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February 14, 2013 posted by Albert Lang

2013 Fantasy Baseball Head-to-Head Relief Pitchers Rankings & Preview

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For a brief tutorial on how to use my head-to-head ranks, please visit here. For all of my in-depth rankings breakdowns, please visit http://fp911.com/author/albertlang/. For spreadsheets of rankings visit here.

In the explanation of the rankings, I outline my strategy toward closers. I typically believe in quantity over quality and really value relievers who can bring the strike-outs. In a heated week an extra 1-2 K’s from each closer really adds up. Not surprisingly, this leads me to rank several closers a bit higher than I would in roto (given their wonky ratios)—most notably, John Axford (#5 RP) and Carlos Marmol (#6 RP).

Axford is a good buy in 2013, given his abysmal 2012. With his complete control meltdown, Axford’s career BB% rests at 10.9%. Only 26 qualified relievers put up a BB% worse than his career mark last season. To be fair, Axford was quite good at getting ahead of hitters and not walking them in 2011 – the ability just escaped him in 2012.unfortunately, there wasn’t much difference in pitch selection between his career, 2011 or 2012 – making his control in 2011 look like the outlier.

In reality, Axford was always the type of reliever who could pair delicious K’s with an unstable walk rate. That can work fine for the right reliever – but not when 20% of fly balls become home runs, which is what happened last season. With that many HRs, his strand rate plummeted to 68.2%. In short, Axford got incredibly unlucky or just became a belly-itcher. While the walks make you nervous, it was really the homers that were the problem and that is something that shouldn’t continue given his track record. Axford should bounce back in 2013 and be a solid buy: 88 K’s, 3.10 ERA and 1.30 WHIP.

I’ve been a Marmol apologist and zealot for too long now – the siren’s call from his 2010 (140 K’s!) is still lingering between my ear drums. In addition, since that season, among qualified relievers he has the most K’s and fourth best K%. Of course, he has the worst BB%. However, his ERA (aided by 2010) is just 3.30 and his FIP is 3.08. The problem with 2012, for Marmol, was a 47.3% first-strike rate, which was well below his career line (53.1%) and recent history (62.7% in 2010 and 52.3% in 2011) – that lead to a near-20 BB%. He also got less swinging strikes despite ratcheting his average fastball velocity up to the mid-90s.

Because he fell behind early in counts (or because he was injured), Marmol couldn’t use his slider as much – 2012 was the first season of his career that he threw more fourseamers than sliders and he had a near 2:1 slider:fastball ratio in 2011. While the velocity is nice on his heater, Marmol makes his K’s with his slider. It’s a bit of a concern that all those sliders (2,299 sliders since 2010) and innings (313 from 08-11) might be wearing (or have worn) Marmol down. Still, Marmol should come cheap with Kyuji Fujikawa’s shadow lurking and Marmol’s horrible 2012. That gives him considerable value – you shouldn’t be able to get an 80+ K reliever with saves potential at the tail end of the draft. While he probably won’t end the year as a closer (if he looks good the Cubs will deal him), 10-15 saves and all those K’s are solid value late and there’s always a chance. His WHIP will hurt (1.39), but his ERA (3.55) won’t be that bad—and the price is right.

Maybe it’s his last name, but Grant Balfour (#15 RP), doesn’t get much respect. In reality, he’s been one of the more durable and solid relievers since 2008 (he has averaged 64 innings and 68 K’s and posted a 2.78 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 2.77 K:BB rate). Superficially, his 2012 was outstanding: 2.53 ERA, but he did have a 5.3% HR/FB rate and .201 BABIP. His 2011 BABIP was .232 and his career HR/FB rate is 7.4%, so even if those numbers regress a bit, they don’t have a huge downward spiral. If you wanted, you could worry about a slight increase in his BB% last season (it has gone up three years in a row) but his first-strike rate has remained relatively constant and he actually upped his swinging strike rate after a dismal performance in 2011. The only real concern with Balfour is how his team views him. It does appear the A’s view relievers as somewhat interchangeable commodities. So, if they can get a solid return on him, they’d have no problems moving Balfour. A trade could clearly take away closing duties (although he’d be fine in holds leagues). The biggest detriment would be if he landed in a smaller park, as he has benefited from Tampa and Oakland throughout his career. Balfour is by no means a groundball pitcher. If you could guarantee he’d be in Oakland all year, he’d be an incredible value (based on early draft returns). Unfortunately, nothing in life is guaranteed, so he’s a back end fantasy option, albeit one with upside (and his upside is even higher in saves + holds leagues).

