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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Tex Marks the Spot (and other notes from 6/1/15)

Landing on the DL in each of the last 3 seasons, which includes missing all but 15 games in the 2013 season, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira was all but an afterthought in fantasy drafts this season and overlooked by many, including myself.  But he is showing an immense amount in his on-field performance to earn the $22.5 million that he’s due this season.  So after hitting a grand slam off Felix Hernandez on Monday, Tex is now hitting .241 with 15 HR, 39 RBI, 26 R, and 1 SB, but should he be expected to keep up this type of performance?

From 2003-09, Tex hit for over a .300 AVG in three seasons and compiled a .290 AVG over the whole time frame.  With that type of ability to hit for AVG combined with the 35 HR per season on average that he posted in that same period, he had firmly established himself as one of the best hitters of the decade.  But once 2010 came around, his ability to hit for a good AVG took a turn for the worse as teams began to collect and use different types of data more to their advantage.  Tex became just one of many sluggers who became greatly impacted by the increased implementation of defensive shifts by teams all around the league.  So gone were the days of hitting .290-.300.  From 2010-14, Tex hit for a rather paltry .242 AVG as he also began to pull the ball into the shift and fly out a lot more.

However, something that never really evaporated was his ability to go yard.  Over the last three seasons, his power has been sapped a bit as he only homered once every 19.27 AB, opposed to once every 16.60 AB from 2003-11.  Also, his ISO fell below .200 for the first time in his career in 2012 and 2013.  But this slight loss in power can largely be chalked up to the injuries that he dealt with.  The main injury that plagued his performance was a wrist injury that began as inflammation during the 2012 season and it carried over to 2013 before worsening to the point where he needed to have season-ending surgery to repair it.  While the wrist injury wasn’t what sidelined him in 2014, it surely had to have been something that affected his swing.

This season he is showing himself as healthy as ever, appearing in 49 of the Yankees 52 games so far.  And other than the low AVG, which should be a continuous occurrence because of his inability to hit around the defensive shifts, Tex is a better hitter than ever.  The power is incredibly off the charts with a current .325 ISO, which is well beyond his career high of .279 from his 2004 sophomore season.  But what might be even more impressive is the locked in and refined approach at the plate he appears to have.  Tex is 1 of 8 players in the Majors who currently has more walks than strikeouts, and at a 14.9 BB% and 13.4 K%, he is on pace for career bests in both categories.

One could point to his average distance on his HR + fly balls is only 279 feet compared to 294 feet last season (according to Baseball Heat Maps) and believe that perhaps this rebound in his HR total is a bit of a mirage.  But the ESPN Home Run Tracker shows that only 2 of his 15 HR this year are categorized as “just enough,” as in having just enough distance to clear the fence.  So I wouldn’t worry a whole lot about the average distance since most of his HR are clearing the fence by more than enough — it’s just the fly balls that have stayed in the park that are bringing his average distance down.

There can always be some sort of injury that comes up, but with the wrist appearing to be fully healed and his excellent plate approach and discipline, I remain optimistic for Teixeira to remain productive and a fantasy asset the rest of the season.  I will give him the rest of the season line of (from June 2 onward):   .242 AVG, 21 HR, 68 RBI, 52 R, 1 SB, 54 BB, 70 K

Let’s see what else Monday baseball brought to us…

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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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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

Getting Cranky With Greinke (and other notes from 5/16/15)

Zack Greinke pitched on Saturday night versus the Rockies and he finished the game going 6 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K with the loss.  It is a tough luck loss for Greinke, but he is looking like a nice sell candidate for any Greinke owners out there.  He is 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA and 0.88 WHIP and he pitches in front of an offense that can score with the best of them, so the opportunities to log a lot of wins will be there.  And his strikeout to walk ratio of 44 K/11 BB is very solid.  So what’s not to like?

According to PITCHf/x data, Greinke’s fastball velocity for the most part has progressively gotten worse every season since 2009 from 93.7 MPH to 90.6 MPH this year.  Greinke is dealing with a 1.2 MPH decline in his fastball velocity from last year to this year, which would qualify as the largest drop in a single season during the time frame from 2009-present.  Though he has maintained his excellent control, his strikeout rate is down from 9.21 K/9 last year to a current season mark of 7.42 K/9 with the likely culprit being the aforementioned velocity loss.

