2016 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Rankings

Closers…You either hate them or you…hate them. There’s really no other alternative. The position is extremely volatile. Imagine two friends hanging out on a road trip together. We’ll call them Swaggy and D-Lo. Swaggy is confiding in D-Lo about his infidelities regarding betraying his special lady friend — we’ll call her Black Widow. And what Swaggy doesn’t know is that D-Lo is secretly filming what Swaggy is saying about cheating on Black Widow. Then somehow D-Lo’s video finds its way to the internet, but he swears he doesn’t know how it got there…and then some guy named Kobe secretly gives it a nice long chuckle. Well, closers in MLB are more volatile than even that situation! Need proof? Consider this…

There are 30 teams in MLB. Last year at some point or another — whether it was due to injury, trade, poor performance, getting caught going heavy on the PED’s, having an asinine post-game celebration, wearing a baseball cap too far to the side, or some combination of the above (I’m looking at you Mr. Rodney) — 15 players that were their team’s closer on Opening Day were not their team’s closer for at least a total of 2 months of the season (the majority of the 15 weren’t closer for at least 3 months). 15 of 30. And if I know my fractions, that reduces to 1/2. Half the teams in baseball last year had a change at closer. 50%!

The point is that while it’s nice to have a couple of those fortunate 15 for your fantasy squad, it’s really not the most important thing. There WILL be a carousel of closers that could be readily available to you if you miss out on the ones that you want. All you have to do is pay attention, hit the waiver wire, plug and play — and BOOM! You now have saves. 

This relief pitchers rankings list contains all of the pitchers who are either *expected* to be their team’s closer on Opening Day or who are *considered* to be their team’s closer but are going to start the season on the DL/suspended list. Other setup men might be mentioned within other players’ descriptions, but will not be ranked if they don’t meet the aforementioned criteria. But other setup men who I like to possibly ascend to closer status will be bullet pointed at the end of the rankings.

Below are THE BACKWARDS K 2016 FANTASY BASEBALL RELIEF PITCHER RANKINGS. Included for each player is “The Backwards K Quick Take” and a self-produced player projection for 2016.

***Please note the following:

  • The player’s names are color coded to signal different tiers at the position.
  • The rankings reflect standard 5×5 roto scoring settings (W/SV/ERA/WHIP/K) with position eligibility requirements as 10 total games played at a position in 2015, or 5 total games started at a position in 2015 (i.e. Yahoo! settings).
  • The numerical order is not necessarily a suggested order to draft them in, but it is the order that is calculated based on each player’s listed projections, unless noted otherwise.

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Fantasy Impact of MLB Trades

Previously discussed were the trades that sent Scott Kazmir to the Astros and Johnny Cueto to the Royals. But there have been some other notable trades that have taken place since then, so here’s a look at what impact they may have on fantasy.

Mets receive Tyler Clippard. A’s receive Casey Meisner.

Analysis and Fantasy Fallout: With Clippard heading to the Mets, he is going to be put into a setup role to primarily pitch in the 8th inning in front of Jeurys Familia. As the closer for the A’s, Clippard had a decent 2.79 ERA and 1.19 WHIP while saving 17 of 21 games, but he has been experiencing diminished velocity over the last three seasons. That probably has some correlation to his strikeout rate being at an all-time low under 9.00 K/9, and his walk rate is at an all-time high at an ugly 4.76 BB/9. He has a SIERA of 4.46 and xFIP of 5.30, so he hasn’t exactly been very sharp. However, he should slot in just fine ahead of Familia, and this helps out the Mets a lot considering that Jenrry Mejia just got slapped with a 162 game suspension after testing positive for PED’s yet again, just weeks after coming back from his initial suspension (what a doofus).

