by Marshall Bauer
There are only a handful of the elite starting pitchers in baseball: the guys that can put up a sub 3 ERA, a WHIP of around 1 and rack up the strikeouts. Those guys hold great value, and for good reason. If you’re lucky enough to own one or even a couple of those that’s great for you but not everyone in deeper leagues is going to be able to. As stated before, there are only a handful of guys to go around.
There is a way to work around this and finagle the stats of an elite starter: through pairing elite middle relievers together. This strategy is nothing new and I definitely did not invent it, but by pairing together a couple of guys who by themselves hold little value and are owned in very few leagues, you can amass the stats of an elite starter.
Middle relievers by themselves generally hold little valu, because they only get the rare save, occasionally grab a hold and may vulture a win here and there but not nearly enough to offer much help in these categories. The help that you can get by using a couple of these guys comes in the ratios and also potentially in the strikeout category. One middle reliever may throw around 80 innings in a season, which isn’t going to help out your ratios substantially. If you use two of them, that’s much closer to the 200+ innings that an elite starter will get you if he were to stay healthy.
First of all, a disclaimer: all stats used here are through the All-Star break.
Here’s a list of non-closing relievers with an ERA below 3 and a WHIP below 1.20 that have already thrown 40 or more innings – I used 40 as it would put them on pace to throw around 80 for the season (if you drop it down another couple innings the list grows greatly): Robbie Ross, Craig Stammen, Scott Atchison, Matt Belisle, Jared Hughes, Joaquin Benoit (also has 20 holds and is likely next in line for saves), Luis Ayala, Alex Burnett, Shawn Camp, Kris Medlen, and Brad Lincoln(stats are even much better – 0.33 ERA and 0.80 WHIP – as a reliever, but struggled in a couple spot starts).
If we were to be a little more lenient and drop the statistical threshold down to 3.50 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, you would add the following names (reason not in above list in parentheses): James Russell (1.25 WHIP), Carlos Villanueva (3.05 ERA, 1.33 WHIP), Kelvin Herrera (3.05 ERA – also has 12 holds), David Phelps (3.05 ERA, 1.31 WHIP), Josh Lindblom (3.07 ERA – also has 13 holds), Wade Davis (3.12 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), Grant Balfour (3.14 ERA – also has 7 saves and 10 holds), and Tim Collins (3.43 ERA).
Every player listed on the above two lists, except for a handful of guys, are owned in less than 2% of ESPN fantasy leagues. So, depending on the depth of your league, you should be able to pick and choose, and even if you’re in a really deep league a couple of those guys should be available. The guys who are owned in more than 2% of leagues are: Robbie Ross (3.8%), Joaquin Benoit (4.5%) and Grant Balfour (26.9%). There are plenty of other guys that also fit the profile, but fall just short of the innings criteria. For example, dropping the innings threshold only from 40 to 36 increased those that fit on both lists from a total of 19 to over 40.
As an example of what pairing together two of these middle relievers can do, if you had owned Scott Atchison and Kelvin Herrera – two guys who are owned in less than 0.1% of ESPN leagues – all season, they would have combined for a 2.40 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, 71 K, and 16 holds in 89.2 innings. Now that’s a little less than the number of innings an elite starter has thrown to this point and the K are a little low (only 7.1 K/9), but there were also only 6 starting pitchers in baseball who threw as many innings and had an ERA as low as 2.40, only 7 who had a WHIP as low as 1.05 and only 4 who did both: R.A. Dickey, James McDonald, Chris Sale and Jered Weaver (who, due to injury, only threw 7 more innings and only had 2 more K).
The profile to target is guys who preferably throw multiple innings at a time, or throw several days in a row, although the latter tend to be set up men and are owned in more leagues due to holds. Here are some middle relievers that I like for the second half that for some reason or another weren’t included above: Duane Below, Charlie Furbush, Ryan Mattheus, Clayton Mortenson, Jordan Norberto, Josh Roenicke, Alfredo Simon and Brayan Villareal. Somebody who fits perfectly is Cesar Ramos, who was having an excellent season after being called up in early May following Niemann’s injury, but was sent back down to Triple-A when Hellickson and Farnsworth came back from the DL.
You don’t have to be in a deep league for this strategy to help you out. Even if you’re in a standard sized league, you can use this to your benefit. If you have a games started limit and are nearing your limit, loading up on middle relievers can allow you to keep amassing stats and allow you to lower your ratios or simply keep them from being affected greatly by a couple bad outings from a reliever after you reached your quota of starts.
Also, if your league has separate slots for starters and relievers, there is a group of relievers who have starting pitching eligibility that you can plug into a SP slot and allow you to accrue stats for that slot even when you don’t have a starter going.
Players who have SP eligibility and pitch out of the bullpen that make good targets, but may not necessarily fit in the above categories for one reason or another include: Robbie Ross, Alfredo Simon, Charlie Furbush, James Russell, Brad Lincoln, Nate Jones, Carlos Villanueva, David Phelps, Wade Davis, Phil Coke, Andrew Miller and Alexi Ogando.
What are your thoughts of this strategy? Is it one that you would use? Which relief pitchers are you targeting?