From when Greinke first entered the Majors in 2007 all the way through 2012, the slider pitch was his bread and butter and he used it anywhere from 15.1% to 19.2% of the time during those years.  But a strange thing happened in 2013 after he signed a 6-year/$148 million contract with the Dodgers.  His slider usage that year mysteriously dropped to 5.4%.  The reasoning behind it though was that Greinke understood that the slider is known to be the most stressful pitch on the arm/elbow, so he intentionally used it less that year an in effort to preserve his health for the long term and for the duration of his newly minted deal.  However, that slider had been his most effective pitch over the course of his career, so subtracting it from his arsenal (or using it more seldom) had an adverse effect.  Greinke’s strikeout rate was at just 7.50 K/9 in that season, which was one of the lowest marks that he had ever since having a breakthrough season in 2008.  Perhaps it was a coincidence, but I see it more as a causal relationship because in the following 2014 season, Greinke apparently had a change of heart and ramped back up his slider usage to 17.5% and finished the season with a healthy 9.21 K/9.

So with his slider usage back up last year and currently at an all-time high this year, could it be that it has had adverse effects to be the cause to his diminished velocity?  There is no actual way of knowing, but I believe it to be a valid theory.  Furthermore on Greinke and being a sell candidate, his SIERA currently sits about 2 full runs higher than his actual ERA, he is stranding base runners at a high mark over 85%, and his .217 BABIP is super low.  He has only once posted a BABIP under .300, and that was way back in his rookie season.

With the name value, the stunning stats on the surface, and playing for a good team, you should be able to get a good return on the Greinkster.  I envision him to be more of a 3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP type of pitcher while maintaining strikeout and walk rates near his current marks. That’s not terrible, and at least the great win potential is still there, but there’s someone out there who will look at his current stats and erroneously think that he is a fantasy ace.

Keep on reading to see what else happened for Saturday’s baseball action. Continue reading

BLOW-PEN REPORT: Ramos the New King Fish, Addison Reed-ing the Writing on the Wall?

MIAMI MARLINS

Earlier this week, we saw the first real blow-pen situation of the season go down with the Marlins on their west coast road trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles.  Steve Cishek took the blown save and loss on Sunday versus the Giants and I promptly was calling for A.J. Ramos to be picked up in fantasy leagues in the post “Fish Out of Water:  Cishek Leading the Blow-pen.”  Very much to my surprise, the very next day Cishek received the ball in the bottom of the 9th inning after the Marlins took the lead over the Dodgers in the top of the inning.  I figured Cishek would at least be given the day off after having worked in two of the previous 3 days, throwing 34 pitches the day before.  But apparently, Marlins manager Mike Redmond was very eager to lose another game.  Cishek was called upon and laid a hanger to Scott Van Slyke who deposited it into the bleachers in walkoff fashion to hand Cishek his 4th blown save in 7 opportunities and his 3rd loss of the season.  The defeated look on Cishek’s face when it happened told it all, and you just knew that he knew at the very moment he would no longer be closing games for the Marlins.

So the following day, Redmond informed the media that Cishek had been removed from the closer’s role and that he would go with a committee approach with Ramos figuring to get the first crack.  Then heading into Wednesday action, there were rumblings that the Marlins were interested in a free agent relief pitcher with lots of closing experience, Rafael Soriano.  Soriano had a good run as a closer from 2009-14 with the Braves, Yankees, and Nationals, but it just didn’t make sense for the Marlins as they would be taking on more payroll after having already increased payroll 50% from last year, and they already had a cheap, viable (and probably better) option in Ramos who has been nothing short of dominant this season.  It was then later reported that the Marlins were no longer interested in Soriano with the cost being an issue.  Well, wouldn’t you know it that the Marlins were presented with another save situation on Wednesday and it indeed was Ramos who got the call and he protected a one run lead by striking out 2 in a perfect inning.  I don’t foresee Ramos running into too much trouble with the way that he has been pitching with improved control this year, so he is indeed a must own in any fantasy format and hopefully you were able to snag him. Continue reading

The Bigger They Are, Samardzija They Fall (and other notes from 5/11/15)

Jeff Samardzija became a full-time starting pitcher with the Cubs in 2012 and spent that season and the next season in fantasy baseball purgatory as he posted pretty good peripheral statistics that did not match up with the “glamour stats” of fantasy baseball, such as ERA, WHIP, and W-L record.  Still with an awful Cubs team at the beginning of the 2014 season, destined for another sub-.500 W-L record, Samardzija’s other stats were at least looking very pretty and finally matching up with what his skill set was.  Then came the trade that sent him from the NL to the AL (Cubs to the A’s), which is rarely good for a pitcher and his stats.  It was as if the fantasy gods were truly against him and his long flowing locks.  He went on to finish the season with a nice looking stat line (excluding W-L record), but it was clear that the league switch did have some negative effect on him.