Clippard clearly loses value since he will not be closing games anymore. However, Familia has not been as sharp lately. So should Familia falter, Clippard presumably would step in to close games for the Mets. For the A’s, they lost their closer and will now likely turn to Edward Mujica for 9th inning work. Mujica had a good run as the closer for the Cardinals in 2013 with an increased usage in his splitter, but since then he has been unspectacular with the Red Sox and now the A’s. This season he has a 4.13 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and he’s not much of a strikeout artist with just 6.35 K/9. Mujica hasn’t done much to inspire a lot of confidence in him, and it’s interesting that he’s shied away from his splitter more and more since his breakout 2013 season (56.6% in 2013, 40.7% in 2015), and that could feasibly be the reason for a subpar performance. He should be owned in fantasy leagues for the save potential, but just know that he could lose the job to poor performance at any time. In that case, Fernando Rodriguez and possibly even Drew Pomeranz could be given a look. Continue reading

Cueto Ditches the Reds, Now Bleeds Royal Blue (and other notes from 7/26/15)

Johnny Cueto was the next big name to be traded on Sunday as the Cincinnati Reds decided to get something in return for the impending free agent. Their trade partner was the Kansas City Royals who sent three prospects over to Cincinnati: Brandon FinneganJohn Lamb, and Cody Reed — all of whom are left-handed pitchers. Let’s first take a look at what this trade does for the Royals and the fantasy impact it makes.

The reigning American League champion Royals have not slowed down at all this year as they have a 7.5 game lead in the AL Central and own the best record in the American League. They have been so successful behind a relentless offense, tremendous defense, and a dominant bullpen. The Royals offense is surely not a powerful one as they rank just 24th in the Majors in home runs, but they are very pesky and strikeout the least in all of baseball, which means they are constantly putting the ball in play and making things happen on the base paths. By any defensive rating system, the Royals defense ranks as the top defense in the league by a large margin. And their bullpen, also ranks the best in the league with a 2.12 ERA with the “HDH” formula of Kelvin HerreraWade Davis, and Greg Holland to work the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings.

What the Royals have severely lacked though this season with the loss of James Shields to the Padres is an ace type pitcher to step up and be the leader of the pitching staff. The young fireballer, Yordano Ventura, was expected to kind of take over the reigns, but he has struggled to put together a consistent performance. Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, and Jeremy Guthrie are unspectacular options that are back end of the rotation type of starters who have not contributed much at all, and Vargas got hit with a season-ending injury this past week. Their most reliable starting pitcher so far has been the free agent signing of Edinson Volquez, but seldom does he display the ability to blow anyone away with ace type of stuff anymore and is not someone to anchor a staff. Out of starting pitchers this season, the Royals have received a 4.27 ERA, which ranks 22nd in the Majors, and they also have received the 2nd lowest amount of innings pitched from their starting pitchers.

So the need in Kansas City was apparent. Enter Mr. Cueto. Since 2011, Cueto has had the 2nd best ERA (2.51) next to Clayton Kershaw out of all pitchers with a minimum of 500 innings pitched. What’s most impressive about that is he has done so despite pitching his home games in one of the most hitter friendly parks in the league at Great American Ballpark.

During those years, Cueto has posted BABIP marks of .249, .296, .238, and .234 this season. Now the .296 mark is around league average, but all the other marks are very low and the question of whether or not it is sustainable comes into play. Over the last two seasons, Cueto has been giving up more fly balls and has had a knack for inducing soft contact. So while the BABIP marks are low and he shouldn’t be expected to maintain his current season mark, he still should have the ability to keep his BABIP lower than average over the course of the rest of the season with Kansas City. Throw in the fact that his new team has incredible range and defense all around the diamond and that speaks even more to the notion that Cueto can be a low BABIP machine as his defense will track down a lot of batted balls for him.

The switch from the NL to the AL should hurt his strikeout rate in theory since he will have to deal with pitching to the designated hitter instead of opposing pitchers. His current strikeout rate is at 8.27 K/9, so I would imagine that he might fall to a rate near 7.50 K/9 or lower over the remainder of the season. However, the home park switch from Great American Ballpark to Kaufmann Stadium is a nice move for him with Kauffman Stadium being much more friendly to pitchers. Also helping to offset any regression that he may incur in strikeout rate is the fact that he will be pitching for a winning team that has a shutdown bullpen. Despite an excellent 2.62 ERA, Cueto’s win-loss record sits barely over .500 at 7-6. The Reds bullpen blew three wins for Cueto, so he could easily be in double digits in the win column already. So his new buddies down in the bullpen should be able to provide him a boost in win potential.

