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Those of us who have played in NL or AL-only leagues have known it for years, but middle relievers have largely gone ignored in most mixed leagues. It’s understandable in some ways. They don’t get the strikeouts or wins that good starting pitchers do. They don’t rack up the saves like the more heralded closers do. And with relatively low innings totals their effect on ERA and WHIP wouldn’t seem to help all that much. Conventional wisdom says middle relievers just don’t have a place in a typical 12-team mixed league.

I’d like to take this opportunity to tell conventional wisdom where to go with its false assumptions.

5 Reasons to Draft Middle Relievers in Your Mixed League

1. Middle relievers have quantifiable value

No they don’t get 15 wins or 30-plus saves, but you can’t ignore the numbers they do provide. Let’s take the example of failed starter Wade Davis. He has had shots at the starting rotation in both Tampa Bay and Kansas City and it wasn’t pretty. Toss him in the pen and it’s a different story. In 2014 he only threw 69.3 innings, but in those innings he put up a 1.00 ERA and 0.847 WHIP. He also tossed in 109 strikeouts nine wins, and three saves. Obviously the wins are hard to predict, but even when you take those away there is value in that line. In fact there are quite a few middle relievers producing that kind of value.

 

A typical 12-team league uses 108 pitchers at any given time. In 2014 there were 12-13 middle relievers among the top 108 pitchers using a typical 5 X 5 scoring format.  There were also a handful more just outside who could have been used during the frequent DL stints that we see during the season. This isn’t just a subjective ranking. This is verifiable math used to calculate player value. Too many fantasy players spend their time watching Sportscenter and don’t realize what value actually is in fantasy baseball.

2. Middle relievers maximize the value of your best pitchers

Using middle relievers is one way to “game” the system. In 5 X 5 leagues, ERA and WHIP are 40 percent of the points you can earn in the pitching categories. Besides the help that good relievers give you in these areas, their lack of innings pitched also means the bulk of your ERA and WHIP stats are being provided by your best starting pitchers. While other teams paid for six or seven starting pitchers, a few of which might actually hurt ERA and WHIP, you can invest in two top starters and easily dominate two of the five pitching categories.

Of course you’re going to struggle in wins and strikeouts, but maybe not as much as you think. Especially early in the season when starters don’t pitch as late into games, relievers tend to vulture more wins and pile up Ks, while the starters are getting stretched. More on using middle relievers early in the season with reason No. 3.


3. Middle Relievers provide evaluation time for your pitching sleepers

Everyone and their brother is telling you to wait on pitching; that there is plenty of pitching out there, even in the late rounds of your draft. I agree completely, but there are pitfalls with this strategy. You can definitely find value in the end-game, but there is a reason these pitchers were still there in round 22. They typically carry huge risk. For every Scott Kazmir or Tanner Roark that gives you decent results, there’s an Clay Buchholz or Travis Wood that blows up in your face. I’m always digging around for pitching gold and my ego says I’ll find it, but adding one or two good middle relievers let’s me keep my sleepers in reserve until they prove their worth. So the middle relievers help give me a solid base in ERA and WHIP, allow my overall stats to be based on my best pitchers, and now they provide a safety net in case my high risk pitchers don’t pan out.

4. Middle relievers become closers

Sometimes we have a good idea of just who the closers of the future are, but the list of saves leaders for 2014 is littered with relievers that weren’t exactly next in line. I’m sure you were all over Hecto Rondon and Francisco Rodriguez in last year’s drafts, right? And you knew Zach  Britton was going to end the season as one of baseball’s best closers. A couple of years ago pitchers like Glen Perkins, Mark Melancon, Cody Allen, and Steve Cishek were just middle relievers with no perceived fantasy value. At some point they turned into closers. So while more owners are going to be prospecting the obvious “next in line” types, you might luck into saves just by rostering good middle relievers.

5. Innings eaters have negative value

In my opinion the most common mistake in fantasy baseball is the overuse of lower level starting pitchers. Fantasy owners are chasing wins, but in the process give away precious points in the standings. I think the main problem is that few owners actually know how player valuation works. They see a pitcher like Bartolo Colon or Jeremy Guthrie pile up double-digit wins and jump all over that “value” in round 23. What they don’t realize or underestimate, is that pitchers can have negative value. Any pitcher with a WHIP or ERA below that of your league average actually takes value away from your team.

I’ll use one 12-team mixed league I was in last year as an example. The average ERA at the end of the season was 3.286. The average WHIP was 1.186. There are a ton of starting pitchers below these levels and they all had negative value in those categories. Some of those pitchers more than made up for it with 150-plus strikeouts, but pitchers like Guthrie, Colon, Ricky Porcello, and even Tim Lincecum don’t have all that many more strikeouts than most good middle relievers.

You’d be surprised at the pitchers who lose value due to below league average ERA and WHIP. Shelby Miller had a good second half but his less-than-stellar rate stats gave him the same value as Dominic Leone (who?). Jarred Cosart gained a reputation as an unspectacular but reliable innings-eater type. His value? Less than Dan Otero. You get the idea. You can stomach a slightly elevated ERA or WHIP if it comes with other skills, but if you’re sinking down to that next level, a middle reliever is usually a better choice.

Top Secret Bonus Reason

Middle relievers have secret magical value

Don’t believe me? Try this on for size. Mitch Moreland and Chris Giminez both pitched one inning for the Rangers in 2014 without giving up a run, a hit or a walk. By whatever method you use to value players, they had absolutely zero fantasy value as pitchers (or hitters for that matter). But what happened if you built a complete pitching staff of these guys (not recommended)? You’d lead your league in ERA and WHIP is what would happen. In a 12-team league that’s 24 points of value that magically appeared. Now I realize that we have innings pitched minimums and other considerations to take into account, but the principle stands. Middle relievers offer an opportunity to exploit the predominant scoring categories used in fantasy baseball.

I guess the lesson here is to know the damage that bad starting pitchers can do, and with pitching on an uphill trend, that means “bad” may not be as obvious. A few years back a 4.00 ERA might not do that much damage. Now with more starting pitchers putting up low 3.00 ERAs and below, that same 4.00 is a huge detriment. Use the innings eater types later in the season if you have points to gain in wins or strikeouts, but if you’re settling for the Joe Saunders and Kyle Kendricks of the fantasy world, you might want to turn to the Kelvin Herreras instead.

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