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2021 Relievers To Target For Holds

As evidenced by the success of the 2015 Kansas City Royals and 2020 Tampa Bay Rays, we have seen a much greater focus placed on strengthening middle-relief in MLB bullpens over the past decade. Additionally, in recent seasons we have seen a shift toward teams utilizing their best reliever in the most crucial innings and game situations which may not necessarily be the ninth inning. As a result, there are now only perhaps 12-to-15 teams with a designated closer strictly held for ninth-inning work.

Recognizing the above trends in MLB, more and more fantasy managers are utilizing the LIMA Plan as well as the Franken-Ace concept developed by my colleague JB Branson (@RowdyRotoJB). Both concepts, essentially, call for the targeting of middle-relievers with elite ratios, low walk rates, and high strikeout rates, in lieu of spending top draft capital on starting pitchers. Recognizing this shift toward dominant middle-relief and closers-by-committee, many fantasy leagues are also adjusting scoring categories. More and more leagues are beginning to reward holds to reward elite middle-relief performances and to minimize the impact saves have on overall scoring given their (now somewhat) random nature.

Below, we take a look at some elite middle-relief options that managers should be targeting in 2021 in leagues that reward holds. These relievers can not only help with holds but also with ratios, strikeouts, and perhaps contribute a few saves in 2021.

 

Tyler Duffey, Minnesota Twins

ADP: 482

Minnesota Twins reliever Tyler Duffey followed up his 2019 breakout season with an even more impressive, albeit shortened, 2020 campaign. Duffey posted a 1.88 ERA, a 0.79 WHIP, and a 31:6 K:BB in 24 innings pitched.  He posted 12 holds as a set-up man for the Twins’ primary 2020 closer Taylor Rogers, finishing second in all of MLB. Looking ahead to 2021, the 30-year old Duffey should be targeted as one of the top options in leagues that reward holds.

When we examine Duffey’s metrics, we do notice that he saw an increase in overall exit velocity allowed when compared to 2019. However, his dramatic increase in curveball usage, up to 53.1% in 2020 from 10.3% in 2019, led to a much higher groundball rate of 55.6% and a lower fly ball rate of 13.0%. This, in turn, supported a reduction in his overall launch angle allowed (down to 10.4 degrees from 14.5 degrees in 2019). This limited damage associated with the elevated overall EV.

More impressively, even with his pivot to a higher curveball usage, Duffey maintained his elite K% from 2019. He posted a 33.7 K% which was in the top-8% in all of MLB. His xERA of 2.81 (in the top-9% in all of MLB), elite walk rate, and .214 wOBA supported his ERA. Further, his success translated against both lefties and righties based on his even splits.

With Alex Colome now joining the Twins bullpen as the presumptive closer, any concern that Duffey could assume a higher leverage closer role in the pen, thereby capping hold totals, is now eliminated. Duffey should provide managers with huge hold totals, elite ratios, and strikeouts. Accordingly, he should be one of the first middle-relief options of the board in all leagues that reward holds.

 

Aaron Bummer, Chicago White Sox

ADP: 426

With the Chicago White Sox signing Liam Hendriks this offseason, you can probably insert any late-inning Chicago reliever into this article. Evan Marshall, Codi Heuer, and Matt Foster are all looking to build off of impressive 2020 campaigns and should all be in the mix for late-inning relief work. Garrett Crochet, who also looked impressive in just six innings of work in 2020, is also in the mix for late-inning work on the South Side in 2021.

Notwithstanding the deep pen in Chicago, left-hander Aaron Bummer, who missed much of 2020 due to a biceps strain, is poised to be the primary set-up man for Hendriks in 2021. This will, accordingly, lead to a tremendous number of hold opportunities. In his last full season (2019), Bummer posted a 2.13 ERA, a 0.99 WHIP, and struck out 50 in 67 2/3 innings pitched. In his truncated 2020 campaign, Bummer posted a 0.96 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and a 14:5 K:BB in just 9 1/3 IP.