Overall, I definitely don’t think that the trade for Cueto has any negative impact on his fantasy value. If anything, it should help him a bit as long as he doesn’t falter under the greater spotlight of pitching for a 1st place team. And for the Royals, this is obviously a huge get for them as they look to make a return to the World Series. The Royals certainly needed to make a move to acquire an ace because it was going to be a rough go if they entered the post-season with Volquez as their number one guy, and Cueto’s presence will also ease the workload of one of the most used bullpens in the league. Now let’s take a look at the Reds side of it.

Out of the three prospects that the Reds received, Finnegan is by far the most attractive so he will be the main focus on the Reds side of the deal. Finnegan was drafted by the Royals in the 1st round just over a year ago and he made a rapid ascension to the Majors as the Royals brought him up late in the season as a bullpen arm. Finnegan then went on to shine in some high leverage situations in the post-season. The left-handed Finnegan is relatively small in stature for a Major League pitcher at 5’11” 185 lbs. and because of that, he often draws comparison to former closer great Billy Wagner. Finnegan doesn’t throw as hard as Wagner did though, but he still comes in with some good velocity as he averages around 93 MPH on his heater. He complements his fastball with a slider and changeup, with the slider functioning as his primary out pitch.

He has compiled a 2.59 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 21 K/13 BB in 24.1 IP as a relief pitcher in the Majors, but the Reds will send him to AAA to get stretched out as a starting pitcher where he could possibly debut for them before the season ends. Finnegan’s most immediate area of work appears to be in his control. In college at Texas Christian University before he was drafted, Finnegan did show some control issues and those same issues seem to be present in his short Major League work thus far. If he can figure out how to issue less walks then he can have a pretty good future in the league, but with just 85.1 IP as a professional since he was drafted last June, it’s a little difficult to gauge where he is at and how he may or may not progress.

For redraft leagues, Finnegan is not really someone to pay attention to because he will be getting stretched out in the Minors, and if he does make it to the Reds Major League rotation this season, I wouldn’t necessarily expect immediate success. For keeper and dynasty leagues though, Finnegan is well worth a look, though in any competitive dynasty league he shouldn’t be available as a free agent.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Sunday’s slate of action.

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Jonesing for More (and other notes from 7/12/15)

Consistency from year to year can often be overlooked in fantasy baseball because often times we want the flair for the dramatic, the opportunity to own a player for his big breakout season.  So sometimes we will forego the opportunity of making the “safe” pick of drafting a player that is easier to predict and we “know” what to expect from him because we want the upside for more instead.  Over the last four seasons, one of the most consistent and reliable fantasy outfielders has been Adam Jones of the Orioles.  There’s been some fluctuation in his RBI and runs scored due to his spot changing in the batting order, but for the most part he has been much the same player from year to year from 2011-14.  Take a look:

  • 2011 – .280/.319/.466 with 25 HR, 83 RBI, 68 R, 12 SB, 4.7 BB%, 18.3 K%
  • 2012 – .287/.334/.505 with 32 HR, 82 RBI, 103 R, 16 SB, 4.9 BB%, 18.1 K%
  • 2013 – .285/.318/.493 with 33 HR, 108 RBI, 100 R, 14 SB, 3.6 BB%, 19.7 K%
  • 2014 – .281/.311/.469 with 29 HR, 96 RBI, 88 R, 7 SB, 2.8 BB%, 19.5 K%

Jones has missed 11 games this season due to various minor injuries to his ankle, shoulder, and toe, but with 2 HR off Max Scherzer on the day right before the All-Star break, Jones is now hitting .281/.326/.490 with 14 HR, 43 RBI, 43 R, and 3 SB, which puts him near pace to have another season that is pretty consistent with the past four seasons.  However, there is one big difference in his performance so far that in the end could allow him to break the some of this consistent production in a positive way.  That difference is that this season he is striking out at a career low rate of 14.5%.