Greg Holland (#17 RP) got off to a tremendously rough start to 2012 (at the end of April, his ERA was 11.37 and he had allowed a .406/.472/.531 line). He then spent some time on the DL and came back like gangbusters: 60 appearances, 60.2 IPs, 81 K’s, 30 BBs, and 2.08 ERA. Among qualified relievers last season, Holland tied for 13th (with Tim Collins) in K% and was seventh in FIP.

Holland tends to walk a few too many batters (11.8 BB% last season) and he had a wretched first-strike rate last season. However, several relievers have made a similar K% and BB% work in the past. Fourteen qualified relievers had a K% between 26.8-36.4 and a BB% rate between 9.5-18.2. Of these, four (Louis Coleman, Brad Brach, Steve Delabar and John Axford) had a FIP over 4.00, another three (Carlos Marmol, Boone Logan and Ernesto Frieri) had a FIP of 3.50-3.99 and seven (i.e., half) had a FIP below 3.49. Holland is by no means a sure thing, but he has shown the ability in the past to post better BB% and first-strike rates. With a modicum of improvement, his WHIP should come down to the 1.25-1.30 range. He’ll add 80-90 K’s and a 3.10 ERA (at worst), making him one of the best closer values in all of baseball.

Non-closer Values

The Tigers bullpen is a mess. Phil Coke is a LOOGY. Octavio Dotel is a ROOGY. Al Alburquerque (#96 RP) had an interesting debut in 2011, he fooled major leaguers at great rates, but also walked them at great rates – it appeared he (and obviously the batter) had no clue where a pitch was going to end up. He battled through injuries in 2012 to throw 26 innings, with an improved BB%. However, that’s a real small sample and it’s hard to tell if he’ll ever really be able to throw strikes. For what it’s worth, he has managed a 1.59 ERA, 2.11 FIP and 1.13 WHIP across 56.2 MLB innings, despite a 15.7 BB%. Alburquerque makes a nice speculative grab in drafts, as, certainly, he has the chance to be better than Dotel and Coke. You know you’ll get K’s as well, but it’ll be a wild ride—think of Alburquerque’s best case scenario as the next Carlos Marmol.

Meanwhile, the Tigers seem to want Bruce Rondon (#39 RP) to win the job. He comes with a big fast ball and K-rate, but an equally scary BB%. He is just 22 and hasn’t topped 55 innings since 2008 (although he added 17 Venezuela Winter League appearances to his 2012 ledger). He really only has the fastball, the command is shaky and he is a husky guy – there is a possibility he won’t be able to find the plate and/or can’t handle the rigors of a 65 inning major league season. Unless it’s a keeper/dynasty league, pass on Rondon.

The real gem in the Tigers pen is Joaquin Benoit (#34 RP). Among qualified relievers since 2010, Benoit has the 17th best K%, is tied for the 28th best BB%, and, while he has a bit of a brittle tag, is tied for the 26th most innings. In short, the Tigers have, basically, one of the 25 best relievers of the past three years on their squad. If you’re betting on someone to end up with the most saves, bet on Benoit. He should be drafted over every reliever currently on the Tigers. He’ll finish with a 3.05 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 74 K’s.

In reality, I’d avoid the Tigers situation. There are too many options with too many warts to make an investment – are you really going to grab Rondon and/or Alburquerque and/or Benoit? If it is late in the draft and no one is calling to you, sure grab one. I almost always go after skills in that position and I’m most certain Benoit will be in the majors all year and be fantastic. It wouldn’t shock me if the other two pitchers don’t reach 45 MLB innings.

It has been a meandering 10 year career for Jason Grilli. He experienced his first real success last year: fourth best K%, fifth best SIERA, 21st best FIP (among relievers). Grilli gained a touch of velocity, threw his fastball a ton more, and generated 14.4% swinging strikes. There isn’t much to go on with Grilli, he wasn’t obviously lucky (.309 BABIP, 12.3% HR/FB rate) and the 90 K’s were spectacular. However, banking on a 36-year-old renaissance seems somewhat difficult. If you’re looking to draft Grilli be happy with 57 innings, 62 K’s, a 3.30 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. He didn’t really get ahead of hitters (57.4% first-strike rate), which could be troublesome. There are just a few too many questions around Grilli without any answers for me to invest.

