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August 26, 2013 posted by Matthew Dewoskin

Fantasy Baseball Lies, Damn Lies and Advanced Metrics: The Relief Pitcher Edition

Fantasy Baseball Lies, Damn Lies and Advanced Metrics: The Relief Pitcher Edition
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If starting pitchers are risky, relief pitchers are essentially lottery tickets. Relievers don’t get the massive sample sizes that starters get. Sample sizes tend to even out over time which makes a bad run by a starter a little easier to swallow. Relievers don’t have that luxury They live in small sample sizes. Small samples are notoriously unreliable which makes actually evaluating relievers an inexact study at best.

A quality relief pitcher can turn into waiver wire fodder with just a few bounces or fly balls. Problems are created for fantasy GMs when relievers fail. There are only 30 closers at any given time, but 90 starting outfielders. It’s a lot harder to find a relief pitcher capable of helping with saves than it is to find an outfielder, an infielder or even a starting pitcher.

Greg Holland is the best relief pitcher in both real life and fantasy baseball and he almost lost his job in early April. Holland is the clubhouse leader among relief pitchers with a 2.6 WAR. He has a lower K/9 than Aroldis Chapman, but actually owns a higher K% with a 41.3% rate compared to Chapman at 41.1%. His actual ERA is less than half of Chapman’s and his 1.40 xFIP indicates that his 1.41 actual ERA isn’t low BABIP or defense driven. Striking out 41.3% of batters faced goes a long way in helping team defense.

Craig Kimbrel gets the headlines and accolades, but it’s Holland that’s having a better season according to most of the measurables…and he almost lost his job to Kelvin Herrera back in early April. People were actually calling for Holland to take a back seat to Kelvin Herrera. Herrera is a solid reliever, but he walks too many (10.0% BB %) and is prone to giving up homers (nine homers in 50.0 innings with a 22.5% HR:FB ratio).

The guy right behind Holland in the WAR standings is Boston closer Koji Uehara. Uehara started the season as the third option in the Boston bullpen. He was barely on the radar for saves heading into the 2013 season and here he is putting together an amazing season.

Years of abuse in Japan has sapped much of Uehara’s velocity, but his splitter is absolutely devastating. He’s allowing a .112 batting average against his splitter. Uehara is in the middle of an amazing three-year run as a reliever. He’s posted LOB%’s over 90% for each of the past three years with BABIPs of .196, .200 and .203. He’s also doing this in his age 36-38 seasons. Three years means its more than just luck.

Speaking of guys who people thought would lose his job, Jose Veras, ladies and gentlemen! Veras spent most of the spring at the very bottom of most rankings sheets. He was placed behind such names as Bruce Rondon, Ryan Cook and Carlos Marmol. Veras was a punchline. Drafting Veras meant you either forgot to draft a closer earlier or were a part of his immediate family.

Jose Veras K % has slipped to 23.9%. That number is the lowest he’s posted since a painfully mediocre 2009 season, but his BB % has fallen to 9.2%. That’s his career low at the major league level. Veras has also gotten by with a lot of help. He owns a .182 BA against with a .225 BABIP. He owns a .264 BABIP for his career which is partially driven by his 41.1% FB %. Veras owns a 43.9% rate for the 2013 season. His 78.9% LOB % is also above his 74.9% career average. This is essentially Jose Veras best case scenario. It’s a good idea to remember that after he signs with whichever mediocre team in the off-season and has a closer job heading into 2014. He only kept the job as long as he did because Houston simply didn’t have anyone else.

It’s impossible to write a sabrmetrics column about relief pitchers without bringing up Jim Johnson. Johnson should just be given the nickname, “The Outlier” and be done with it. Johnson could possibly follow up his improbable, 51-save 2012 campaign with a second improbable 50ish-save season in 2013. The difference in 2013 is that Johnson is getting saves without the help of the luck dragon that he clung to like a blanket after a nightmare.

Johnson enjoyed a .251 BABIP in 2012 with a GB:FB ratio of 2.93. He’s still posting a GB:FB ratio over 2.00 in 2013, but his line drive % (20.1%) and BABIP (.323) have both shot up. His HR:FB ratio has almost doubled from 6.8% in 2012 to 12.5% in 2013. He’s also blown nine saves in 2013 after blowing only three in 2012.

His skills are essentially the same, but the results are slightly different because he was due for a regression back towards his career average. Johnson has been the same mediocre reliever all along, but he was able to enjoy a statistical variance thanks in part to a painfully small sample size. He’s probably going to keep his job into 2014 and will probably continue to pick up saves until the Orioles decide they don’t want him to any more…or they find someone with a better skill set.

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