Pitching 3D: Tough Decisions, Top Relievers

Pitching 3D: Tough Decisions, Top Relievers

This article is part of our Pitching 3D series.

The focus of this Tough Decisions series has been on starters, but the modern game is shifting emphasis to the bullpen. Relief pitchers have a tremendous impact both in fantasy and real life, with the modern pool having a dozen relievers who could crack 100 strikeouts. The reliever revolution in baseball is led by a pack of single-inning specialists that are capable of putting up some nutty ratios, and they can make a serious dent to a fantasy staff.

There are six closers who are ranked within the top 99 overall players according to the composite rankings at RotoWire, though none of them is within the top 50. The closer runs don't start until the fifth round or later in most drafts, at which point the relief arms start falling like dominoes as fantasy managers look to collect the most position-specific statistic in the 5x5 matrix of roto. Here are the top six relief pitchers according to the composite ranks (overall rank in parentheses):

Wade Davis (56)
Kenley Jansen (59)
Craig Kimbrel (74)
Zach Britton (91)
Mark Melancon (93)
David Robertson (97)

There's a sizable gap between the top three and the rest of the group, and in fact, the 17-slot spread (overall) between Kimbrel and Britton is equivalent to the space between Britton and ninth-ranked reliever, Jeurys Familia.

The approach for relievers will be the same as it was with the starters, beginning with the first six pitchers on the list. At the end, I'll post my

The focus of this Tough Decisions series has been on starters, but the modern game is shifting emphasis to the bullpen. Relief pitchers have a tremendous impact both in fantasy and real life, with the modern pool having a dozen relievers who could crack 100 strikeouts. The reliever revolution in baseball is led by a pack of single-inning specialists that are capable of putting up some nutty ratios, and they can make a serious dent to a fantasy staff.

There are six closers who are ranked within the top 99 overall players according to the composite rankings at RotoWire, though none of them is within the top 50. The closer runs don't start until the fifth round or later in most drafts, at which point the relief arms start falling like dominoes as fantasy managers look to collect the most position-specific statistic in the 5x5 matrix of roto. Here are the top six relief pitchers according to the composite ranks (overall rank in parentheses):

Wade Davis (56)
Kenley Jansen (59)
Craig Kimbrel (74)
Zach Britton (91)
Mark Melancon (93)
David Robertson (97)

There's a sizable gap between the top three and the rest of the group, and in fact, the 17-slot spread (overall) between Kimbrel and Britton is equivalent to the space between Britton and ninth-ranked reliever, Jeurys Familia.

The approach for relievers will be the same as it was with the starters, beginning with the first six pitchers on the list. At the end, I'll post my personal rankings.

For the tables, the major-league rankings are in parentheses for the categories of saves and strikeouts (among relievers), with ties represented by a lower-case "t."

Wade Davis

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 67.1 72.0 135.1
ERA 0.94 1.00 5.32
WHIP 0.79 0.85 1.677
K's 78 (21) 109 (2) 114
Wins 17 (30) 3 (55t) 0
Davis was second-in-command of the wall of shutdown relievers that were employed in Kansas City, and when Greg Holland went down with injury, Davis was there to step into the ninth inning and dominate.

The saves that Davis collected last season came in two stints. He jumped in as the fill-in closer in mid-April while Holland dealt with a strained pectoral muscle, and then took over for good when Holland's elbow blew in August, requiring Tommy John surgery. The job now belongs to Davis, whose transition after the 2013 season from starter to reliever has worked out extremely well for the Royals. He amassed the second-most strikeouts among relievers in 2014 (trailing Dellin Betances), and though his K's fell sharply last season, over the past two seasons Davis has compiled 139.1 innings of a 0.97 ERA, a 0.818 WHIP and 187 strikeouts. He may only have 20 saves over that stretch, but he also has 17 wins because he was often used in tie games. The most shocking part of the Davis' story is his hit rate, which has been just 4.4 and 4.8 H/9 over the past two seasons, respectively.

There is a conceptual issue here, however, with the idea that the top reliever has totaled just 20 saves in his career and has never held the job for more than two months at a time. I'm not claiming the ninth inning to have special powers, but from a fantasy standpoint, there is an element of trust that comes along with a player who has a longer history of pitching in the role. In order to be worth his draft stock, Davis will need to tally twice as many saves as he has ever posted in a season, and his strikeout rate will need to go up from last season in order to justify the top overall ranking. Bottom line: a guy with 20 career saves is going to be given a shorter leash than one with say, 142 of them, like the next reliever up for bid...

