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Fast-Moving Relief Prospects are a Fraud

One of the weirdest positions to navigate in dynasty formats is reliever. Not only does a relief pitcher’s value swing wildly from season-to-season (and even from game-to-game), but successfully gambling on relief pitcher prospects is just about impossible. Many experts stand by the fact that there’s no such thing as a bullpen prospect, and there are few who disagree with that statement—for good reason. Yet it can be hard to resist the urge to take a flier on some of the most elite relief arms in the minor leagues. It seems like a low-risk/high-reward proposition: for a cheap price, acquire a fast moving relief pitching prospect. This isn’t a rare move in dynasty leagues due to the wealth of arms from the amateur draft that are deemed “relief aces that could move quickly’ by mainstream draft guides. Understandably, the idea of owning a cheap young pitcher that could be closing out major league games just a season or two after being drafted is an enticing proposal. But as nice as this idea sounds in theory, it almost never pans out.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Look through recent drafts and try to find a reliever that was both taken high in the draft and eventually blossomed into a great, or even just good, pitcher. You might have some trouble, considering this almost never happens. To look closer at this unfortunate phenomenon, I sifted through Baseball America’s scouting reports for every player drafted in the top three rounds of the amateur draft from 2008 to 2012. I turned up a grand total of 61 pitchers over those six drafts who were projected to move quickly as a reliever. The results for these players were less than encouraging, to say the least.

Of those 61 players, just three have managed to record at least ten saves over their big league career: Addison Reed, Drew Storen, and Craig Kimbrel. It’s quite alarming to see that out of every potential reliever drafted in the first three rounds of a draft from 2008-2012, just three were “successes.” Even worse, only one of them is currently slotted in as their team’s closer next season. Of the other 58 players, 36 never made it to the big leagues and just 11 have recorded a single big league save.

There are also dynasty league formats that have holds as a category and therefore pitchers don’t need to close to have value. Owners aren’t necessarily looking for a closer, just a great young relief pitcher. Alas, the non-closers have generally struggled as well. The average ERA of pitchers not named Craig Kimbrel, Drew Storen, and Addison Reed sits at 6.49, and they have a 7.95 K/9. In addition, just three relievers have double digit holds: Bryan Shaw (78), Drew Storen (72), and Aaron Crow (57).

It’s worth keeping in mind that there is still time for some of these relievers to make an impact in the big leagues, and that high saves/holds totals aren’t required to be of value in a bullpen. But no matter how you look at it, 56 out of the 61 players who fit the above criteria have turned into major fantasy disappointments. If a fast moving reliever from the 2012 draft hasn’t made an impact in the big leagues yet, it’s unlikely you’re satisfied with your investment. Most people won’t hold onto a bullpen prospect that long, making the roster spot (and initial cost) a waste.

Another way to see how few highly drafted relievers turn into closers is by looking at the current projected ninth inning men for each major league team.

Team Current Closer Round Drafted, Year Minor League Starts
Astros Ken Giles 7th, 2011 6
Cardinals Trevor Rosenthal 21st, 2009 48
Dodgers Kenley Jansen N/A 7
Mets Jeurys Familia N/A 111
Orioles Zach Britton 4th, 2006 137
Pirates Mark Melancon 9th, 2006 0
Red Sox Craig Kimbrel 3rd, 2008 0
Royals Wade Davis 3rd, 2004 138
White Sox David Robertson 17th, 2006 0
Yankees Aroldis Chapman N/A 19
Angels Huston Street 1st, 2004 6
Athletics Sean Doolittle 1st, 2007 0
Cubs Hector Rondon N/A 101
Diamondbacks Brad Ziegler 20th, 2003 69
Giants Santiago Casilla N/A 38
Indians Cody Allen 23rd, 2011 0
Mariners A.J. Ramos 21st, 2009 1
Nationals Jonathan Papelbon 4th, 2003 48
Rangers Shawn Tolleson 30th, 2010 0
Rays Brad Boxberger 1st, 2009 15
Tigers Francisco Rodriguez N/A 42
Twins Glen Perkins 1st, 2004 101
Blue Jays Roberto Osuna N/A 27
Braves Jason Grilli 1st, 1997 154
Brewers Jeremy Jeffress 1st, 2006 64
Mariners Steve Cishek 5th, 2007 0
Padres Fernando Rodney N/A 21
Phillies David Hernandez 16th, 2005 103
Reds J.J. Hoover 10th, 2008 61
Rockies Jake McGee 5th, 2004 131

