2020 Fantasy Baseball: Fun with Fangraphs and mining for relievers

I like a bit of safety wherever I can work it into my fantasy baseball drafts. And while there are assuredly more refined processes for evaluating pitchers in the fantasy baseball world, I’ve gotta start somewhere…right? In particular, keeping it simple with pitchers is my jam. Lots of ground balls, lots of strikeouts, not a lot of walks or home runs…I like that recipe, and I like the names it continues to lead me to (I did starting pitchers last week).

The Fangraphs splits tool is my new best friend. I mean, what else am I doing under my stay-home order? Last week’s starting pitchers post landed on some interesting names in Alec Mills and Carlos Rodon–both super-deep sleepers for 2020. Today, I’m using the same sort for relief pitchers, but I’m adding in the ability to limit walks. Here are the parameters:

K% greater than or equal to 23.9%
GB% greater than or equal to 43.1%
HR/FB% less than or equal to 15.0%
BB% less than 9.6%
IP greater than or equal to 30

It should be noted that I’m only including pitchers who were working as relievers at the time. So if a guy logged innings as a starting pitcher in 2019, those innings are not included. All of the above thresholds are MLB averages derived from relief pitchers in 2019. Here’s the sort:

Name Tm IP ERA SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
Oliver Perez CLE 40.2 3.9836 48 0.242038 0.306358 0.426752 0.30593
Mark Melancon 2 Tms 67.1 3.6089 68 0.269962 0.320423 0.357414 0.291801
Ian Kennedy KCR 63.1 3.4105 73 0.261224 0.311787 0.363265 0.291098
Kirby Yates SDP 60.2 1.1868 101 0.18552 0.252066 0.262443 0.227923
Shane Greene 2 Tms 62.2 2.2979 64 0.2 0.262948 0.334783 0.256772
Carlos Martinez STL 48.1 3.1655 53 0.220339 0.301508 0.288136 0.262775
Matt Andriese ARI 70.2 4.7123 79 0.261818 0.331169 0.425455 0.317185
Adrian Houser MIL 30.2 1.4674 33 0.18 0.254386 0.27 0.227453
Jairo Diaz COL 57.2 4.526 63 0.251121 0.314286 0.430493 0.315231
Cam Bedrosian LAA 54.1 3.3129 56 0.21256 0.286957 0.342995 0.273955
Matt Strahm SDP 33 3.2727 37 0.246032 0.285714 0.357143 0.270322
Ty Buttrey LAA 72.1 3.9816 84 0.247312 0.313916 0.376344 0.298269
Buck Farmer DET 65.2 3.7005 69 0.246914 0.32 0.423868 0.31252
Michael Lorenzen CIN 83.1 2.916 85 0.221498 0.289086 0.355049 0.27711
Stefan Crichton ARI 30.1 3.5604 33 0.20354 0.268293 0.309735 0.250184
Tim Hill KCR 39.2 3.6302 39 0.216783 0.3 0.335664 0.274955
Josh Taylor BOS 46.1 3.1079 60 0.22807 0.292553 0.345029 0.27493
Yoshihisa Hirano ARI 53 4.7547 61 0.24878 0.327586 0.395122 0.308376

To be honest, I had to look up a few of these guys. For the sake of keeping it simple, I’m starting at the top. I’ll number them in the hopes it’s easier to follow. I do often find myself on these meandering types of efforts. Feel free to skip around…the world is your oyster.

1. Oliver Pérez (CLE) is 38 years old, y’all. And still rocking it out. Last year’s 43.5% ground ball rate was the 2nd highest mark of his career. Back in 2014 he logged a 44.4% rate. Other than that, this is a guy with a career 33.9% rate. But in the last two seasons he’s sitting at 41.2% and 43.5%. Also in the last two years, Pérez’s swinging strike rates are the two best marks of his career, at 14.2% and 13.1%. But the three-batter minimum rule could have a negative impact, as righties get to him more. The shiny numbers from 2019 came from the split against lefty hitters, where he allowed a .207/.274/.333 slash. Against right-handed hitters it was a .286/.346/.543 slash. I don’t think Perez is a hidden gem for fantasy baseballers in 2020.

2. Mark Melancon helped stabilize the back of Atlanta’s bullpen last year. He finished 2019 with 12 saves, a 3.61 ERA, and 68 strikeouts over 67.1 innings. He enters 2020 as the de facto closing option for a sturdy Atlanta roster, but many have shied away from him due to the presence of stud lefty Will Smith (and to a lesser extent, former close Shane Greene). Currently, Smith is on the IL with COVID-19, but is reported to be asymptomatic. He is a lefty, though, and one of only two that the Braves are likely to trust (Sean Newcomb being the other). Seems to me like this bullpen would work best if Smith played the fireman’s role and Melancon held down the ninth inning. Meanwhile, Smith (183) and Melancon (181) are being drafted within two picks of each other per July NFBC ADP data. Of the two, I’d say Melancon’s solid skill set and projected role make him the best choice if you’re saves-hunting.