Jones has always been a free swinger who doesn’t really enjoy taking walks, and this season he is sporting a career high swing rate by offering at a whopping 60.2% of pitches, which is much higher than his 55.9% career rate.  However, he has been able to make contact on more of those swings with a career best 11.4% swinging strike rate.  His career swinging strike rate is 13.5%, which isn’t too much higher than his current 2015 rate, but it’s still a noticeable enough difference and appears to be the primary factor to the decline in his strikeout rate.

The drop in his strikeouts is significant because in theory he should see an uptick in his batting average if all other things in his batted ball profile are mostly constant.  Jones’ BABIP over the last several seasons is something that has also been consistent with marks of .304, .313, .314, and .311, but this season it is down to a very uncharacteristic .292.  His hard hit rate is the only thing that would really suggest a decline in his BABIP as it is at 30.4%, which is the lowest it’s been since 2011, but that’s not too far off from his career mark of 31.9%.

So if Jones can get his BABIP back up to a level that he is used to giving, paired with the decrease in strikeouts, that could lead to his first .300 AVG season of his career.  If he is unable to achieve so, then at the very least he should end the season once again in very familiar territory that is consistent with what he’s been known to do.  That wouldn’t be a terrible thing, but definitely not overly exciting and it would leave the fantasy baseball community jonesing for more.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Sunday’s action as we enter the All-Star break.

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All-Star Game Roster Predictions: National League

Predicting the All-Star teams can sometimes be a hopeless exercise due to the unpredictability, but it is all fun and games. The first pieces that come into play for the All-Star rosters are the fan submitted votes where the leading vote getters at each position (three in the outfield) are automatically named to the All-Star team as a starter.  Next, the players vote for 8 pitchers (5 starting pitchers and 3 relief pitchers) and for a backup at each position (if the leading vote getter amongst the players was already voted in by the fans then the second leading vote getter amongst the players is named as an All-Star reserve).  Then the managers of the All-Star teams select the remainder of the roster until the roster has 33 players. Finally, there are then 5 players from each league that are put on the “final man ballot” to be voted on by the fans for the 34th and final spot on each league’s respective roster.

The National League fan voting isn’t as odd as the American League, as the fans are getting most of the situations right. What you’re about to read isn’t who I think should be All-Stars, but rather it is what I think will happen with both the fans and the players/manager votes. Continue reading

Built Crawford Tough (and other notes from 5/31/15)

Coming up through the Minors, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford seemed to be a relatively light hitting, low batting average shortstop with some great glove work, and in his first 3.5 seasons in the Majors since coming up in 2011 he had shown exactly that.  He has slowly progressed though in his time in the Majors, as his ISO climbed from .092 to .101 to .114 to .143 last year.

But whether it’s due to a change in his swing mechanics, maturing as a hitter in his age 28 season, or some combination of both, Crawford has legitimately taken big strides this season as he now has a .207 ISO after hitting his 8th HR of the season on Sunday.  What can deem this power surge as legitimate?  Well, did you know that Crawford’s average distance on his HR and fly balls is 4th in the league at 314 feet?  That’s a huge improvement over the 278 feet he averaged last year and the fact that he sits amongst the league leaders in that category provides validity to the power stats.

I originally had said a bit ago that I didn’t think Crawford would get to 20 HR, but I now have to change my stance on that with the revelation of this stat.  He’s now hitting .299 with 7 HR, 34 RBI, 26 R, and 3 SB on his way to a career year.

Let’s review the rest of Sunday baseball action.

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Familia-rize Yourself With Jeurys (and other notes from 5/25/15)

Jeurys Familia took on the role of closer for the Mets early on in the season when Jenrry Mejia went down with an elbow injury and then was suspended for 80 games for PED use.  Mejia being injured and subsequently suspended has turned out to be a real blessing in disguise for the Mets because Familia has stepped right in to exceed most likely anyone’s expectations.  With another perfect inning with 2 strikeouts on Monday to close out the Phillies, Familia now owns a 1.60 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and 26 K/4 BB in 21.1 IP while converting 14 of 15 save opportunities.  But just who is Jeurys Familia?  Let’s take this time to “Familia”-rize ourselves with the 25-year old hard-throwing righty.

