Who’s Been (Un)lucky–The Relief Pitchers

Back to our search for players whose granular stats suggest that last season’s fantasy-relevant stats make it appear that they were having better (or worse) seasons than they actually had. In our search for unlucky pitchers, we look for guys who had high BABIPs and HR/FB percentages but low Hard-Hit percentages. To find lucky pitchers, we look for the opposite. The idea, as we explained last week, is that those stats are out of alignment with each other, that the misalignment is a consequence of luck, and that, luck good or bad tending as it does to disappear, the pitchers in question will do better (or worse) this season. Last week, we did starting pitchers; this week, relievers.

A word about luck and relievers generally before we get started: as usual, the list of luckies is far more interesting to us fantasy baseball owners than the list of unluckies. That’s because we’re unduly interested in saves, and it doesn’t do us that much good to know that, say, the 6th best pitcher in a team’s bullpen is in reality the 4th best. So, while the group of unlucky relievers always yields some astonishments, they’re not going to do you much good unless it looks like they’ve got a shot at saves, like Brooks Raley 레일리 last season, or they might wind up in somebody’s starting rotation, like Austin Voth last season. So we’ll just mention four relief pitchers who were certainly unlucky last season, and whom you can expect to do better this season, but who don’t look like candidates to close games for their respective teams. These are: Jake Diekman (although it’s not inconceivable he gets some saves), Tommy Nance, Joel Payamps, and Victor Arano. If your draft is deep enough, by all means go after one of them. Otherwise:

Unlucky Relief Pitchers

Jhoan Duran: The worst we can say about him is that he wasn’t especially unlucky in the second half last season, throughout which he was essentially unhittable. But he wasn’t especially lucky, either. What you have here is a hard-core groundball pitcher who also strikes out 13 guys per 9. It seems to us that he presents an extraordinary opportunity for fantasy owners, because at the moment Jorge Lopez is supposedly the Twins’ co-closer, and Duran’s price is accordingly suppressed (although still a good deal higher than Lopez’s). Get him before the market catches up.

Andrés Muñoz: Both his 2022 season and his existential circumstances look a lot like Duran’s: young, groundball pitcher (though not as extreme as Duran), lots of strikeouts, unhittable second half, ostensibly his team’s setup guy, accordingly undervalued by the market, which nonetheless prefers him to purported closer Paul Sewald. The wrinkle with Munoz is that he had bone fusion surgery on his foot (we assume that they fused a foot bone to another foot bone, as opposed to, say, his clavicle) in October, but he is supposedly ahead of schedule in his recovery, and should be ready at the start of the season or very shortly thereafter.

Joe Mantiply: He was the inverse of Duran and Munoz last season: a groundball machine, albeit with fewer strikeouts, who was unhittable in the first half. Not only that—it was during that unhittable first half that he was unlucky. Thereafter, unfortunately, he became what everyone expected him to be to begin with: a left-handed pitcher who couldn’t get right-handed hitters out, and wasn’t especially unlucky while doing it. Now he’s one of at least four guys in the Arizona bullpen who’s got a shot at closing, and probably not the best shot.

Connor Brogdon: So we’ve got Duran. Then we’ve got Munoz, who’s Duran’s doppelganger. And then we’ve got Mantiply, who’s the inverse of Munoz. And now here’s Brogdon, who’s the inverse of Mantiply: a right-handed flyball pitcher who has trouble with left-handers. Brogdon’s a good pitcher, and if his luck progresses to the mean he will be a very good pitcher, but as long as he’s in Philadelphia home runs by left-handers will be a problem for him. Moreover, as good as Brogdon is, there are three or four pitchers in the Phillies’ bullpen who are as good or better, so his shot at saves is small. We’d love to see him traded to Arizona, where he’d immediately become the best pitcher in their bullpen.

Lucky Relief Pitchers

Jordan Romano: This is the closest we can come in this article to front-page news. Romano is the 4th relief pitcher off the board in fantasy drafts this season. And he’s had uninterrupted success since taking over as Toronto’s closer in May 2021. So what could be wrong? Really, we don’t know. What we do know is that his 2022 numbers suggest to us a not a dominant reliever, but one who’s been doing handsprings on a narrow ledge. Of the 49 pitchers who got at least 5 saves last season, none had a lower BABIP and a lower HR/FB percentage and a higher hard-hit percentage than Romano. We can’t find any statistical quirk that offers a benign explanation for this information. So what do you do with it? What we’re doing is downgrading him some. There are perhaps seven or eight closers we’d take before Romano this season. Offer him to us in the 6th or 7th round and maybe we can do business.

José Leclerc: A ready narrative about LeClerc’s 2022 presents itself to the unwary: A guy comes off Tommy John surgery, having pitched only 2 innings in 2020 and none in 2021, has a couple of rough outings, and then settles down to become a solid closer in the second half. And that may be true. But Leclerc’s 2nd half numbers (.253 BABIP, 2.4% HR/FB%, 31.3% HH%) look a lot like Romano’s full season numbers (.256/6.5%/33.3%), so proceed with caution.

Vince Velasquez: How many weak seasons does a once-promising pitcher have to have before he stops being “disappointing”? Fewer than  Velasquez has had, that’s for sure. We used to think he’d been miscast as a starter but might thrive as a multi-inning reliever. We were evidently mistaken. But we aren’t planning to draft him, and neither are you, so why do we bother mentioning him?  Because the Pirates are planning to use him in their starting rotation, an arrangement that, we think, has no chance whatever of succeeding. And when it doesn’t, the Pirates will look for a replacement. They may turn to elite prospect Luis Ortiz, whom we like just fine, but who may be better suited to the bullpen. The guy we think they’ll turn to, and the reason we’re bothering with Velasquez, is Johan Oviedo. He’s had big problems with control, but his last five starts in the majors last year and his minor league record were pretty encouraging. So if you’re in, say, the 40th round of a deep draft, want a starting pitcher with upside, and don’t have anyone else in mind….


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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