Collette Calls: Reliever Wins Back En Vogue?

Collette Calls: Reliever Wins Back En Vogue?

This article is part of our Collette Calls series.

I should set the stage by saying we may not see another Roy Face 1959 season in our lifetime, but reliever wins appear to be all the rage this season after laying in the weeds for several seasons. The line graph below shows the trend for relievers with at least seven wins in a single season, dating back to the last time the league had as many as 30 relief pitchers win as many as seven games in a season:

I choose to throw 2021 out the window because of the conditions surrounding that season, with the league coming off the abbreviated 2020 schedule and teams extremely concerned about workloads, trying to recover from the shredder many arms went through in ramping things back up after the long delay to the start of that season. The line graph shows that, up until the disrupture of the pandemic, we had seen a steady decline in the frequency of relievers significantly contributing to the wins category. 

The amazing thing about Face's 1959 season is he went 18-1 while pitching in just 57 games over 93.1 innings. Prior to Face's crazy season, Jim Konstanty was the bellcow, with 16 wins while working in 74 games and 152 innings of work. The 1970s saw a few big lifters such as Bill Campbell, who won 17 games over 78 relief appearances and 167.2 innings of work in 1976, as well as John Hiller, who won 17 over 59 games and 150 innings of work. Finally,

I should set the stage by saying we may not see another Roy Face 1959 season in our lifetime, but reliever wins appear to be all the rage this season after laying in the weeds for several seasons. The line graph below shows the trend for relievers with at least seven wins in a single season, dating back to the last time the league had as many as 30 relief pitchers win as many as seven games in a season:

I choose to throw 2021 out the window because of the conditions surrounding that season, with the league coming off the abbreviated 2020 schedule and teams extremely concerned about workloads, trying to recover from the shredder many arms went through in ramping things back up after the long delay to the start of that season. The line graph shows that, up until the disrupture of the pandemic, we had seen a steady decline in the frequency of relievers significantly contributing to the wins category. 

The amazing thing about Face's 1959 season is he went 18-1 while pitching in just 57 games over 93.1 innings. Prior to Face's crazy season, Jim Konstanty was the bellcow, with 16 wins while working in 74 games and 152 innings of work. The 1970s saw a few big lifters such as Bill Campbell, who won 17 games over 78 relief appearances and 167.2 innings of work in 1976, as well as John Hiller, who won 17 over 59 games and 150 innings of work. Finally, Tom Johnson, Ron Perranoski and Dick Radatz matched Konstanty's 16-win mark in separate seasons in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently, Ryan Yarbrough won 16 games with Tampa Bay in 2018, but under different circumstances as he was exclusively the bulk guy behind an opener, with Yarbrough doing the heavy lifting once the opener got through the first three to four hitters in the lineup. Maybe I am particularly sensitive to wins right now as I attempt to close a five-point deficit in a draft-and-hold league where the wins category is this tight:

  • 5th place: 72 wins
  • 2 teams in 6th place: 71 wins
  • 3 teams in 8th place: 70 wins
  • Me: 68 wins

My best chance at making up the deficit is in this category and I need the staff of Mitch Keller, Camilo Doval, Jon Gray, Johan Oviedo, Carlos Rodon, Chris Martin, Merrill Kelly, Kyle Bradis, and Pete Fairbanks to win some games. The only other healthy options I have include Glenn Otto and Sean Manaea, whose win today on my bench was a gut punch. 

Adding a filter to limit the results to pitchers with no more than 100 innings of work narrows our results down a bit. The 2023 season currently has 19 pitchers with at least seven wins, tying the total from the 1999 season and trailing only the aforementioned oddball 2021 season. There are currently 50 pitchers with at least five wins, and 32 of those pitchers have at least six, which is why I believe 2023 is going to set the new high-water mark for reliever wins in a single season. 49 of those 50 pitchers have between five and nine wins while one, Colin Poche, has 12 despite pitching only 54.1 innings. The next win by Matt Strahm, Matt Brash, Alexis Diaz, Kevin Ginkel or Mike Baumann will give any one of those pitchers their tenth win of the season as well. 

The toughest part in leveraging relievers for wins is trying to predict which of them will be the guy who benefits best from the leverage situations their manager places them in. I looked into this issue in early March of 2022 in this very column, and came to the obvious conclusion that rostering non-closers on winning teams was the way to go if you were hoping to find the next wins vulture. Poche, Strahm, Brash, Diaz, Ginkel and Baumann each fit that bill as they are middle relievers for clubs that are at least five games over .500 this season. I will go ahead and make the bold prediction now that not one of them will win double-digit games in 2024. I am confident in such a prediction because only two pitchers have been able to post multiple double-digit wins as relievers in the wild-card era, and both pitched nearly 20 years ago. One of them is rather recognizable, while the other is someone I honestly could not pick out from a stack of baseball cards for any monetary reward. 

Arthur Rhodes first pulled off the feat in 1997, winning 10 games in 95.1 innings for a 1997 Baltimore Orioles team which was 98-64 on the season. Rhodes would win just seven games over the next two seasons before relocating to Seattle, where he went 8-0 in 2001 and then 10-4 in 2002 for a 93-69 Mariners team. Rhodes would go on to win nine games over the next four seasons while bouncing around the league and never again won more than four games in a season.

Mark Petkovsek had a non-descript nine-year career as a big-league pitcher, going 46-28 with a 4.74 ERA while pitching for four different clubs. He went 11-2 in 88.2 innings for a 88-74 Cardinals team before going 11-11 over the next two seasons in his long-relief role for first a 73-89 Cardinals team and then an 83-79 club. Petkovsek relocated to Anaheim and went 10-4 for a 70-92 Angels team but then went on to win just five games over his final two seasons before retiring after the 2001 season. 

That is it. That is the complete list of relief pitchers with at least 10 wins in a season since the wildcard era began. 41 other pitchers (and Poche) have had double-digit winning seasons one time in their career but were never able to repeat that feat. 

Our two most recent examples are Adam Cimber and Chris Stratton, as each won at least 10 games in 2022. Cimber has struggled with injuries most of this season and has pitched terribly when available. Stratton has been much better, pitching to a 3.63 ERA and 1.03 WHIP this season, but has just two wins and one save to show for it over 79.1 innings. Last season, he had 10 wins and 2 saves in 63.1 innings around a 4.26 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP.

Thus the difficulty in trying to build a strategy around augmenting starting pitching wins with relievers. We know that getting relievers on good teams is a starting block, but even the best skills don't always win out as Stratton's 2022 season shows us. It is safe to ignore this year's strongest winning contributors given we have not seen a reliever have consecutive seasons of double-digit wins in the wild-card era and just two pitchers have even pulled off the feat twice in non-consecutive seasons. 

The good news is that chasing such pitchers costs very little draft capital, because pitchers who fit this profile rarely project as closers or even setup men, making them freely available on the waiver wire in-season or to speculate on in the reserve rounds. As Wayne Gretzky wisely told us, "Don't skate to where the puck is; skate to where it is going."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Collette
Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999, and here at Rotowire since 2011. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Sleeper and the Bust podcast every Sunday. A ten-time FSWA finalist, Jason won the FSWA's Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2013 and the Baseball Series of the Year award in 2018 for Collette Calls,and was the 2023 AL LABR champion. Jason manages his social media presence at https://linktr.ee/jasoncollette
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