Perhaps no position in fantasy baseball is more volatile than Relief Pitcher. Between small sample sizes, injury, skill changes, and shifting roles, reliever value are constantly in flux. This is especially true in this 2020 season that has been significantly shortened due to the ongoing pandemic. With less time for statistics to normalize, MLB and Fantasy teams are giving their relief pitchers even shorter leashes than ever before. This means that one or two bad outings can not only significantly hurt your team statistics in a Roto league, but can also leave you without a true closer on your team if any of your relief pitchers lose the role due to poor performance. Many fantasy managers are reactive to these changes in reliever value, only bothering to pick up a replacement relief pitcher after the circumstances dictate. While you may get lucky while being reactive and end up with a suitable replacement via waiver wire or FAAB, this process is often a crapshoot and may result in you losing out on your relief target because another manager was in a better position to acquire the player. However, by being aware of and/or preemptively rostering the current top middle relief performers, you can often put yourself in a position to not have to compete with other managers when those role changes occur. Below is a list of five middle relief pitchers whose current level of success may help them work their way into higher leverage situations. Please note, this should not be used as a “closer in waiting for” list and is instead a highlight of some relievers whose current level of performance suggests they may have the skills necessary to pitch in high leverage roles.
Jalen Beeks – Rays – 4% Owned (Yahoo)
Ignore for a moment the 4.00 ERA, and take a look at what the ERA estimators say about what Jalen Beeks has actually done this year. Beeks’ 1.48 xFIP is good for 9th in baseball amongst relievers, and his 1.33 FIP and 1.25 SIERA also suggest he has been somewhat unlucky in his year to date results. The 27-year-old is walking a career-low 2.00 BB/9 and has seen his K/9 spike to 17.00. This improved strikeout performance is backed up by an 18.5% swinging strike percentage, suggesting the spike in strikeout rate is at least somewhat deserved. Never a big Strikeout pitcher in the past, Beeks has made a significant pitch mix change that appears to be driving his improved results. Dropping the use his mediocre fastball (8.5% career SwStr%) to a career-low 37.7% of pitches, Beeks has also entirely eliminated a similarly ineffective curveball (8.5% career SwStr%) and instead is throwing his above-average Changeup (19.4% SwStr%) and Cutter (13.6% SwStr%) a combined 25% more of the time. Paradoxically, this decrease in Fastball use has caused it’s effectiveness to spike, resulting in a 19.3% SwStr% on the four-seamer. Although Beeks is unlikely to continue to get such incredible results on his fastball, the tangible pitch mix adjustments point to real skills development and suggest Jalen Beeks could continue to be an above-average performer moving forward.
Tyler Alexander – Tigers – 9% Owned (Yahoo)
Normally you don’t want to hitch your wagon to a reliever who averages 91 MPH on their fastball, but Tyler Alexander is a unique case. Made famous by his August 2nd effort where he struck out 9 straight batters (an MLB record for relievers), Alexander has primarily relied on off-speed and breaking balls to carve up major league hitters this year. His primary weapon is an 83 MPH curveball that has garnered a 19.4% SwStr% which he throws 29.5% of the time. To complement his curveball, Alexander also throws a Changeup and a Slider that has gotten 20% and 17.6% SwStr %s respectively. Pairing three above-average pitches with a grounder inducing sinker, Alexander has managed to pitch to a sterling 1.17 ERA backed up by a 2.08 FIP and 1.09 xFIP. A recent headline suggests that Alexander may have parlayed his success into a starting role for the foreseeable future. While it will be interesting to see if the stuff performs at the same level in a starting role, the results to date have been phenomenal and could continue if Alexander returns to a reliever role.
Caleb Ferguson – Dodgers – 2% Owned (Yahoo)
Ferguson may be buried a bit behind Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen, but his performance in 2020 certainly warrants a closer look. Currently sporting an elite 20.3% SwStr% (good for 8th in baseball among relievers), Ferguson has also not walked a batter in any of his 5 outings to date. Unsurprisingly, Ferguson’s year to date results has been spectacular. Carrying a fully supported 1.50 ERA (1.80 FIP, 0.55 xFIP, 0.48 SIERA,) Ferguson has been one of the most successful relief pitchers in all of baseball from a performance standpoint. There are a few skill and pitch mix changes that appear to be carrying this current level of success and suggest Ferguson may actually have established a higher baseline for his performance moving forward. To begin, Ferguson is throwing his fastball harder than ever before (95.8 MPH in 2020, 94.3 MPH career). In addition to this increased velocity, Ferguson has eliminated the use of his Curveball (10.7% career SwStr%) and his Changeup (10.3% career SwStr%) and is instead focusing on featuring his Slider which is currently sporting a 25% SwStr%). While it is unlikely for Ferguson to continue to produce at his current otherworldly pace in perpetuity, in a shortened season Ferguson is obviously capable of a high degree of success.
Amir Garrett – Reds – 4% Owned (Yahoo)
Only Chasen Shreve (WHO?) of the New York Mets currently sports a better swinging strike percentage than Amir Garrett’s current 24.1% mark. That incredible performance is being driven by elite results on Garrett’s Slider (35.6% SwStr% in 2020), a pitch that he is currently throwing 57% of the time. Also driving his improved performance, Garrett’s BB/9 has dropped to an MLB career-low 3.18, which has allowed him to survive an elevated HR/FB ratio that is currently sitting at 25%. While the ERA estimators suggest his 1.59 ERA may be a touch lucky (3.15 FIP, 2.14 xFIP) you can’t argue with the swing and miss stuff, and with relief pitchers, it is often a good maxim to “follow the strikeouts”. If Raisel Iglesias were to suffer an injury, it would not be a surprise for Garrett to get a shot at closer duties for the Reds.
Josh Staumont – Royals – 1% Owned (Yahoo)
Pitching on a bad Royals team has allowed Staumont to fly a little bit under the radar, but his low ownership is also due to an uninspiring 2019 debut (6.98 K/9, 4.66 BB/9, 3.72 ERA, 6.04 xFIP). However, Staumont appears to have found his mojo in 2020. Trimming his walks to a slightly more manageable 3.52 BB/9, Staumont has also increased his average Fastball velocity by almost 2 MPH (98.6 MPH in 2020, 96.1 MPH in 2019). Possessing a two-pitch arsenal, Staumont pairs his premium velocity with a swing and miss curveball (25% SwStr%) that has a 16 MPH velocity gap from his fastball (82.7 MPH). If Trevor Rosenthal were moved prior to the August 31st trade deadline, Staumont’s current level of success could certainly make him a leading candidate to close for the Royals.