Kenley Jansen

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 52.1 65.1 76.2
ERA 2.41 2.76 1.88
WHIP 0.78 1.13 0.861
K's 80 (19) 101 (6) 111
Wins 36 (9t) 44 (5) 28 (21t)
Jansen has owned the closer role for the past four seasons, piling up strikeouts as well as saves. He was almost swooped upon, as the Dodgers reportedly had a trade in place to bring on Aroldis Chapman, but that trade fell through and Jansen held onto his status as one of the top fantasy relievers on the board.

Jansen was out for the first six weeks of the 2015 season following surgery on his foot, and the low innings count kept him from threatening 100 K's for the fifth straight year; from 2011-14, Jansen struck out 96, 99, 111 and 101 batters. He has struck out at least 13.0 batters per nine innings in every season of his career, so the only thing stopping him from breaking the century mark in 2016 is the innings count (70 frames ought to do it). Jansen's walk rate has transformed from liability to asset over the past few years, and last season he channeled his inner Dennis Eckersley with just eight walks on the season.

He takes the Mariano Rivera approach, throwing his devastating cutter 85 percent of the time and with mid-90s velocity, relying on natural movement and his command of the pitch to take the bat out of a hitter's hands. Oh, and just for fun, he's a switch-hitter with four career plate appearances, three while hitting lefty and one batting from the right side.

Craig Kimbrel

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 59.1 61.2 67.0
ERA 2.58 1.61 1.21
WHIP 1.05 0.91 0.881
K's 87 (9t) 95 (10) 98
Wins 39 (6) 47 (2) 50 (1t)
Kimbrel has bounced around the last couple of years and now finds himself in the shadow of the Green Monster, saving games for a volatile Boston club. Kimbrel has been one of the game's most dominant pitchers since the moment he stepped on the field, with a career ERA of just 1.63 and five consecutive seasons with at least 39 saves. His 2015 season was excellent by most standards, but it fell short of the standards that Kimbrel himself had set over the previous four years.

The ERA was a career-high, while both the save total and K count were career lows (full season). The WHIP was 14 points higher than any full-season mark he had put up since 2011 (anyone remember the 0.654 WHIP that he had in 2012? Incredible). The cherry on the sundae was that he had this "down" season while playing his home games in Petco Park, a venue that has become notorious for squelching offense and inflating pitcher value; but last season was an aberration in which Petco played like a fairly neutral ballpark.

Similar to Jansen, Kimbrel has punched out more than 13.0 batters per nine innings in every season of his career, and is merely an innings-count away from cracking 100 strikeouts (which he did in 2011 and 2012). Therein lies the only problem (if there is one), as Kimbrel hasn't pitched more than 67.0 innings since 2011, with his workload currently on a downward trend. It will be interesting to see how he is used by the Red Sox, who have a very capable setup man with closing experience in Koji Uehara.

Zach Britton

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 65.2 76.1 40.0
ERA 1.92 1.65 4.95
WHIP 0.99 0.90 1.725
K's 79 (20) 62 (64t) 18
Wins 36 (9t) 37 (11) 0
Britton has followed the Wade Davis pattern, shifting from an unsuccessful starting career to become a full-blown reliever starting in 2014. Without a Greg Holland standing in Britton's way, however, Baltimore's closer gig was his for the taking.

He may not have the strikeout upside of Davis, but Britton does have an encouraging trend line with a K rate that shot up nearly 10 percentage points, from 21.8 percent in 2014 to 31.2 percent laast year, an absolute explosion of strikeouts that changes his value proposition to fantasy managers. He also greatly improved his walk rate, which was cut from 8.1 percent to 5.5 perecnt of batters faced, though this was outweighed by growth in his hit rate that raised the WHIP.

The allure of Britton is very similar to that of Dallas Keuchel. The role is locked down and his ratios were strong enough to draw interest on their own, but a sudden spike in strikeouts has turned both of these ground-ball machines into beasts on the fantasy baseball landscape. Britton's hard sinker generates an absurd 82 percent ground-ball rate, according to Fangraphs. He may not have the defensive chops of Keuchel, but Britton offers matching intrigue and a correspondingly-wide range of outcomes for the 2016 season.

Mark Melancon

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 76.2 71.0 71.0
ERA 2.23 1.90 1.39
WHIP 0.93 0.87 0.958
K's 62 (62t) 71 (38t) 70
Wins 51 (1) 33 (15) 16 (30t)
May I present the 2015 leader in saves. In fact, of the pitchers with the six highest save totals in the majors last season, Melancon is the only member of that group to have been ranked within the top six for preseason fantasy relievers.

