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Bullpen Busts Due For A Bounce-Back Season In 2023

Bullpen arms are among the most unpredictable pieces to project in fantasy baseball. One season's can't-miss closer is the following year's maybe-he-just-needs-a-change-of-scenery bullpen depth trade deadline target. It happens every season.

This piece examines some of the relief pitchers who unexpectedly busted in 2022. They did not live up to expectations through poor performance or bad luck. These relievers lost the trust of not only their managers but their fantasy managers as well.

Sitting on the cusp of Opening Day 2023, let's look back on a few of the busts which might still have the goods. These are the relief pitchers due for a bounce-back season in 2023.

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Josh Hader, San Diego Padres

Let's start with the most obvious case. Josh Hader was widely considered the best relief pitcher in baseball following a dominant 2021 campaign that included a 1.23 ERA, 45.5 K%, .239 xSLG, and a tremendous 338 ERA+. Naturally, he flew off fantasy draft boards this time last year. Though some regression was expected, Hader was regarded as a safe and reliable pick.

What fantasy managers got was far from reliable. Between stints in Milwaukee and San Diego, Hader's ERA ballooned to 5.22, including a similarly bloated 1.28 WHIP and 1.44 HR/9 (0.46 in 2021). In the end, he converted 36 saves – a slight increase from the year prior – but blew four save opportunities along the way. The consistent shakiness of his outings even saw Hader lose the closer job for a short time in San Diego before he eventually reclaimed it.

In truth, Hader's game has not declined in any meaningful capacity. Instead, the rollercoaster ride has been the result of back-to-back outlier seasons. In 2021, he outperformed his advanced metrics; in 2022, his advanced metrics outperformed his on-field results. The 2022 struggles are best illustrated through the disparities in Hader's 5.23 ERA (3.51 xERA), .270 BAA (.196 xBA), .313 wOBA (.292 xwOBA), and his .333 BABIP. In short, his due regression over-corrected.

Most of Hader's advanced stats were in line with his career numbers. His 87.7 MPH average exit velocity was below his career average, and the 9.6 BB% -- while problematic -- was the second lowest mark Hader has posted. His K% dropped to 37%, but that remains elite. Even Hader's perceived home run woes were exaggerated, considering his career 1.14 HR/9.

When the dust settles, we can't expect Hader to be as dominant as he was in 2021. However, we're left with a very talented 29-year-old pitcher with phenomenal strikeout upside, and he's closing for a team that projects to win many games. Hader will remain a key fantasy contributor in 2023.


Raisel Iglesias, Atlanta Braves

The 2021 campaign netted Iglesias a 2.57 ERA, 34 saves, and an 11th-place finish in the A.L. Cy Young race. Iglesias was an absolute stud, and his entire body of work from 2016-2021 cemented that reputation. Naturally, he was one of the first closers off the board in every fantasy draft last season. As such, it seems fair to label Iglesias' 2022 performance as bust-worthy.

The first half of 2022 was a disaster by Iglesias' standards. Across 39 appearances and 35.2 innings pitched, he posted a 4.04 ERA and converted 16 of 19 save opportunities. His struggles cost him his confidence and standing with the Angels, resulting in a trade deadline move to the Braves. It turns out a change of scenery was all Iglesias needed.

Iglesias was unhittable after being traded. Across 28 appearances and 26.1 IP, he surrendered just one earned run, translating to a dominant 0.34 ERA and 1.52 FIP. Unfortunately, he could not claim a closing role with the Braves and accumulated only one save during that stint. However, his 15 holds were a welcomed consolation.

Altogether, Iglesias ended 2022 with a strong 2.47 ERA and 2.47 FIP. 'Bust' is a harsh label, but the output fell short of fantasy managers' expectations. He lost his closer job and finished with only 17 saves.

Heading into 2023, Iglesias is the apparent frontrunner to take over Atlanta's closer role vacated by Kenley Jansen. Unfortunately, he will begin the season on the injured list, though he doesn't project to miss much time. Despite the rocky start last year, Iglesias' game hasn't shown significant signs of regression – outside of a bloated 10.6 Barrel %. His other numbers remain strong, headlined by an outstanding 31.8 K%. Fantasy managers may be reluctant to draft him high again, but Iglesias' ceiling is the top-performing relief pitcher in fantasy baseball.


Jonathan Loaisiga, New York Yankees

Moving away from the closers, Loáisiga is a bounce-back pick for the leagues that reward holds. Loáisiga had a breakout season in 2021, posting a 2.17 ERA with 17 holds and five saves across 70 2/3 innings pitched. He established himself as one of the Yankees' more reliable bullpen arms and entered last season with high expectations.

Instead of building off his prior success, Loáisiga's ERA shot up to 4.13. It concerns at first glance, but the issues were quite concentrated. Through May, he owned a 7.02 ERA over 16 2/3 IP. Loáisiga then landed on the injured list with a shoulder injury and was on the shelf for the better part of two months. He returned in mid-July with adjusted mechanics and finished the campaign with a 1.76 ERA over his subsequent 31 appearances.

The 2022 surface numbers may not be stellar, but Loáisiga demonstrated dominance in some areas. His ability to induce weak contact was as good as it gets. Loáisiga ranked in the 100th percentile with a fantastic 83.9 MPH average exit velocity, the 99th percentile with a 2.0 Barrel %, and the 97th percentile with a 29.9 HardHit%. While his strikeout rate slumped to a career-low 18.2%, Loáisiga's pitching-to-contact approach proved effective as he leaned on his sinker more than ever.

At 28 years old, Loáisiga's upside is apparent. If he pitches as he did in 2021 or the second half of last season, he'll be heavily relied on in the Yankees' bullpen. Loáisiga should find himself in plenty of hold situations.

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