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Bullpen Busts Due to Bounce-Back in 2019


It's almost time for Opening Day! Spring Training is wrapping up and so are fantasy baseball drafts. So as we get ready for the start of the season, let's take a look at a few bullpen guys who might be a little underappreciated in drafts this year.

Now with a couple of guys on this "busts" list, I'm using the word rather liberally. Ken Giles recorded 26 saves between Houston and Toronto last year, while Brad Boxberger racked up 32 saves in Arizona. But they both saw an increase in their WHIP from 2017 as they each posted an ERA over 4.30. So while they put up good counting numbers in 2018, owners would like to see those rates improve as well.

So who else is poised to rebound in 2019? Let's take a look at four guys worth going after this season.

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Ken Giles, TOR — ADP 140

Giles started off the 2018 season strong with three saves and a 1.80 ERA across 11 appearances in April. But on May 1, Giles earned his first loss of the year after allowing four runs on four hits while recording just one out. That outing kicked off a stretch of 23 appearances where he recorded a 6.53 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP that eventually led to his demotion to Triple-A. Giles was then traded to Toronto, where he posted a 7.36 ERA over 12 games in the month of August. He ended the year strong though, as he allowed just three hits and one walk over nine scoreless appearances in September.

That scoreless stretch to close out the season is a positive sign of a potential rebound for Giles, with five of his nine appearances that month coming against the Yankees, Indians, and Astros. Looking at his advanced metrics also points towards a better 2019 campaign, as his 3.08 FIP, 3.27 xFIP and 2.96 SIERA suggest he was actually pitching better than his 4.65 ERA. Overall he looked better in the second half pitching in Toronto, and while his 2.30 ERA in 2017 might be too much to hope for, an ERA around 3.30 should be closer to what owners should expect this year — making him a solid mid-tier closer.

 

Corey Knebel, MIL — ADP 142

In many ways, Knebel had a similar 2018 performance to Giles. Knebel struggled with an inflated ERA, lost the closer role and was demoted to the minors, and then closed out the year with a string of scoreless outings. After posting a 5.08 ERA and 1.33 WHIP over the first five months of the season that led to a brief demotion, Knebel returned to Milwaukee in September and allowed just five hits and three walks while striking out 33 over 16.1 scoreless innings.

The biggest knock against Knebel in 2018 was home runs. Knebel posted a career-worst 20.6 percent HR/FB rate — the fifth-worst rate among qualified relievers — and his 2.40 xFIP and 2.29 SIERA suggest he should have had a markedly better ERA than his 3.58 season total. Despite the increased ERA and issues with home runs, Knebel still posted a career-best 1.084 WHIP while cutting his walk rate from a career-worst 12.9 percent in 2017 to 9.9 percent in 2018. Add in the fact he's thrown 4.2 scoreless innings this spring while striking out six, and it's looking like we could see a return to numbers close to his 2017 campaign.

 

Brad Boxberger, KC — ADP 410

In his first opportunity back in the closer's role since 2015, Boxberger was 32-for-40 in save opportunities for Arizona while posting a 4.39 ERA — the second-highest mark of his career. After posting a 1.80 ERA over his first 21 games, Boxberger recorded a 5.94 ERA over the final four months of the season with a 1.59 WHIP over 33.1 innings. His struggles peaked in September, where he was 1-for-3 in save opportunities while posting an 11.37 ERA over 6.1 innings of work.

Much like Knebel, struggles with the long ball were a key issue for Boxberger in 2018. His 18.4 percent HR/FB rate was the 12th-highest among qualified relievers last year, as well as the second-highest mark of his career. Taking a look at his 3.87 xFIP and 3.67 SIERA suggest that he was somewhat unlucky with the home runs and that he should have recorded better numbers. Now in Kansas City, Boxberger appears to be in line for saves early this season and could be poised for a bounce-back season. He likely won't be anywhere near an upper-tier closer, but he could be worth more than just a streaming closer in 2019.

 

Greg Holland, ARI — ADP 482

Of the four pitchers on this list, Holland is easily the most deserving of the "bust" label. After leading the National League with 41 saves in 2017, Holland signed with St. Louis where he proceeded to post a 7.92 ERA and 2.24 WHIP over 25 innings with the Cardinals. Holland was eventually released on August 1, and six days later he signed with Washington. The change of scenery seemed to flip a switch for Holland, as he would go on to post a 0.84 ERA and a 0.891 WHIP over his final 21 games in which he posted a 2-0 record and was a perfect 3-for-3 in save opportunities.

Unlike others on this list, Holland's big issue in 2018 was struggling with his command. While with St. Louis, Holland posted a 16.7 percent strikeout rate and a 16.7 percent walk rate — both of which would have been career-worsts for him over a full season. After joining the Nationals, Holland would record a 12.5 percent walk rate with a 31.3 percent strikeout rate. Holland also saw a 3.3 percent increase in his swinging strikeout percentage upon joining Washington, which could in part be attributed to increased usage of his curveball:

Fastball% Slider% Curveball%
St. Louis 42.9 47.7 9.0
Washington 44.2 41.3 14.5

Despite some struggles this spring, Holland could be in the mix for saves in Arizona very soon. Owners might want to consider drafting Holland as a late-round flyer right now because if he can build off his success in Washington he could very quickly become one of the steals of a draft.

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