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Sleepers and Busts

Identifying Fantasy Baseball Sleepers: Relief Pitchers

Buck Davidson explains how he identifies sleepers in the bullpen.

Sleepers in the bullpen

The cyber-ink was barely dry on my recent Relief Pitcher Sleepers article when someone posed the question of how to go about identifying a potential sleeper. While there’s no set method for doing this, I thought I would share my thought process for evaluating a reliever’s potential to make a Fantasy impact at some point during the season. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to talk about the specific situation of trying to find a potential future closer – and there are plenty of factors that go into determining when that “future” becomes the present.

I’ve put together a list of the factors I typically take into account when assessing a reliever’s sleeper potential. I have no doubt that many experienced players out there go about it differently, and I respect that. This is what has worked for me over the years; hopefully some or all of these can help you win a league or three this season. There are two main aspects that I take into account when looking for a sleeper closer: Opportunity and Talent.

Identifying Opportunities in the Bullpen

The best closer in the world is no good to us if he never gets a chance to work the ninth inning, so the first step in my analysis is determining where the opportunities may lie.

Bullpen stability: Is the current closer rock-solid and healthy? If so, it may pay to identify an obvious “understudy” who would step in if the main man were to go down with an injury. Fantasy Footballers know this as “handcuffing”, and it could come in, ahem, handy as your draft enters its final rounds.

Player movement: Was a team’s closer traded or lost to free agency during the offseason? Was he replaced? Toronto is an example of a team whose bullpen is truly in flux right now, with no clear No. 1 option. Opportunities abound here, and if anyone emerges as a bona fide closer, he should receive plenty of save chances pitching in front of what looks to be a powerful offense. Is there an injury to be dealt with? Oakland and Tampa Bay are both dealing with an injured closer right now, which presents at least some short-term Fantasy potential for those teams’ top set-up men.

Intangibles: If the team’s current closer is shaky, but he was a high-priced free-agent signing or is a veteran of many seasons in the closer’s role, the manager will likely give that pitcher a bit more leeway to work his way through his struggles before making a change. Look no further than Joe Nathan’s current situation in Detroit to see this concept in action. A manager on the “hot seat” might be more apt to make a change in the ninth inning in the interest of preserving his job, so take that into account as well.

Bullpen “pecking order”: Managers tend to follow a “good/better/best” progression in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, so the top candidate to supplant a struggling closer is typically the current eighth-inning guy. If the season hasn’t yet started, check out the box scores from September of the prior year; how did things line up in close games? If there’s someone new in the mix, where did he pitch for his old team?

Is the pitcher you’re evaluating right-handed or left-handed? Managers tend to prefer right-handed closers; in theory, this is to gain the “righty-vs.-righty” split advantage against the majority of hitters. None of the top 20 active career saves leaders are left-handers, and only two of the top 30 are southpaws. Four of the top 25 saves producers in 2014 were lefties, but only two of those (Aroldis Chapman and Glen Perkins) opened the season as their team’s theoretical No. 1 closer (Chapman was on the DL at the time). Beware of LOOGYs (Lefty-Only One-Out Guys) who serve as specialists against southpaw batters; they may often pitch in high-leverage situations, but they leave the game as soon as a right-handed batter comes to the plate. Obviously, LOOGYs are not good candidates to be closers, even though their numbers may look very good at first glance.

Platoon splits: A pitcher who struggles against lefties or righties will have difficulties as a closer, as the opposing manager will make the necessary moves to line him up against as many weak-side hitters as possible. This information is easy to find, and it’s something you should take into account when assessing a reliever’s closer potential.

Spotting Talent in the Pen

The next list deals with identifying that elusive quality known as “Closer’s stuff.” You hear about it all the time; these are the tools that I use to help determine whether a given reliever makes the grade.

Velocity and arm slot: Today’s closers typically throw hard (mid-90s and up) and with a conventional motion; “gimmicky” soft-tossers are typically relegated to set-up roles. For example, side-armer Darren O’Day is an outstanding reliever – but his 87-mph fastball is more of a “warmer” than a “heater”. He has logged only eight saves in 391 career appearances, despite owning a solid 2.45 ERA and 1.02 WHIP during his seven years in the bigs. He was excellent against left-handed batters in 2014, but over the course of his career, lefties have posted a slash line of .239/.294/.421/.715 versus .193/.265/.283/.548 for right-handed batters. Note: soft-tossing sidewinder Joe Smith was very effective as the Angels’ closer for a little more than two months last season, so necessity can occasionally trump convention. Two of the best closers ever – Kent Tekulve and Dan Quisenberry – were submariners, but don’t let the exceptions form the basis for your actions on Draft Day.

Strikeout rate: Ground balls might be more democratic (thanks, Crash Davis), but strikeouts are how closers make their living. I want to see close to a strikeout per inning from my closer candidate. Even if he doesn’t end up in the closer’s chair, a high-strikeout reliever can be a great addition to a Fantasy roster. Last year Dellin Betances, Wade Davis, Brad Boxberger and Andrew Miller combined for just seven saves, but they eased their Fantasy owners’ pain by striking out a total of 451 batters in 289 innings. This high K rate, combined with their outstanding ERA and WHIP numbers, made these four relievers very valuable Fantasy commodities despite their lack of saves.

Walks: Good closers throw strikes; protecting a two-run lead by walking the first batter and hitting the second is rarely the path to success. I like to see a walk rate south of 3.0 per nine innings, but I can live with up to 4.0 if the reliever in question makes up for it with an absurd number of strikeouts. Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman are two examples of closers whose sometimes-balky control is offset by their otherworldly strikeout rates.

2015 Fantasy Sleepers
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ERA: Be careful here: in and of itself, one of the game’s time-honored pitching stats is of marginal value when assessing a reliever. Here’s an example of why: The closer comes in in the eighth inning, bases loaded, and the tying run at the plate. He surrenders a pair of singles and a walk before escaping with a one-run lead, and then gives up two more hits in the ninth before finally sealing the deal. His ERA for all of this misadventure: 0.00. I do look at ERA, (it’s a standard Fantasy category, after all) but I view it in conjunction with something I consider a more accurate measurement: Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), which is explained very well right here.

WHIP and slash lines: The opponents’ slash line stats: batting average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS, give me a good idea of a pitcher’s dominance, while WHIP tells me about his ability to keep runners off base. Both are desirable qualities in a closer, so if a particular pitcher has a BAA under .220 or so, low slash stats and a WHIP close to 1.00, I know that his innings are typically rather quiet in nature. WHIP and BAA often tells me as much or more than ERA: in the example above, for instance, the reliever in question would have carded a .667 BAA and  3.85 WHIP, which is much more indicative of how bad he really was.

Other stats: I tend to look at BABIP and strand rate as two of my “go-to” stats, as they can help to tell me whether a pitcher’s “breakout year” was more a mirage than a new reality. I like to see a high ground-ball rate, as ground balls tend to stay in the ballpark, but many high-velocity pitchers generate more fly balls than grounders. In these cases, I’ll look for a low HR/FB rate .

Track record: Has he been a closer before, even if it was in the minor leagues? The ninth inning carries its own special brand of pressure, and a pitcher who has performed in the role before is more likely to earn the nod from his manager.

Bullpens are often unstable in nature, and some situations require daily vigilance to stay abreast of who is currently the favorite to close games. I hope some of the tips above have helped you to apply some statistical basis to cut through the hype and make a good draft-day decision.

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