theory that anomalies in the same categories would once again right themselves.

The results, though fallible, surprised even us with their accuracy. Among hitters, whom we’ll write more about in a future installment, we steered you towards Marcell Ozuna and Chris Iannetta and away from Ian Desmond. Among starting pitchers, about whom we’ll also have more to say down the road, we recommended Ervin Santana and Jimmy Nelson and disrecommended Julio Teheran. And among relievers we urged you not to get Seung Hwan Oh.

So who might be this year’s Oh? We suggest, sorrowfully, that it might be Shane Greene. We’ve been fans of Greene since he surprised everyone as rotation caulking for the Yankees in 2014, wept bitter tears when he was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball with the Tigers in 2015, and were smugly satisfied when our 2016 predictions that Greene would be a successful reliever came true. Greene began 2017 as a setup guy in the Tigers’ bullpen, took over as the closer after K-Rod imploded and Justin Wilson got traded to the Cubs at the deadline, and saved 9 games in the last two months, blowing only one save and getting more strikeouts than he ever had.

But there are signs that last season’s performance wasn’t as good as it seemed. Greene’s walk rate was way up, and, despite the spike in strikeouts, his K-BB rate was one of the lowest among high-leverage relievers. More importantly, he got hit really hard—a 41.3% HH%, third worst among relievers who pitched at least 30 innings. Moreover, Greene succeeds, when he does, by avoiding fly balls, and his fly ball rate was the highest it’s ever been. If it stays that high, we have to think that home runs—an affliction we thought he’d managed to cure—will follow.

We’re not sure what to do with this information beyond not drafting Greene. Somebody, presumably, will close for the Tigers. But It’s hard to get excited about Joe Jimenez, who seems to have inherited the Bruce Rondon Chair of flameout closers-in-waiting. Still, if you can get him in the 40th round—his NFBC Average Draft Position is 590—he may be worth a shot. And if you want a completely mystical 50th-round longshot, how about Daniel Stumpf? His curriculum vitae, it’s true, is unprepossessing: 9th-round draft pick, exposed to the Rule 5 draft, taken by the lowly Phillies, PED problems, jettisoned by the lowly Phillies, settled in as a left-handed one-out guy for the worst team in baseball. We’ll tell you something, though—Stumpf’s second half wasn’t bad. Opposing hitters’ slash line was .233/.313/.370, and he was able, for the first time, to get some right-handed hitters out. And the Tigers are under new management, so who knows?

Was anyone who has a chance to be his team’s closer unlucky last season? Yes, and try not to laugh. We give you Jim Johnson, who, pitching for the Braves, was by common consent the worst closer in baseball. In November, the Braves traded him to the Angels for a non-prospect you’ve never heard of. He’s third or fourth on the bullpen depth chart, and if this were some other team, we’d think he had no chance. But the Angels’ situation is interesting. Old-school manager Mike Scioscia isn’t a guy we’d have expected to embrace a closer-by-committee situation, but that’s what he did. Whether it’s what he thought he was doing is a different question. It looked to us as if he started the season that way, gave Cam Bedrosian the job almost immediately, gave Bud Norris the job when Bedrosian got hurt, then used any of four different guys for saves after Norris went down. At the time it looked to us as if it wasn’t closer-by-committee but closer-of-the-week. But we may well have been wrong. Three of those four guys (Bedrosian, Blake Parker, and Keynan Middleton) are still in LA, but the fourth, Yusmeiro Petit, who by the way got very lucky last season, is gone. So maybe Johnson, who’s been an effective closer in the past, slides into the Petit role and becomes an effective co-closer. Or maybe, for all we know, he winds up as the closer all by himself, though that’s pretty close to magical thinking. His ADP is 575, so you could even draft him and Jimenez back to back.





The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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LightenUpFG
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Or Greene could ‘pull a Rodney’ and just be on the closer doomsday list all season after getting 25 iffy saves! I wonder, though, if Greene does pull off a decent half season if he’ll just end up in someone else’s bullpen anyway via trade.