Looking at this table reveals some interesting information. I’ve bolded all the pitchers who fit the criteria above, and by ‘all’…I mean Craig Kimbrel and Huston Street. Just two of the current 30 closers were high draft picks that could be considered successful fast-moving relieving prospects. There are a few other pitchers that seem to fit the criteria–Wade Davis, Sean Doolittle, Brad Boxberger, Glen Perkins, Jason Grilli, and Jeremy Jeffress–but they don’t count as they were either drafted as starters or as position players (I’m looking at you, Doolittle).

That isn’t to say this exact trend will continue going forward. But, five consecutive drafts tell us that you have about a 4% chance of drafting a relieving prospect that will save more than nine games in the major leagues. At the same time, there’s a 14% chance that you draft a pitcher that records double digit holds in his career. Even out of the select few that did get to ten holds, their average ERA is 3.77: far from the shutdown relievers they were projected to be. The fact is, players drafted as fast-moving relievers almost never pan out, making for an unwise fantasy investment. It’s better served to use those spots on other prospects, or stock pile young MLB relief pitchers who may one day have a shot at the closing role.

The Author

Ben Diamond

Ben Diamond

Ben is an annoyingly enthusiastic fantasy baseball player and Yankees fan, and he writes about those passions at Baseball Prospectus and The Dynasty Guru. There's a 95% chance he's ranting about Michael Pineda right now.

4 Comments

  1. March 3, 2016 at 10:36 am — Reply

    a couple other factors i think play in here: a team is likely to give pitching prospects every chance to prove whether or not they can start, and a team is unlikely to give the closer role to a pre-arb player unless he forces the issue or their competitive window allows it. College relievers MIGHT buck this trend a little bit, but even still we’ve seen high payroll teams actively keep their best RP’s in setup and middle relief roles in order to avoid big arbitration payouts. there might be prospects with an RP pedigree who could have some top prospect value (Brandon Finnegan and Michael Lorenzen spring to mind) but even their value seems to be primarily as potential starters.

    • March 3, 2016 at 5:01 pm — Reply

      That’s a very good point, and certainly it’s worth keeping in mind that many young and talented major league relievers will be kept out of the closers role to avoid the raise in salary during arbitration. Still, for the high drafted and pure relievers, it’s not just about not making it to the closers role..much of the time they are unsuccessful in the majors (average of a 6.49 ERA for these players other than ‘the big three’).

  2. March 3, 2016 at 4:49 pm — Reply

    I think you’re confusing “being drafted on the first three rounds of the MLB draft” with ever being a closer prospect. I don’t know of any leagues that disallow acquiring players after they have shown minor league skills. Of the 32 closers you list, 13 had fewer than 20 career minor league starts — i.e., they were closer prospects at one time.

    Of course it’s a low-yield exercise to stock up on might-be closers. But in a true dynasty league with deep rosters, potential closers are often aggressively hoarded. You can play contrarian and sit on the sidelines and try to trade for closers only after they have been established (which often fails due to inactive/unreasonable opposing owners), or you can try to hone in on what exactly — in terms of skills and situation — is most likely to produce a long-term closer. And as this article confirms, MLB draft position is not one of the variables worth considering.

    • March 3, 2016 at 4:58 pm — Reply

      The point of my article was to warn against picking players specifically drafted as relievers high in the previous draft. I’ve seen people take pitchers heralded as “fast moving relievers” many times in dynasty drafts, and it almost never pans out. That’s what I’m referring to in this article–a lot of the time people will see that kind of player (taken fairly high in the draft) and waste a pick and/or roster spot on them. My goal was to tell people to avoid these types of players, not minor league relievers in general. Then again, I wouldn’t recommend investing in minor league relievers, though that is a different story. I’m not saying that major league closer’s will never be a minor league reliever at some point, though. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

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