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Why You Need Middle Relievers In 2020 - Top Draft Targets

Heading into the 2020 fantasy baseball season, much of the talk is focused on the randomness that we're likely to see unfold. With a 60-game season, it feels a bit like anything can happen. However, instead of that reality causing you to throw your hands in the air in dismay, I think it's the perfect opportunity to search for a leg up on your competition. The best place to find that is with middle relievers.

We already know that starters likely won't be fully stretched out until around their third start. We also discussed how managers will be treating every game as if it were a playoff game. That means talented middle relievers could be more of a strategic weapon, opening up the game against a difficult lineup, coming in early for a tiring starter, being used for multiple innings to get the ball into the hands of the closer, or perhaps even being forced to close a game out if the manager turns to his closer earlier in the game.

In addition to sneaking you some highly-coveted wins, and potentially a save here or there, a versatile and talented middle reliever will give you some much-needed ratio support. Without a full 162-game to settle down the ratio spikes from bad starts or closers getting tagged, having a couple of dynamic middle relievers on your squad will help to keep your ERA and WHIP in check and guard against the randomness and inconsistency that is likely to come with starting pitching in 2020.

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Do's and Don'ts

In order to identify which middle relievers I wanted to target, I checked four things:

1. Which teams limit their starters the most or experiment the most?

If a team has been more prone to experimenting with their staff or pulling their starters early, then the middle relievers on those teams are more likely to find themselves in high leverage spots that can be useful in fantasy. Eno Sarris also covered this in a piece he did recently in The Athletic, but history tells us that the teams who toy with their staff the most are the: Angels, Rays, Yankees, Brewers, Rangers, Padres, and Pirates.

2. Which teams have the easiest schedule or are most likely to win games?

Middle relievers can't pick up wins if their teams don't win games. Groundbreaking theory, right? Since teams will be playing the majority of their schedule against their own division, it's a little bit easier to determine strength of schedule than it would be in recent years. Currently, the teams with the easiest schedules appear to be the Twins, Indians, White Sox, Dodgers, Astros, and then also the Yankees and Rays.

So far two teams (Yankees and Rays) have appeared on both lists.

3. Which pitchers have provided consistent ratios or innings, even if they don't get strikeouts

Strikeouts are not going to be as important from your relievers this year. Yes, it's always nice to get strikeouts, but if a reliever goes one or two innings, he's only going to give you perhaps two to four strikeouts. That would be great, but with only 60 games in the season, it's not enough to really add up to a major difference in your standings. You shouldn't ignore high strikeout relievers, but it's more important to focus on relievers who are consistently used for 50+ innings during a regular season and who have a history of ratio-suppression.

4. Avoid players at the back of rosters who might be impacted by the taxi squad

If relievers are being used more, then organizations are going to want to keep them fresh. Try to avoid pitchers who have lots of minor league options left or could conceivably be moved on and off the taxi squad during the season in order to give the team a strategic advantage.

So, with all of that said, which middle relievers, or non-closers, should you target?


RP Targets for 2020

Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros - Pressly has thrown at least 60 innings in three of the last four years. His ratios since coming to Houston have been elite, and the team has shown that it will turn to him in high leverage situations. That should put him in line for a good amount of wins this year, and I could see him pushing 30 innings. He's likely the top middle reliever target for me in most drafts.

Drew Pomeranz, San Diego Padres - Pomeranz is a former starter who found a new level in the bullpen and is now inching into Pressly territory in regards to relief pitching value. The Padres were on the list for teams that experiment with their staff more than most, and Pomeranz's former life as a starter means that he could open some games or be used in a multi-inning role to get the ball to Craig Stammen and Kirby Yates late. Pomeranz had a 1.88 ERA in 28.2 innings out of the bullpen last year, with all the K% metrics cited below, so I'm buying into him as a great relief option.

Seth Lugo, New York Mets - Lugo has emerged as a multi-inning magician for the Mets out of the bullpen. As another former starter, Lugo has elite stamina for a reliever and threw 80 innings last year, so the Mets will likely be using him often in 2020. Yes, he took over the closer's role briefly when Edwin Diaz struggled last year, which means he could earn a few saves, but I think he'll be far more valuable for the Mets as an opener or a multi-inning follower after some older/average starters like Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello.