Similar to Tyler Duffey, when we examine Bummer’s 2019 metrics, we notice that his overall exit velocity allowed and overall hard-hit rate was in the bottom third of MLB. While Bummer yielded hard contact in 2019, the majority of such contact was not barreled and/or was on the ground, mitigating any potential damage. Specifically, Bummer’s overall barrel rate of 2.3% in 2019 was in the top-1% in all of MLB. Additionally, his ground ball rate of 71.4% in 2019 was well above the league average. This trend continued in 2020 (again though, it was only 9 1/3 IP) with a ground ball rate of 68.4%.  Bummer’s impressive 2019 ratios were also supported by an elite xERA of 2.72, an xBA of .198, and wOBA of .235.

There’s no question the White Sox will be contending for the AL Central crown in 2021. Hendriks will undoubtedly be the closer for the White Sox all season (barring an unforeseen injury). As the primary set-up man to Hendriks, Bummer will be tasked with bridging the gap to get leads into Hendriks’ hands. As a result, Bummer should be at-or-very-near the top of the MLB holds leaders when all is said and done in 2021. He will also provide managers with elite ratios and strikeouts while running up those hold totals.

 

J.B. Wendelken, Oakland A's

ADP: 547

With Liam Hendriks leaving Oakland for the White Sox, Jake Diekman and Trevor Rosenthal will presumably share closing duties for the A’s in 2021. This leaves 27-year old J.B. Wendelken as a late-inning set-up man for Diekman and/or Rosenthal heading into 2021.

In 2020, Wendelken quietly became one of the best relievers on the Oakland staff. He built off an impressive 2019 campaign by posting a 1.80 ERA, 1.12 WHIP with a 31:11 K:BB in 25 innings pitched. In addition, he put up a .187 xBA and .243 wOBA which both ranked in the top-10% in MLB. His overall exit velocity allowed and overall hard-hit rate allowed both were in the top 20% in all of baseball. His 29.2% strikeout rate, behind the primary use of his 94.6 mph fastball, marked over a three percent increase from 2019.

Wendelken has five pitches in his arsenal with his aforementioned fastball and slider as his primary weapons. These two offerings generated soft contact exit velocities of 85 mph and 87.5 mph (and very impressive xBA of .146 and .178), respectively. In addition, the vertical movement on his curveball (57.9 inches of drop) was elite in 2020.

On the downside, Wendelken’s walk rate, in the bottom third of the league, ballooned to 10.4% in 2020. Despite this fact, he mitigated damage resulting from the free passes by virtue of his K% and only allowing two home runs all season.

Notably, before Rosenthal was signed by the A's, Oakland General Manager David Forst and manager Bob Melvin openly mentioned Wendelken as a possibility to close with Diekman in Oakland. While this would have capped Wendelken’s hold totals if he joined a closer committee with Diekman, the signing of Rosenthal likely leaves Wendleken as the primary seventh or eighth inning option in 2021. As a result, Wendelken should see a large number of hold opportunities in 2021, just as Diekman (who led the league in holds in 2020) did.

Based on his ADP, Wendelken is an excellent sleeper for managers in all formats that reward holds.

 

Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays

ADP: 295

With the addition of Kirby Yates to the Toronto bullpen, Jordan Romano’s fantasy value as a potential closer took a massive hit. In leagues that reward holds, however, his value remains intact.

In 2020, Romano broke out to the tune of a 1.23 ERA, a 0.87 WHIP, and a 21:5 K:BB in 14 2/3 innings pitched. Romano also posted five holds and two saves for the Jays before being shut down in late August due to a middle finger injury (numbness). While it was, admittedly, a small sample size for Romano in 2020, the adjustment he made to more heavily rely on his slider in 2020, after a mediocre 2019 campaign, resulting in great returns. He generated a high groundball rate of 58.1%, a low fly ball rate of 9.7%, and an impressive 36.8% strikeout rate in 2020.