Familia has been in the Mets organization since 2008 and through the 2012 season he was brought up as a starting pitcher, but he posted modest numbers in that role (3.85 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 8.62 K/9, 3.95 BB/9).  Familia received his first taste of the Majors as a September call up in the 2012 season, but he was very ineffective in 8 relief appearances and one spot start.

Familia was able to break camp on the opening day roster as a reliever for the Mets in 2013, but once again he failed to impress because of extremely poor control, something that he also struggled with as a starting pitcher in the Minors.  And also in 2013, he underwent elbow surgery to remove bone spurs and that sidelined him for 4 months before he worked his way back to make one final appearance before the season ended.

For the 2014 season, Familia once again found himself working in the Mets bullpen as that apparently was where they saw him best suited long term.  Familia went on to post some quality numbers with a 2.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.50 K/9, and 3.75 BB/9 in 77.1 IP while also chipping in 5 saves filling in at closer when needed.  His SIERA at 3.21 was a full run higher than his ERA, but the improvements that he showed all across the board were encouraging.

So that brings us to 2015, where despite a relatively spotty track record, Familia has by no means “lucked” his way into the brilliant performance he has given.  His walk rate of 1.72 BB/9 is considerably lower than any rate he has posted in the past, but he is achieving that by getting ahead in the count a lot more often than he has in the past.  From 2012-14, Familia’s first pitch strike percentages were 42.3%, 51.9%, and 52.8%, but this year he is all the way up to 58.2% and obviously it is a lot easier to prevent free passes if a pitcher is getting ahead in the count early and often.

And how about that strikeout rate of 10.97 K/9?  That is also a much higher number than he’s accustomed to, but the improvement is for real.  Familia uses a four-seam fastball, a sinking fastball, and a slider.  It is his slider that has really taken his game to the next level this year as he is getting a little bit different movement and greater velocity on the pitch this year.  In the past it has been a pitch that averaged 86.1 MPH and has fallen out of the strike zone a lot, often times not getting close to the zone which made it easier for hitters to lay off of it.  But this year, he is averaging 88.6 MPH on the pitch and it’s staying higher with a little less horizontal movement, and he is able to effectively throw it in or much closer to the zone to get hitters to swing and miss on it.  With a 31.0% swinging strike rate on his slider this year (compared to 26.4% last year), Familia’s slider has become one of the better ones in the game.  Overall, Familia has an 18.2% swinging strike rate on all his pitches, which is 5th highest among qualified relievers.

His .191 BABIP is a low mark and he will likely see some regression there, but his overall performance is right in line with what the metric systems suggest it would be, as his 1.71 SIERA is not far off from his 1.60 ERA.  So if you were worried about Familia not being able to keep up his amazing performance, this all should ease your worries a bit.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Memorial Day’s action!

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Out of a Thousand Fish in the Sea, Marlins Oddly Choose Jennings (and other notes from 5/18/15)

After the Marlins increased their payroll by about 50% over the off-season with the acquistion of players such as Martin PradoDee GordonDan Haren, and Mat Latos and the free agent signings of Mike MorseIchiro Suzuki, the Marlins front office was expecting the team to be competitive in the NL East as they surrounded their young rising starts Giancarlo StantonChristian Yelich, and Jose Fernandez (rehabbing from Tommy John surgery) with some strong veteran presences.  But after being nearly no-hit on Sunday, the Marlins fell to a 16-22 record and manager Mike Redmond was relieved of his duties after taking over as the club’s manager to begin the 2013 season.

Reports circulated the internet hours after the firing of Redmond with former Marlins player Jeff Conine being brought up as the next manager of the team.  However, those reports were later debunked and the Marlins were just letting everyone know that Monday morning they would make an announcement on who the next manager would be.  Well, when the time came, they made a shocking if not absolutely crazy declaration of Dan Jennings as their new manager.