Emilio Pagan, San Diego Padres - If you don't buy into Pomeranz, maybe you'd like to take a shot on his teammate. Pagan was tremendous as the Rays' closer last year, but he also threw 70 innings, which suggests that he could be used more often out of the pen for the Padres since they have Yates entrenched in the 9th inning. Pagan came out of nowhere a bit last year, but he has never had a high BB%, so he's a near-lock to keep the WHIP low. In fact, he and Lugo were two pitchers that induced the softest contact in all of baseball last year.

Tyler Duffey, Minnesota Twins - The Twins have one of the easiest schedules and also a lot of question marks in their rotation. Jake Odorizzi rarely faces a lineup more than twice, Homer Bailey is a reclamation project, and Jhoulys Chacin is currently penciled in as their number five starter. That could lead to a lot of early entrances into games for Duffey, who, as a former starter, has proven that he can be dangerous for multi-inning stints. He also finished in the 94th-percentile in xwOBA and K% and the 91-st percentile in xBA, so he limits hard contact and can get you some strikeouts ott.

Andrew Miller, St. Louis Cardinals - The Cardinals have a lot of questions about how they're going to use their bullpen. How healthy is Jordan Hicks? Will Giovanny Gallegos be the closer? Is Junior Fernandez ready? Amidst all of that uncertainty, Andrew Miller stands out as a safe and experienced option. As the best lefty in the bullpen, Miller could be used often to put down the opponent's best left-handed bats, which could lead to a good number of innings and a mix of wins and saves that should make him useful in fantasy leagues. For as much as the narrative has been about his struggles, he still finished in the 84th-percentile in xBA and 82nd-percentile in Whiff% last year, so the talent hasn't vanished.

James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians - Earlier in the year, I expected Karinchak to take over the closer role from Brad Hand. The Indians now seem more likely to keep the left-handed veteran pitching at the end of games, but Karinchak has the ability to be a dynamic option in high leverage situations for a team with one of the easiest schedules in baseball. That could lead to a lot of wins.

Chad Green, New York Yankees - As mentioned above, the Yankees are more than happy to go to their bullpen early, and they also have one of the easiest schedules in the 2020 season. That could lead to a lot of wins for Green, who is their best multi-inning option out of the pen. The 29-year-old has thrown at least 69 innings in each of his last three seasons, and his inflated ERA last year may have had more to do with bad luck since he registered a .346 BABIP.

Adam Ottavino, New York Yankees - Ottavino is another arm that could benefit from the Yankees' reliance on their bullpen. If Aroldis Chapman is likely going to be saved for the ninth innings, and I believe he is, then the Bronx Bombers need one or two guys to consistently handle the high leverage innings leading up to him. Again, with every game having playoff stakes, I think teams won't spread that responsibility out over a few arms, so bank on the Yankees turning the ball over to Ottavino a lot during the year. If they do, the red in his Statcast profile is really all you need to know.

Colin Poche, Tampa Bay Rays - The Rays were the first to use the opener, so you know they're not afraid to experiment with their pitching staff. They've used Poche to open games, close games, and everything in between. He's earned the trust of the organization and is their best left-handed pitcher aside from Jose Alvarado, who is expected to serve as part of a closer committee, so expect Poche to be a consistent part of a bullpen that faces a relatively easy schedule.

Yusmeiro Petit, Oakland Athletics - The A's are always open to doing the unconventional, so we have to plan for them to use their bullpen in unique ways. If there is one guy who could benefit from that, it's Petit. The veteran has been used in a number of ways since coming to Oakland, throwing 83 and 93 innings and picking up five and seven wins over those two years. As the graphic below shows, he's not a high K% pitcher, but that shouldn't worry you this year since he suppresses quality contact at such a tremendous rate.

Ross Stripling, Los Angeles Dodgers - We know the Dodgers are going to do some crazy things to manage the innings of their pitchers, so even though Stripling is currently listed as a reliever, he could easily start games. He may not be used often enough to be fantasy-viable, but he's a name to keep an eye on because he's the exact type of pitcher who could start and relieve and end 2020 with eight wins and be among the most valuable fantasy arms in any league.

Freddy Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers - Peralta, like Stripling, is another pitcher who could be used in multiple ways by an organization that has no problem going to the bullpen early. He has not been a consistent ratio contributor, so keep him on a short leash, but he could pitch enough to be an impactable fantasy option this year.

More 2020 Fantasy Baseball Advice


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