3. Ian Kennedy (ADP 177) is slated to close for the Royals, unless he gets traded sometime during the season. He was KC’s best choice by far last year, and I think he’s safe from a skills standpoint in Kansas City. It’s a potential trade you’d have to worry over. But he’s a fine second option as a closer to begin the season. You can figure it out from there.

4. Kirby Yates needs no introduction and is an elite closer for 2020. In most drafts he’s the second man off the board after Josh Hader. That’s even more likely now with a recent positive COVID-19 test by Aroldis Chapman.

5. Shane Greene is likely third in the pecking order for Atlanta, maybe. He could even be fourth, depending on how you view Luke Jackson. Still, it’s nice to see a pair of Braves relievers here. It should be a solid bridge at the end of games.

6. I don’t know what to do with Carlos Martinez. Will he start or close? The COVID-19 layoff has given Miles Mikolas a chance to recover. Martinez’s own COVID-19 test was delayed, too, which delayed his return to throwing. Jordan Hicks is closer to health, but isn’t expected to be ready for Opening Day. Add in the absence of Giovanny Gallegos due to travel concerns from Mexico, and it seems to me like Martinez is headed for the bullpen, at least to begin the season. If it’s a starter you’re searching for the vicinity of Martinez (ADP 168), allow me to direct you to Lance McCullers (ADP 163), Mike Minor (175), or Jake Odorizzi (179) instead.

7. Matt Andriese is a name I haven’t seen for a time. And with a career 4.58 ERA, there’s probably a good reason. Still, last year he had a career-high 50.3% ground ball rate and a career-best 10.06 K/9 out of the bullpen. Word from the street (i.e. the internets) is that the Angels could use him as a starting pitcher in 2020. That would read like a mistake given Andriese’s success as a reliever last year. The 4.71 ERA was ugly, but the 3.72 FIP (3.88 xFIP) tells a better story. And the 1.02 HR/9 over 70.2 innings was nice given the presence of the bouncy ball. This seems like more of a reaction to Julio Teheran’s continued absence from the team and the recent injury histories of Griffin Canning and Shohei Ohtani. If all are healthy, Andriese seems slated for a long relief role for the Halos. But who knows, maybe Andriese will pop up on a streaming report in the future…we’ll have to wait and see.

8. Adrian Houser popped up due to his part-time relief role of 2019, but in 2020 he’s expected to start for Milwaukee. Houser actually pitched 111.1 innings in 2019, so the bulk of his work was as a starting pitcher. We may as well compare the roles:

As SP: 24.2 K%, 7.5 BB%, 51.8 GB%, 20.7 HR/FB%
As RP: 28.7 K%, 9.6 BB%, 58.6 GB%, 11.1 HR/FB%

As a starter he wouldn’t have made the list due to being stung by the home run. But with an ADP in the 230s, Houser is a worthy risk to take given the skill set. It was only 80.2 innings as a starter in 2020, but the ground ball, strikeout, and walk rates were all above average. That, and his 0.93 HR/9 at home–compared to 1.29 HR/9 on the road–was encouraging. I’ll bite on him at his ADP.

9. Jairo Diaz has a career ground ball rate of 51.6%, so last year’s 49.4% mark wasn’t a fluke. He also set a career mark with a 14.3% swinging strike rate last year. In fact, Diaz had a career year across the board, making hitters chase more than ever (35.7%) and faring very well in contact rates allowed. He also lived in the zone and only walked hitters 7.8% of the time. I think the home run suppression is encouraging, too. Diaz’s career 20.6 HR/FB rate at home (Coors) isn’t good, but his 5.3% mark on the road certainly is. He’s behind Wade Davis and Scott Oberg for saves in Colorado–but you aren’t mining for relief help from a Colorado reliever that doesn’t have the closer’s role, are you? The thin air of Coors Field is one reason, and the advent of the NL DH is another. Keep tabs on Diaz in the event that Wade Davis falters. Other than that, he’s just a name to file away.

10. Cam Bedrosian is fourth in the pecking order for saves according to Roster Resource, after Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey, and Keynan Middleton. Maybe let’s just say that some of those leads by the Halos will be safe in 2020 and move on?

11. Matt Strahm is an interesting name after being a preseason darling a year ago. Bad news is he’s behind Kirby Yates, Drew Pomeranz, and Emilio Pagan for saves. Good news is he might be used a ton in 2020 given his ability to log multiple innings. Additional bad news is, he throws too many strikes? Yep, you heard me right. Strahm’s 49.3% zone rate was top in the majors last year (min. 100 innings). For reference, second place among MLB pitchers was Lucas Giolito, at 47.2%. The difference is that Giolito’s 69.6% contact rate (tied-7th) and 77.3% zone contact rate (3rd) were elite. But of the 130 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2019, Strahm’s 78.6% contact rate (tied-76th) and 84.0% zone contact rate (37th) weren’t anything special. Add in that he’s basically a fly ball pitcher (only 36.6% ground ball rate in 2019) and I’m not overly enthused. But he should have volume on his side, with the chance to poach some wins while serving as a bridge to Pagan-Pomeranz-Yates. At his ADP of 739, he’s a free square.