What he lacks in strikeouts he makes up for in ratios. Melancon has been remarkably consistent in generating low rates of runs and baserunners allowed, with three consecutive seasons of a sub-1.00 WHIP and a composite ERA of 1.85 across 218.2 innings during that stretch. The strikeout rate was humming along just fine at a K-per-inning, but it took a dive last season. Melancon also has a three-season run going of more than 70 innings pitched, allowing his ratios to carry slightly more weight than the average closer. Cracking the 50-save barrier will inflate his price this season regardless of the modest K count, and given the general unpredictability of saves, that makes it difficult to profit off of his services in 2015.

David Robertson

STAT 2015 2014 2013
IP 63.1 64.1 66.1
ERA 3.41 3.08 2.04
WHIP 0.93 1.06 1.04
K's 86 (12t) 96 (9) 77
Wins 34 (13t) 39 (8t) 3 (46t)
Robertson has become somewhat lost in the shuffle, as nothing about his resume stands out among the closer crowd, but there is growth beneath the surface.

The ERA was bloated last season, and his general vulnerability to run-scoring stands out at the top of a group that includes players (such as Kimbrel and Davis) that completely shut down the run-scoring machine. What Robertson offers is a lockdown job, a consistent workload, and strikeouts... lots of strikeouts. The right-hander has pitched between 60.2 and 66.2 innings for six consecutive seasons, and he has appeared in somewhere between 60 and 70 games in each of those campaigns. Robertson offers the opposite stat collection from a pitcher like Melancon, because Robertson's all about the K's, with at least 10.4 K/9 in every season of his career and a career mark of 12.0 K/9. He typically gives away too many free passes, but in 2015 he trimmed his walk rate to 5.2 percent after averaging a greater than 10 percent rate over his career prior to last season.


Here is how I rank these six players for the 2016 fantasy season:

1. Craig Kimbrel
2. Kenley Jansen
3. Wade Davis
4. Zach Britton
5. Mark Melancon
6. David Robertson

When it comes to closers, I tend to emphasize the players, stats and situations that I can trust. I want players who have done it before, rack up the K's and who have the closer job locked down. There are a few pitchers that were not covered today yet appear in the top tier of my personal rankings, but that's the nature of the most fungible position on a fantasy roster.

The way that I see this cohort, Kimbrel and Jansen stand head-and-shoulders above the crowd. The fact that Kimbrel had the worst season of his career in every measure yet still finished in the top 10 among relievers in saves and strikeouts, all while posting solid ratios, just exemplifies his greatness. Floor is perhaps more important with closers than any other position because of the high rate of turnover; Kimbrel's floor is the highest among all relievers and he does so without sacrificing any height to his ceiling.

Like Kimbrel, Jansen offers the security of the "proven closer" label with his long track record, in addition to the high-strikeout influence that can impact a fantasy team's bottom line. The ratios match the dominance implied by the saves and strikeouts, so these are difference-makers in no fewer than four categories. I see a decent-sized gap between Jansen and Davis, and most of that distance is covered by the issue of consistency. Davis has the upside to lap the field and his ERA is unmatched over the past two seasons, but the precipitous decline in his K rate in 2015 paired with the brief track record in the closer role conspire to push him down my personal list.

I agree with the composite rankings that there's another, more massive gap between Davis and the next three relievers, as each of the three has a potential flaw in his stat record that makes him a three-category player. Britton's extreme ground-ball rate pushes him above the rest, and the sudden spike to his K rate adds to the optimism that he can ascend to the four-category level. Melancon comes in fifth as the more-consistent yet less-exciting option due to the perceived cap on his strikeouts, but his value is immense at a position where stability often trumps upside. The decision between choosing Melancon or Robertson most likely comes down to the makeup of each team, and one that has drafted a low-K starter such as Sonny Gray or Adam Wainwright might prefer how Robertson fits into the roster puzzle. I put Robertson on the bottom because there are so many high-strikeout relievers left on the board that offer better prospects in the other categories, at least from my point of view.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Doug Thorburn
Doug started writing for RotoWire in April of 2015. His work can be found elsewhere at Baseball Prospectus and RotoGrinders, and as the co-host of the Baseballholics Anonymous podcast. Thorburn's expertise lies on the mound, where he tackles the world of pitching with an emphasis on mechanical evaluation. He spent five years at the National Pitching Association working under pitching coach Tom House, where Thorburn ran the hi-speed motion analysis program in addition to serving as an instructor. Thorburn and House wrote the 2009 book, “Arm Action, Arm Path, and the Perfect Pitch: Building a Million Dollar Arm,” using data from hi-speed motion analysis to tackle conventional wisdom in baseball. His DraftKings ID is “Raising Aces”.
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