If I’m down on Grilli, I have to be up on Mark Melancon (#42 RP). Melancon finished April (and the majors) with a 49.5 ERA after just four miserable performances in 2012. He returned to the majors on June 11 and pitched somewhat well: 43 IPs, 4.19 ERA, and 40:10 K:BB rate – batters hit .217/.274/.323. If you look under the hood, you see a bit of wonkiness in Melancon’s 2012: 59.4% strand rate and 22.2% HR/FB rate – some of that has to do with the harder league and Fenway Park, but they are just ridiculously high rates. In addition, the harder league struck out just as often as the easier league and Melancon actually limited his walks, dropping his BB% to a healthy 6.2%. Lastly, his swinging strike and first pitch strike percentages were all in line with his career norms. With the move back to the NL, he became a really solid holds candidate with saves upside. Melancon shouldn’t hurt you either: 3.25 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 65 K’s.

While I like Balfour, you can’t just ignore the trade possibility. Ryan Cook (#88 RP) is good enough to step in, but you worry about his poor first-strike rate and how he wore down over the course of 2012. Meanwhile, Sean Doolittle (#91 RP) was amazing last season: 31.4 K%, 5.8 BB%, 12.5% swinging strikes, 66.5% first strike, and 2.08 FIP. What’s better is the lefty hasn’t demonstrated any sort of platoon split (albeit in a small amount of MLB innings). Doolittle was once a corner prospect who has shown to be a bit of a fly ball pitcher – something that can be masked by his home ballpark but also by his height (he is 6’3 and should be able to throw the ball down better as he acclimates to pitching). Doolittle’s 2013 value is really all about the amount of IPs he can get in the majors. He should be good for a 10 K/9 rate, a solid 2.66 BB/9 rate and impeccable ratios. It might not be long before Doolittle is the best reliever in the A’s pen.

Aside from Glen Perkins, the Twins don’t really have a good reliever. In reality, the eighth inning role could be up for grabs when Jared Burton, Alex Burnett and Josh Roenicke scuffle. Enter Casey Fien (#115 RP). It was a long road to the majors for Fien, who has been put on waivers or released five times since 2010. He found his way to 71 innings across AAA and the MLB level for the Twins and looked pretty decent with a 22 K% and 7.0 BB%. In his first real stint at AAA (in 2009) Fien posted a good 28.2 K% and 6.4 BB% but has had some trouble duplicating that success over a significant sample. He’s 30 now and the time is ticking – but he’s in a place to succeed. He should have, legitimately, the second best K% in the pen and doesn’t walk too many batters either. If he’s given the opportunity, Fien could work his way to a 3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 55 K’s.

While there is some value at the top of the Angels pen, Ryan Madson is coming back from an injury and Ernesto Frieri has shown a propensity to walk people and give up HRs, which in combination could get him yanked from high leverage duties quickly (Exhibit A: Jordan Walden, 2012). Kevin Jepsen (#172 RP), a bit buried behind Madson, Frieri and Scott Downs had an underrated 2012. He suddenly found the plate, posting a 6.7 BB%, which mirrors his minor league track record. In addition, he had a nice 21.4 K% (although his swinging strike rate doesn’t exactly match up with that). If Jepsen is capable of finding the zone with the same frequency, you’re looking at a 65 K reliever with a 3.40 ERA. With a few stumbles above him, Jepsen could be a closer.

For more in-depth coverage of almost every relevant reliever in baseball, please go to my 2013 Fantasy Baseball Reliever Guide, which is available for free alongside the Fantasy Fix draft guide, but will be free to all sometime in March.

In addition, I covered some really deep fantasy baseball league relief finds here and here, including Rhiner Cruz, Kelvin Herrera, Carter Capps, Esmil Rogers, Junichi Tazawa, Jake McGee, Tommy Hunter, Cory Burns, A.J. Ramos, Fernando Salas, Josh Edgin, Nick Vincent, Brad Brach, Zach Stewart, Chris Leroux, Raul Valdes, and Adam Ottavino.

Albert has been playing and arguing about baseball and fantasy sports since 2002. Since 1982, he has also been largely miserable (here’s looking at you Armando Benitez) because of the Orioles and Eagles. Albert has won leagues and lost leagues, but he has the most fun debating player values. Albert typically plays in several baseball and football leagues a year. He also is an avid baseball card collector and writes about older players and their historical value relative to the Hall of Fame and their peers/current players. When not harassing league mates with trades and analyzing what categories his team performs poorly in, Albert is a communications professional in Washington, D.C. Follow Albert on Twitter @h2h_corner. He has an awesome puppy named Charlotte. You can find all of Albert's work at http://h2hcorner.wordpress.com/.
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