He also saw drops in contact rates against him, particularly outside of the zone where his chase contact rate plummeted to 31% in 2020 (down from 52.2% in 2019). While both of his major league campaigns have generated small sample sizes, there is no question that if he can maintain his strikeout and GB rates, through the use of his effective slider and 96.5 mph four-seam fastball, he should continue to serve as a very effective reliever in the Blue Jays bullpen.

While saves may be off the table for Romano now that Yates is in the mix, Romano should be slated to serve as the primary set-up man in Toronto. This means a tremendous number of hold opportunities, to go with strong ratios and elite strikeouts on a team that will compete for the AL East crown in 2021. Of course, the finger injury that sidelined him for a month last season is concerning, but if healthy, Romano should be targeted by all managers in leagues that reward holds after pick 300.

 

Seth Lugo, New York Mets

ADP: 375

If early-January reports are true, the New York Mets are reportedly planning to use pitcher Seth Lugo primarily out of the bullpen in 2021. Between the Mets bringing back Marcus Stroman, trading for Carlos Carrasco and Joey Lucchesi, and Lugo’s career performance as a reliever, this is an obvious move.

After nine appearances out of the bullpen in 2020, Lugo was moved to the starting rotation in a questionable decision made by Mets’ brass. Consistent with his historic splits between starter and reliever prior to 2020, Lugo was much less effective as a starter in 2020. In seven 2020 starts (26 1/3 innings pitched), Lugo’s ERA was 6.15, he allowed seven home runs, and a .296/.350/.556 slash line. By comparison, Lugo's ERA as a reliever over 10 1/3 IP in 2020 was 2.61 and he posted a 0.97 WHIP. Overall, 2020 amounted to a relatively mediocre season for Lugo. He finished with a 5.15 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP, and 47 strikeouts in 36 2/3 IP.

It would only be fair to point out that Lugo’s poor overall numbers as a starter in 2020 were inflated by two six earned run starts in late-September as well as an unlucky 33.3% HR/FB rate. He still compiled a 3.13 xFIP, a 50% ground ball rate, and a 30.0% strikeout rate as a starter in 2020. Notwithstanding, Lugo’s dominance out of the pen can’t be understated. This is best exemplified by his 2019 campaign. In 61 relief appearances in 2019 (80 IP), Lugo generated strikeout and walk rates in the top-10% of MLB, struck out 104 batters, posted a 2.70 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP, and recorded 21 holds and six saves.

With Edwin Diaz coming off an incredible 2020 campaign, Diaz is now firmly entrenched as the Mets closer heading into 2021. As a result, Seth Lugo and newly acquired Trevor May should be called upon in the seventh and eighth innings to get a large number of leads into Diaz’s hands. Lugo will post elite ratios and strikeouts, and compile a large number of holds for a team that will be competing for the NL East title in 2021. As an added bonus, should Diaz falter in the closer role, the Mets will likely look to Lugo to assume the role, similar to 2019. While this possibility could cap overall hold totals, it would also greatly enhance Lugo’s fantasy value.

UPDATE: February 13, 2021. With news coming out that Lugo is scheduled to have elbow surgery to remove a bone spur on February 16, his fantasy value now takes a hit. The Mets have indicated that following surgery, Lugo won't throw for at least six weeks. As a result, Lugo should be sidelined until, at least, mid-May provided he suffers no setbacks. Although Lugo should take over eighth-inning duties for the Mets once he returns from the injured list, his current ADP of 375 should decline significantly. Once he returns, he should provide managers with elite ratios, strikeouts, and holds. For the immediate term, however, Trevor May's fantasy value in leagues that reward holds now gets a huge boost. May, who also boasts excellent ratios and K%, will likely be the lone, primary set-up man to Diaz for the early part of the 2021 campaign.

 

Other Relievers To Target



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