Jennings had been the general manager of the Marlins, the man responsible for all of the off-season trades and signings, which included handing out the ridiculously insane 13-year/$325 million mega contract to Stanton.  So this is the team that he built, the team that he hand-picked with the belief that they could be winners.  But with no professional coaching or player experience to speak of, this has to be the oddest managerial hiring ever (if you can even call it a hiring, since he was the GM — did he hire himself?).  It reminds me of Major League II when retired third baseman Roger Dorn purchases the Cleveland Indians from the previous owner Rachel Phelps, but in the middle of the season when the team is in a big slump and Dorn is losing lots of money, he sells the team back to Phelps but stays on as the GM and activates himself as a player.  In the movie it worked out for the team since they won the pennant, but I don’t anticipate this going over well for the Marlins.  But at the very least, it should be an interesting experiment to follow and if by chance it is successful, it could actually be groundbreaking and make Jennings the pioneer of a movement of hiring baseball “minds” as coaches and managers as opposed to ex-players or current/former coaches.

For fantasy purposes, I don’t see this having a huge impact on any of the Marlins players.  But it is also hard to say since nobody, not even Jennings himself, knows his managerial style.  We will have to give it a couple weeks to see what Jennings tendencies might be when it comes to things like aggression on the base paths and lineup construction.

Continue reading onward for information about Monday’s slate! Continue reading

Orioles Can’t Make Pineda Their Piñata (and other notes from 5/10/15)

Michael Pineda painted an absolute masterpiece on Sunday as Orioles hitters could not figure out his breakaway slider.  Pineda ended up lasting 7 innings while allowing 1 run on 6 hits while striking out 16 (!) and walking none.  If I am Buck Showalter, I am reviewing the footage of the game to make sure Pineda didn’t have any pine tar hidden somewhere on his body!  More like Michael Pinetarda, am I right?!  But the truth is Pineda was just flat out dominant and while he’s not going to have many more games like this one, he is still a heck of a pitcher with a bright future if he can avoid the arm/shoulder issues that he has dealt with early in his Major League career.  Pineda now owns a 5-0 record with a 2.72 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 54 K/3 BB in 46.1 IP and he is absolutely the real deal, but unfortunately if you do not own him in fantasy then it will be very difficult to trade for him as outings like this one drive up the asking price three fold.  Remember last year when it was impossible to take a walk against Phil Hughes and he went on to post the best single season K/BB ratio of all time?  If anyone this year has a shot at surpassing that mark it is Pineda.  Since last year when he returned to the Majors for the first time since the end of the 2011 season due to injuries, Pineda has 113 K/10 BB in 122.2 IP to go along with a shiny 2.20 ERA and 0.90 WHIP.

Not to be outdone, except he was, Danny Salazar spun a gem of his own on Sunday that might go under the radar (to anyone who doesn’t own Salazar) due to Pineda’s 16 K effort.  Salazar began his start by giving up a leadoff home run to Brian Dozier, but then went on to retire the next 21 batters in order while whiffing 11.  Salazar was supposed to have his breakout last year but instead was cast off to AAA after a showing a gross lack of command.  Salazar even began this season in AAA, but was recalled when the Indians needed another starting pitcher.  The Indians broadcast team said how Salazar dedicated himself in the off-season to doing whatever it took to get himself ready to be a full-time Major Leaguer as he did not want to ever go back to Columbus, the Indians AAA affiliate.  If you were lucky enough to spend a late round draft pick on Salazar (and subsequently hold on to him despite being sent down to AAA to begin the year) or pick him up off waivers early in the year, then you have gold on your hands and should not let him go.  Salazar has insane strikeout upside that can be paired with well above average control when he is on point.  On the year, Salazar is 4-1 with a 3.27 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 48 K/5 BB in 33 IP.  So for the mathematically handicapped out there, that is a strikeout rate of 13.09 K/9.  O to the M to the G.  Going into the 2014 season, I tagged Salazar as “This Year’s Jose Fernandez.”  Well, I was a year premature on that.  Like Pineda though, Salazar does come with an injury history as he is a Tommy John surgery survivor, but he has shown good health since returning from the procedure in 2011.  A couple weeks ago I spent 1/4 of my FAAB budget on Salazar in one league and he’s going to be worth every penny.

Let’s see what else of importance happened on Sunday’s full baseball slate… Continue reading