12. Ty Buttrey…the handcuff to Hansel Robles. See Bedrosian blurb above.

13. Buck Farmer is the handcuff to Joe Jimenez in Detroit. He is another arm who reduced his fastball usage last year, dropping from 57.6% (2018) to 48.9% (2019). He also beefed up the use of his curveball, from 11.9% to 25.2%. And actually, from what I can gather it’s a slider/curve hybrid. But whatever the name, hitters slashed .176/.185/.275 against the pitch in 2019 and it had a 36.4% whiff rate. Farmer’s changeup is also elite, with hitters slashing .195/.259/.260 against it in 2019, with a 29.1% whiff rate. Given that his heater remained ineffective in 2019, Farmer reads like another guy who could benefit from “pitching backwards.” That said, he’s never mustered a save in his career, and incumbent closer Joe Jimenez reportedly shed 15 pounds during the quarantine. Farmer’s a dark horse saves guy, but not someone I’d be using a roster spot on given that he’ll most often be deployed for just a single inning. He plays on a bad team, too–it’s not like you’re expecting him to fall into bunches of wins. Like Strahm, he’s just another name to file away.

14. Michael Lorenzen enters 2020 as the setup man to Raisel Iglesias, in a bullpen that also features stud lefty Amir Garrett. Lorenzen’s calling card in 2019 was weak contact, ranking inside the top 3% of the league with a 3.1% barrel rate and inside the top 1% with an average exit velocity of 84.5 MPH. His 29.7% hard hit rate was inside the top 7%. His 13.9% swinging strike rate was the best mark of his career, as was the 78.7% zone contact rate and 33.3% chase rate. In short, the speedy two-way player had a helluva a 2019. If Iglesias falters as the closer, Lorenzen is a shoo-in for closer duties. He’s being drafted around other backups like Matt Barnes and Rafael Montero…but those guys didn’t make it on this list, did they?

15. Stefan Crichton was an Orioles draft choice out of Texas Christian, but he was shelled in his first taste of the bigs in 2017. An 8.03 ERA, lowly 5.84 K/9, and a poor 1.46 HR/9 was the output in that brief stint for Baltimore. Go figure, Crichton latched on with Arizona and promptly hurled 30.1 innings of quality ball, with a 3.56 ERA and 33 strikeouts to his name. He allowed only eight walks and 23 hits, and was money down the stretch with 11 of his 13 September appearances of the scoreless variety. He’s a middle relief option, though, as multiple D-backs would probably get the nod at closer prior to Crichton.

16. Tim Hill is a southpaw on top of being a worm-killer (career 59.8% ground ball rate). He’s likely behind Ian Kennedy, Scott Barlow, and Trevor Rosenthal for saves chances in Kansas City. Plus, this isn’t a team we expect to garner many chances, anyway. Anyway, he used a four-seamer more in 2019, and the pitch had some hefty success with a 42.0% whiff rate and .114 ISO. In contrast, his sinker had a 7.7% whiff rate and 9.0% walk rate, which was just ghastly. Still, he kept the ball in the yard and didn’t walk hitters, something he’s done in both of his MLB seasons. And he beefed up his strikeout rate, from 21.2% to 24.2% (supported by growth in his swinging strike rate, from 8.1% to 9.0%). He’s a name to monitor, and for more than one reason. Hill has something called Lynch syndrome, which increases the chances of many types of cancer, including colon cancer–which Hill endured successfully in 2015 after being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. For what it’s worth, Hill has expressed his intent to play in 2020.

17. Josh Taylor has tested positive for COVID-19, is a lefty, and is behind Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes in the closer pecking order, at least. Still, his 15.1% swinging strike rate and 35.1% chase rates from 2019 were elite, making for quite the debut last year. The 27-year-old is a name to monitor, but it’s possible the positive test means he won’t be ready for the Opening Day roster. Let’s all just focus on rooting for a speedy return to the field for this promising rookie, eh?

18. Yoshihisa Hirano is now a Seattle Mariner. The former D-back is projected as the setup man to Matt Magill in 2020. Magill acquitted himself well in 2019, but Hirano is a quality reliever in his own right. In his second season as an MLB pitcher last year, Hirano beefed up his swinging strike rate (12.2% to 14.2%), decreased his contact rate allowed (74.3% to 70.2%), and beefed up his chase rate (32.8% to 36.8%). His splitter was his most effective pitch in 2018, so in 2019 he threw the splitter more than the four-seamer. A worm-killing 61.7% ground ball rate and 28.4% strikeout rate on the pitch are encouraging. Hirano is being drafted among backup closers like Aaron Bummer and Jose Alvarado, right where he belongs. And no offense to Matt Magill, but I think Hirano has a better chance at saves than those two guys.

In conclusion, Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy could be solid values this year based on some depressed ADPs. Carlos Martinez is still an excellent pitcher–and he’s looking good in Spring Training 2.0–but concerns about his role are founded, as he could begin the year in the bullpen. I like Adrian Houser even more as a part of my fantasy rotations, and Matt Strahm is a dark horse candidate to log significant innings in a wonky 2020. Buck Farmer, Michael Lorenzen, and Yoshi Hirano are quality handcuffs to know, with Hirano looking the most likely to see some save opportunities in 2020.

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