Faking Elite Starting Pitching with Relievers
In 2014 Clayton Kershaw had one of the greatest pitching seasons in recent memory. But in 2014, 16 relief pitchers pitched at least 40 innings and had an ERA lower than Kershaw’s 1.77. Of those 16 pitchers, 7 of them also had a higher strikeout per 9 innings than Kershaw. Now this isn’t to say that you should go out and take relief pitchers in the first round, but now with pitching deeper than ever, there is an opportunity to create a lot of the value you get from an ace starting pitcher for cheap with some overlooked relief pitching. Last year the poster boys for this strategy were Wade Davis, Ken Giles, and Dellin Betances who combined to throw 207.2 innings with a 1.21 ERA and 308 strikeouts. The deeper the league, the more viable this strategy becomes as closers and starting talent are stretched more thin (for example in a 20 team league, our rankings have your #5 starter as someone like Yovani Gallardo, if you aren’t already betting on prospects).
We are trying to get value and replace starting pitchers so lets start our search with some parameters:
- No Current Closers: If you are going with this strategy, I would suggest emphasizing the top closers like Chapman and Kimbrel but you aren’t going to get any value on them.
- You Need Innings: Charlie Furbush struck out 10.8/9 while walking only 1.9/9 last year, but he is a LOOGY for the Mariners and only pitched 42.1 innings over 67 games. That is just not enough to affect your stats.
- Strikeouts, Strikeouts, Strikeouts: Relievers are walking small sample sizes, hopefully high strikeouts means good results, but at least with strikeouts you are banking on a skill that will help you even if it all falls apart.
- Bonus Saves Aren’t Bad: If you are between a guy in the 7th or the 8th, go for the guy in the 8th. There is a better chance he gets that extra leverage chance here and there and steals you some wins and saves. Extra value is always nice.
So lets look at some guys.
Brad Boxberger: Tampa Bay Rays
It might be too late here as Boxberger as more value with Jake McGee’s injury looms in Tampa. Boxberger fits the role of also being some long term saves speculation. But in 2014 he put up a 2.37 ERA while striking out 14.47 per 9 innings, while continuing to cut his walk rate. Last year also saw his fastball velocity tick up a bit, so there is plenty to point to this being sustainable. The one scary part of his profile is that he has been homer prone in the majors, despite playing in two very pitcher friendly parks.
Jake Diekman: Philadelphia Phillies
The 2014 season saw Diekman’s ERA rise from 2.58 to 3.80, while his FIP stayed relatively consistent. Diekman did walk more batters in 2014, but his strikeout rate jumped from 9.6 to 12.7 per 9. His velocity continues to rise, and he averaged nearly 97 mph on his fastball in 2014. Diekman has some pretty severe platoon splits (lefties had a .577 OPS, righties .748), so his overall innings may go down a bit. Currently Diekman is the 7th inning arm for the Phillies’ bullpen, but a Papelbon trade would bump him into the 8th where he could see more save situations as the Phillies possibly ease Ken Giles into the closers role. The other wildcard with Diekman is that this winter he finally was able to get his Crohn’s disease under control, so we could see even more consistency in 2015.
Will Smith: Milwaukee Brewers
Smith was the Brewers’ return for Nori Aoki last offseason. The left hander transitioned full time to the bullpen for the first time and the numbers were a mixed bag. On the season he struck out 11.8 per 9, but also walked over 4 and had some home run issues. He appeared in 78 games in 2014 which lead all relievers. He was used less in the second half as his ERA ballooned (at the same time his walk rate went down and strikeout rate went up), but still managed 65.2 innings and 86 strikeouts. There is the danger that Smith becomes a pure LOOGY, which could helps his stats but lower their potential impact.
Tony Watson: Pittsburgh Pirates
If you haven’t been paying attention, Pittsburgh is a magical place where pitchers go to be renewed and made dominant. Watson was “good” in 2013 with a 2.39 ERA, but his strikeout rate was only 6.8. This past year that rate jumped to 9.4, without a rise in walks, giving him a 1.63 ERA and a more sustainable base. Watson’s velocity continues to tick up, and his success has come with more changeups and less sliders giving him many more swings and misses, but also ground balls. Watson is also only a Mark Melancon injury away from getting saves.
Randall Delgado: Arizona Diamondbacks
Delgado was part of the package that sent Justin Upton to Atlanta, and so far has been not good as a starter. But the underlying numbers as a reliever are intriguing.
Starter: 16.1 IP 25 H 7 BB 8 K
Reliever: 61.1 IP 46 H 28 BB 78 K
Given the Diamondbacks’ depth it is unlikely Delgado goes back to the rotation, so he should be a reliever going forward. His ERA as a reliever was a bit unsightly, but it was higher than what you would expect from the other numbers. The interesting thing with Delgado is that he could settle in as a long man for the Diamondbacks at rack up a good amount of innings to add to his counting stats.
Josh Fields: Houston Astros
Fields is a study in looking at the underlying numbers, not at the overall stats. In 2013, he was a bit of a closer sleeper coming out of the Rule 5 draft, but then proceeded to walk a ton of guys and give up a lot of home runs on the way to a 4.97 ERA and 5.10 FIP. On the surface, 2014’s 4.45 ERA looks like more of the same. However, with a strikeout rate up 2 per 9 and a walk rate down 1.4 per 9, while not giving up many home runs (2 in 54.2 innings), his FIP dropped down to 2.09. Right now Fields is buried behind Pat Neshek, Chad Qualls, and Luke Gregorson, but with a fastball averaging 94.4 mph, he certainly has the stuff to emerge as the best arm in the pen and see his ERA reflect more his new strikeout and walk numbers.
Neil Ramirez: Chicago Cubs
In 43.2 innings last year, Neil Ramirez put up a 1.44 ERA while striking out 53. He did tail off some towards the end of the year, but the numbers were very good. Out of the bullpen his fastball has averaged 94.8 mph to go with a two seam fastball at 92.9 and a 86.9 mph slider. Overall it is an arsenal that should play well in a relief role going forward. Hector Rondon may be difficult to unseat as the closer and Pedro Strop was pretty good last year, but Ramirez should see plenty of innings. If he can keep the walks down, there should plenty of strikeouts and a mid-2 ERA that should help keep you competitive.