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March ADP Musings - Overvalued / Undervalued Relief Pitchers

If you've played fantasy baseball long enough, you've heard some variation of the phrase "don't pay for saves" before. If you're new to the fantasy baseball community, you'll get used to it soon enough. The long-form version, for those of you who are indeed trying out fantasy baseball for the first time, is this: bullpen usage is volatile (especially these days) and saves are an incredibly arbitrary stat to begin with, so don't sacrifice high draft picks on closers.

While I wholeheartedly agree with this philosophy on the surface, I must also contend that it can be misleading. Sure, you shouldn't spend big on just saves, but what if your league uses other scoring categories in which relief pitchers can be helpful? Relievers quite often boast excellent numbers in ratio categories such as WHIP, K/9 and K/BB, and can thus be valuable additions to your roster at the right point in the draft. Moreover, many leagues employ holds as a scoring category, lending value to late-game bullpen arms who aren't in line to receive save opportunities.

It's important to know your league's scoring system heading into the draft. If your league uses some of these less flashy scoring categories, then you won't want to blindly follow the "don't pay for saves" mantra. Instead, you can pick and choose your spots in which a couple of relievers will provide multi-category value. With that in mind, let's explore the average draft positions of a few bullpen arms in order to determine whether they are being valued too highly, or not highly enough. All ADP information courtesy of NFBC.

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Overvalued Relievers

Craig Kimbrel - FA (ADP 78.60)

I have to start with Craig Kimbrel for one very simple reason: it's the middle of March and he doesn't even have a team yet. Kimbrel has been a Hall-of-Fame closer thus far in his career, but even if he signs a deal as I write this, he's looking at less than two weeks of Spring Training to prepare for the season.

For evidence of how this might adversely affect him in 2019, we don't need to look much further than Greg Holland's 2018 season. Holland signed with the Cardinals on the final day of March in 2018, then sputtered his way to a 7.92 ERA and 2.24 WHIP in 25 innings before being released on the first day of August. He admittedly turned things around after signing with the Nationals a few days later, but it was too late to salvage his season as a whole.

Kimbrel is younger than Holland and has been an elite closer more recently as well, but the point remains: with no Spring Training, Kimbrel could be looking at a sluggish start at best, and a lost season at worst. He's currently averaging out as the fourth bullpen arm off the board in fantasy drafts, and that is simply too early for a guy without a team at this point in the preseason. If you must take a closer at this juncture in your draft, you're much safer going with Aroldis Chapman (ADP 81.68) or Brad Hand (ADP 85.23).


Edwin Diaz - NYM (ADP 50.03)
Blake Treinen - OAK (ADP 62.98)
Kenley Jansen - LAD (ADP 76.43)

Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen are the first three closers being taken in fantasy drafts, and deservedly so: they're all at or near the top of the league in their role. But as you can see, to acquire any of them we're spending an early draft pick, and in essence, "paying for saves."

Treinen in particular makes me nervous at this ADP on account of the fact that 2018 was his only truly elite season as a pitcher. It was the first time since 2014 that he posted a HR/FB rate of less than 12 percent, and the only time in his career that he achieved a double-digit K/9 ratio. Additionally, Treinen saw drastic positive changes in his ability to make hitters look foolish in 2018, boasting a 42.8 percent chase rate (35.3 career), 18.0 percent swinging strike rate (12.5 career), and 65.8 percent contact rate (74 career). If you're drafting him in the sixth or seventh round, you're absolutely banking on a repeat as opposed to a regression.

Diaz and Jansen are the more established of the trio, but again, what this comes down to is a willingness to sacrifice early-round picks on closers when we can find better value at the position down the road. Here is a list of players you could have at or around these price ranges if you elected to wait on saves: Eugenio Suarez (ADP 54.12), George Springer (ADP 61.38), Jean Segura (ADP 64.54), Joey Votto (ADP 68.03), Matt Carpenter (ADP 71.24), Marcell Ozuna (ADP 76.74).


Undervalued Relievers

Jose Leclerc - TEX (ADP 118.51)
Kirby Yates - SD (ADP 121.53)

After the 100th overall pick, we officially arrive at the point where I'm comfortable drafting a closer. Enter Jose Leclerc and Kirby Yates, two relievers who share a common thread that has allowed them to fly somewhat under the radar: neither was his respective team's closer until the middle of the 2018 season. Leclerc inherited the ninth-inning role when the Rangers dealt Keone Kela to Pittsburgh; Yates took over for the Padres after Brad Hand left for Cleveland. Both handled the transition well, posting 12 saves a piece in the second half of the 2018 season.

Now that they enter 2019 with the prospect of locking down the ninth inning for a full season, their ratio numbers only serve to bolster the value already present in their opportunities to rack up saves.

Leclerc is coming off a 2018 season in which he posted a 13.27 K/9 thanks to a strong strikeout percentage of 38.1, and limited long balls to the tune of an impressive 2.0 percent HR/FB ratio (which equated to an equally impressive 0.16 HR/9). He also significantly improved upon his K/BB, going from a suspect 1.50 in 2017 to 3.40 last year.

