The Spin: Move over, starters — why relievers are becoming the fantasy baseball pitchers to prioritize

Reed Garrett #75 of the New York Mets

Reed Garrett had one heck of a fantasy baseball week. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

We’ve spent most of this spring talking about how to save the starting pitcher in baseball. But maybe fantasy managers should have de-emphasized them — or perhaps even ignored them — at the draft table.

The Spin check-in coming off the weekend. (Banner by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)The Spin check-in coming off the weekend. (Banner by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

The Spin check-in coming off the weekend. (Banner by Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

Relief pitchers are quietly taking a bigger chunk of the fantasy baseball landscape. It isn’t always sexy, but in this game, we just want the numbers. And the recent trends are hard to ignore.

Consider what happened last week, when five of the nine most impactful fantasy pitchers (considering 5×5 value) were relievers:

  • Kirby Yates had a win, three saves, five scoreless innings

  • Reed Garrett had two wins and a save, 10 strikeouts, four innings without an earned run

  • Craig Kimbrel, Kyle Finnegan and Joel Payamps each had a win and two saves, with zero earned runs. Kimbrel and Finnegan didn’t allow a baserunner.

If you want a more global view, consider the list of Yahoo MVPs, the players who show up most often on the 500 best Yahoo public teams this season.

  • Kimbrel is third

  • Kevin Ginkel is 10th

  • Jason Foley is 12th

  • Robert Suarez is 14th

  • Ryan Helsley is 15th

  • Finnegan is 20th

  • Clay Holmes is 26th

  • Ranger Suarez is 28th

That’s eight relievers (in this case, all closers) in the top 28.

Sure, the MVP list has a type. If you can acquire a closing reliever at an inexpensive draft-day cost — or grab him as a waiver-wire pickup — you’re gaining massive equity. Foley’s value showed on Opening Day and he’s since chased up to 81% rostered (here’s hoping his recent velocity dip is not a problem). We also learned on Opening Day that José Leclerc was likely in trouble; that has led to Yates rising in value. David Robertson has also been good in Texas, though Yates beat him to the closer chair.

This is similar to the fantasy football goal — to find running-back royalty in the middle rounds, the late rounds or on the wire. Drafting Raheem Mostert in the late rounds was the simplest path to fantasy football glory last year. And unlike, say, Christian McCaffrey, Mostert was available to anyone, no matter the slot.

I don’t want to act like starting pitchers are without value. That top 28 on the MVP list we talked about — that group also includes seven starters. Managers who spent a mid-round pick on Bryce Miller (grabbing a piece of a great rotation in a roomy park), José Berrios (classic Ibañez All-Star, the boring-value vet) or Shota Imanaga (the more affordable alternative to Yoshinobu Yamamoto) have a constant bounce in their step.

But a lot of injury risk is part of the starting-pitcher investment, and the lower end of the market might be best ignored. Non-star pitchers will often get pulled after two trips through the opposing lineup. MLB managers think nothing of removing a pitcher in the middle of the fifth inning, even if a potential pitcher win is on the line. Managing to modern equity is in. Managing to safeguard someone’s win is out.

One of the great things about fantasy sports is divergence of style. Ron Shandler hit a grand slam when he debuted the LIMA Plan in 1998, which is all about finding inexpensive starting pitchers who have the potential to break out. And some industry players have decided that no starting pitching is a way to chase a title. Baseball HQ’s Doug Dennis has used this strategy multiple times en route to AL Tout Wars championships. I believe Alex Patton ran something similar in the early days of fantasy baseball. Sometime in the 2010s, I drafted zero starting pitchers in the Yahoo Friends & Family Draft, though I assembled a staff in-season (highlighted by trading Miguel Cabrera for Clayton Kershaw around the All-Star break) and somehow led the league in wins. I also finished first.

Razzball’s Grey Albright ran a no-starter strategy at this year’s NL-Only Tout Wars salary cap draft, taking a page from the Dennis strategy. The goal is to get closers and dynamic ratios, and dominate the hitting — hoping that makes up for the categories you’ll punt. I was sitting next to Grey and I’ll sheepishly admit I never noticed his strategy. Maybe it was the fast pace of the process. Maybe it was the stomach flu that I was dealing with that day. (The fact that I emerged with a competitive team in that league, given the challenges of the day, feels like a miracle. I know, it’s early.)

Grey’s team hasn’t popped yet in NL Tout, not that April standings mean much. My team made a move last week and was in second when the smoke cleared. The aforementioned Garrett was the hero, with those two wins and the save and those pretty 10 strikeouts. And mediocre starting pitcher Adrian Houser was the Sunday goat; I hate myself for letting him start against the Dodgers.

I quickly fixed that error, of course. Over the weekend, I cut Houser and added Bryse Wilson, an unheralded but effective non-closing reliever for the Brewers.

Obviously, every fantasy league is different — different rules, different managers, different trends and styles and patterns. You have to play to your environment. Although Garrett fits a pattern I seek out every year — a fire-breathing reliever who comes out of nowhere early, usually identifiable through a killer K/BB rate; think Nick Anderson in 2019 — I also know his story could pumpkin at any time.

Mind you, when it does, I’ll simply start looking for the next Reed Garrett.

In one of my head-to-head leagues Monday morning, Adbert Alzolay was dropped with Justin Slaten added (Boston wipeout reliever, perhaps a future closer). Héctor Neris, the likely closing replacement for the struggling Alzolay, has been a hot Yahoo pickup. Payamps is part of a committee in Milwaukee, probably, but he should be at the front of that committee. Hunter Harvey isn’t closing in Washington, but that glittering K/BB rate (18 whiffs, one walk) must be respected.

As always, you know your league better than an outsider does. Your mileage will vary. Most save-grabbers are valuable in all fantasy formats; non-closing relievers might not hold value in some head-to-head formats. It’s for you to decide.

Just acknowledge the shape of baseball is changing. And get to the ballpark early — tonight’s starting pitcher might not be around very long.

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