Prior to the 2015 season, Samardzija was traded once more and was staying the AL heading to the White Sox.  The negative trending stats in his move to the AL in 2014 along with the move to hitter friendly U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago are the main reasons why I was not going to even come close to sniffing Samardzija this year.

With Monday’s outing that saw Samardzija post a line of 6 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, the big righty now is 2-2 with a 4.80 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 35 K/8 BB in 45 IP.  In 4 of his 7 starts, he has allowed 4 ER or more and he is just being knocked around a lot.  The home run rate is up from 0.82 to 1.20 HR/9, and the strikeout rate is down from 8.28 to 7.00 K/9.  These are the two things that I expected to happen with him this year, and those current rates are some pretty realistic numbers that can last for the season.  While his overall numbers are going to improve, I do not think that he is a super great buy low candidate, and I still am a firm believer that Samardzija is not going to be the type of pitcher that the White Sox envisioned him to be when they traded for him.  Samardzija has fallen from fantasy baseball purgatory to fantasy baseball hell in one fell swoop for the time being.

Let’s check out what else happened in Monday’s action… Continue reading

Fish Out of Water: Cishek Leading the Blow-pen

For a Marlins team that actually made some moves in the off-season that had them increase their 2015 payroll by 50%, the front office was expecting them to compete for a playoff spot.  Unfortunately, they are not off to a great start as they sit with a 15-17 record, 5.5 games back in the NL East.  Obviously it is still early in the season, but the poor start is discouraging and a good part of that falls on the shoulders of closer Steve Cishek.  Trying to protect a one run lead at San Francisco on Sunday, Cishek blew the save and took the loss as he fell apart to allow 2 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks (one intentional).  For Cishek, that was his 3rd blown save of the season, which is just as many as he has converted.  On the season, Cishek is now 0-2 with a 8.18 ERA and 1.82 WHIP.  While he is still striking out more than a batter per inning, there are a couple of red flags being raised.  First, he is only pitching in the strike zone 40% of the time and that has led to an awful walk rate of 5.72 BB/9.  Secondly, over his first 4 seasons in the Majors he averaged better than 92 MPH on his fastball and it sat at 91.7 MPH last year, but this year he is has lost a couple ticks and is only averaging 89.6 MPH for his “heater.”

With his poor performance thus far, Cishek’s future as the Marlins closer looks ominous.  One of two things will likely happen with Cishek.  First, because the Marlins made so many off-season moves to put what they thought would be a competitive team on the field, Cishek will get demoted from his closing gig to work in lower leverage situations.  The second possibility is that the Marlins stick with Cishek but even if he improves, I don’t see the Marlins being in competition for a playoff spot come summer time.  So the Marlins will then seek to trade Cishek and his $6.6 million salary.  Cishek is eligible for one more year of arbitration, so for 2016 he would be looking at a raise to over $8 million, which is not likely a number that the Marlins are going to want to pay for a mediocre closer.   So one way or another, Cishek’s days pitching the 9th inning for Miami are probably numbered.  So who is going to step up and take over?

Mike Dunn and Bryan Morris are the two players who seem to have worked in the 8th inning ahead of Cishek the most this season so far, so let’s look at them.  Dunn is a left-handed pitcher with the knack for striking guys out (career 10.0 K/9), but that strikeout rate has dipped to 7.71 K/9 this year and coinciding is an inflated ERA at 4.63.  Plus, Dunn does not do as well versus right-handed bats.  Morris possesses the mid to upper 90’s power fastball that you like to see out of a closer, but that has not translated to missing a whole lot of bats as his career strikeout rate is just 6.42 K/9, although it is higher this year at 8.04 K/9.  Morris, too, has been knocked around and has a 4.60 ERA.  So I would not look for either of those two pitchers to get the first look at closing out games should Cishek be removed.  Instead, A.J. Ramos should be next in line.

Ramos has been pitching a lot in the 7th inning this year, but he is pitching lights out having been scored upon in only 2 of his 16 appearances so far.  He is the owner of a 1.06 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 21 K/6 BB in 17 IP.  He does not have a blazing fastball (92 MPH average), but he mixes in a slider and changeup that has produced great results.  The one area where he has struggled in his career is with his control as he walked 6.05 batter per 9 innings last year.  However, in the early going, he seems to have harnessed his control, and with the new found control and strikeout ability, he has the skill set to be given a chance in the 9th.  Plus, Ramos has previous closing experience in the Minors.  So if you want to speculate on saves, I believe Ramos is the handcuff to Cishek and would pick him up ASAP.