Yates, for his part, rocked a 12.86 K/9 (36.0 K%) and a 5.29 K/BB in 2018. He's slightly more susceptible to home runs than Leclerc, but it's worth noting that he brought his fly ball percentage down nearly 20 points from 56.2 in 2017 to 37.0 in 2018. If he's able to keep that number down going forward, it will serve him well in a home San Diego park already known for being a relatively pitcher-friendly environment.

If we combine these underlying numbers with the potential for 30-plus saves out of either pitcher, we're landing ourselves one heck of a deal at the closer position. Even better is that we're not relinquishing early-round value at other positions to acquire them. Considering their close proximity to one another in ADP (and the fact that you're going to be dealing with league mates panicking over their lack of saves at this point in the draft), it's going to be difficult to land both Leclerc and Yates. But I'm making it a point to grab at least one of them in any league.


Jordan Hicks - STL (ADP 217.81)

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Cardinals' flame-throwing Jordan Hicks, who reaches 100 miles per hour on the radar gun at about the same frequency as the average human inhales oxygen. Hicks is a good bet to be the closer in St. Louis for 2019 after an eye-catching, 77.2-inning debut in 2018.

Though he can stake his claim to being one of the hardest-throwing pitchers we've ever seen, Hicks' light-speed stuff oddly didn't translate into elite strikeout numbers during his rookie season. He posted a K% of just 20.7, and even more disconcerting was his 5.29 BB/9.

That said, let's focus on the most glaring positive from his 2018 season, which was his ground ball rate of 60.7 percent. Furthermore, even on the rare occasion he did allow a fly ball (18.7 percent), it only cleared the fence 5.0 percent of the time. Let's allow for some improvement in his strikeout and walk ratios, all the while understanding that if he's going to continue inducing ground balls at such a clip, he can be an effective closer even without fanning hitters.

And if nothing else, just look at his ADP. Hicks could establish himself as one of the game's elite closers in 2019, and he can be had in the 22nd round of a 10-team league. I'll take his upside in this price range a million times out of a million.


Joe Jimenez - DET (ADP 477.68)
Keone Kela - PIT (ADP 536.44),
Taylor Rogers - MIN (ADP 548.29)

Here we enter the realm of relievers who are not set to open 2019 as their respective teams' closers, but have the potential to provide late-round value anyway.

Let's start with Joe Jimenez, a guy I'm admittedly only including in this discussion on account of his potential to earn some cheap saves during the season. Detroit's current closer, Shane Greene, is coming off a truly forgettable 2018 season in which he posted a 5.12 ERA along with a 1.71 HR/9 on a career-worst 16.4 percent HR/FB ratio. Greene is either going to rebound, in which case he'll likely be traded to a contender, or he'll simply pitch his way out of the closer role. Jimenez is among the likeliest candidates to take over the ninth inning in either case. He doesn't offer anything that jumps off the page at you, but he did post a K/9 of 11.20 (29.2 K%) last year with a 2.91 FIP that suggests his 4.31 ERA could come down.

As we mentioned earlier in our examination of Leclerc, Keone Kela used to be the closer in Texas. He's now the primary setup man behind the Pirates' Felipe Vazquez, but his experience as a closer lends itself to the idea that he could retake the role in the right set of circumstances. Kela has posted a K% of 30 or better, and a K/9 of 11.42 or better in each of the last three seasons, while incrementally reducing his BB/9 from 4.50 to 3.29 in the same span. He's also posted a HR/FB ratio of 9.25 percent from 2017-18. He can provide you with solid ratio numbers and double-digit holds (if your league observes them), with his best-case scenario coming in the form of a chance to earn saves at some point in 2019.

Taylor Rogers finds himself in a crowded stable of serviceable back-end arms for the Twins, but one thing he has going for him is that there is no certifiable stud obstructing his path to a ninth-inning role. Rogers doesn't blow opposing hitters' doors off with elite strikeout numbers, but his ability to limit free passes in 2018 amounted to a strong 4.69 K/BB ratio. He also posted a career-best in WHIP (0.95) and sliced his 2017 HR/FB rate of 12.2 percent in half. Better yet, he doesn't allow an excessive number of fly balls to begin with, topping out at 30.6 percent in his career (2017). He can provide value in ratios and holds, and with numbers like these, is it totally out of the realm of possibility that he wrests save opportunities from the likes of Trevor May, Blake Parker, Addison Reed and Trevor Hildenberger?

You can safely expect to find any one of Jimenez, Kela or Rogers available in the very final round of your draft, which means you can just as easily pick them up off the waiver wire during the season. At the very least, I'd keep an eye on them, as they stand out to me among non-current-closers with reasonable chances of earning saves at some point this year.

In addition to taking the time to read my writing (which I thank you for), I recommend consulting RotoBaller's "Closers and Saves" depth chart. It's a great resource for when you're trying to make those late-round decisions on bullpen arms in your draft. I wish you the best of luck in your upcoming drafts, and I hope I've helped you prepare to navigate the maddening waters of the closer market.

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