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Biggest Risers of 2020 – Relief Pitchers

In 2020, we saw a large number of relief pitchers, previously not in the upper tier of fantasy rankings, breakout or bounce back from 2019 decrepitude.

Below we will take a look at a few of the biggest relief pitcher risers of the 2020 season as we gear up for 2021 drafts in the spring. Obviously, the 2020 season left relief pitchers with fewer total innings pitched and appearances. As a result, it should be cautioned that there is no exact science to determine whether improved or diminished performance will continue into 2021, or how much the 2020 performances should weigh into 2021 rankings/ADP. That said, we tried to flag those relievers whose improved promise (due to performance or bullpen situation) transcended their small 2020 sample size.

In addition and of note, we will not discuss those talented rookies who broke out in 2020 (apologies to Jordan Romano, Josh Staumont, and Devin Williams).

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Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

After posting elite numbers for the Seattle Mariners in 2018, Mets relief pitcher Edwin Diaz fell off a cliff in 2019. Upon arriving in New York, Diaz posted a miserable 5.59 ERA, a 1.38 WHIP, to go with 2.33 HR/9 and seven blown saves in 33 opportunities. Despite a shaky start to the 2020 season, triggered by a Marcell Ozuna home run in his second save opportunity of the season, Diaz managed to put together an incredible season.

While his overall save total of six was quite low (even for a truncated season), his other numbers were nothing short of dominant. Notwithstanding some ninth-inning meltdowns (three blown saves in nine overall opportunities) and a tenuous hold on the closer job throughout the season, Diaz still posted a 1.75 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and an elite xBA of .156. Most impressively, he posted an absolutely ludicrous 50 strikeouts in just 25 2/3 innings pitched. These strikeout totals amounted to a 17.53 K/9 rate and an elite strikeout percentage of 45.9%, which was in the top percentile in all of MLB. While Diaz’s walk rate of 4.91 BB/9 remained an issue and led to an inflated WHIP, it did appear that Diaz finally overcame his 2019 (and early 2020) ninth-inning mental issues.

Heading into 2021, Diaz remains an elite relief option in all formats who can provide incredible strikeout numbers and solid ratios including an ERA in the low 2.00s given his 2.46 xERA in 2020. He stands to accumulate a huge number of saves on a competitive Mets team if he maintains the closer role throughout 2021. Accordingly, thanks to a massive rebound in 2020, and notwithstanding the small 2020 sample size, Diaz stands to be one of the first closers off the board in 2021. His current ADP of 83 reflects his 2021 potential.


Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres

Having put up a modestly successful 2019 campaign between his time in San Francisco and Atlanta, San Diego Padres relief pitcher Mark Melancon cemented his role as closer for the Braves in 2020. Coming into 2020, many questioned whether Melancon would completely cede or share closer duties with the likes of Will Smith, Shane Greene, and/or Luke Jackson. This question loomed despite Melacon's having posted solid strikeout and above-average spin rates on his fastball and curveball in 2019, as well as 11 saves for the Braves after his trade to Atlanta.

It was also questioned whether he could stay healthy in 2020. Melancon answered both questions with a resounding “yes.” He ended 2020 healthy and with 11 saves in 13 attempts, a 2.78 ERA, and a 1.28 WHIP in 22 2/3 innings pitched. While his strikeout rates declined considerably in 2020, he remained effective. A negative overall launch angle allowed (-0.6), a better than league average xBA of .247, an overall barrel percentage of 4.2%, and an above-average spin rate on his curveball supported his performance.

While Melancon, now with the Padres and who will be 36 years old by Opening Day, won’t be confused for an elite closer option come draft time, he should be in the mix for saves with the Padres in 2021. That said, with Drew Pomeranz, Emilio Pagan, and Keone Kela also in the San Diego bullpen, Melancon's save totals could be limited unless he can pull away from the pack (similar to his 2020 campaign with the Braves). If Melancon can again remain healthy for a full season, he has the opportunity to post double-digit saves for the Padres as part of a committee, with potential for more. He can do so with a supporting ERA and WHIP that won’t kill ratios.

Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros

Coming off a 2019 campaign in which Houston Astros relief pitcher Ryan Pressly led the league in holds and posted a 2.32 ERA with an elite 0.90 WHIP and 72 strikeouts in 54.1 innings pitched, including him on this list seems incorrect. That said, Pressly should be considered one of the biggest risers of 2020. This is due to the fact that Pressly took over and ran with the Astros closer job in 2020 after an elbow injury to Roberto Osuna limited him to four games.

In 2020, Pressly put up a 3.43 ERA, a 1.43 WHIP, converted 12 saves in 16 opportunities, and struck out 29 in 21 innings pitched. While his ratios didn’t match those of his remarkable 2019 season, it should be noted that Pressly posted an xERA of 2.74 which was in the top seven percent of all of baseball. His other metrics were just as elite.

They included an overall barrel rate of 3.7%, and a fastball and curveball spin rate, xwOBA, xSLG, and whiff rate which all were in the top eight percent or higher in all of MLB. Heading into 2021, Pressly has graduated from his set-up role and now has a firm lock as the Astros closer. The Astros placed Osuna on waivers in late-October ending his tenure with the team. Pressly should, accordingly, be one of the first 10-to-12 relievers off the board in redraft leagues. With a current ADP of 132, Pressly has the potential to reward managers with elite save totals, as well as elite strikeouts and impressive ratios in 2021.


James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians reliever James Karinchak followed up his brief 2019 rookie debut with an absolutely dominant 2020 campaign. In 27 innings pitched, Karinchak posted a 2.67 ERA, an elite 1.11 WHIP, struck out 53 batters (amounting to a 48.6% strikeout rate), and registered eight holds.

Taking a closer look at Karinchak’s 2020 campaign we see that his results were certainly supported by elite metrics, which included an overall barrel rate of 2.5%, an xERA of 2.22, and an xBA and xSLG which were in the top one percent in all of MLB. With Brad Hand being placed on waivers in late-October by the Indians, the 25-year old is now the heir apparent to the Cleveland closer role.

The only downside to Karinchak’s 2020 season and something managers will need to keep an eye on in 2021, was his unimpressive walk rate of 14.7%. This walk rate placed Karinchak in the bottom five percent of the league in 2020. Much like Edwin Diaz, Karinchak’s control issues could potentially impact his ability to hold down the closer role all season in 2021. For now, though, it is a safe bet that in redraft formats, Karinchak will also be one of the top 10-to-12 relievers off of draft boards. This is reflected by his current 115 ADP. He should continue to post huge strikeout totals with minuscule ratios, along with the added bonus of potentially large save numbers in 2021.


Rafael Montero, Seattle Mariners

Another big riser in 2020 was right-handed pitcher Rafael Montero. One of our pre-season sleepers heading into 2020, Montero had a very depressed ADP of 644 last March. He was coming off of a 2019 season in which he posted a 2.48 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 35 Ks in just 29 innings pitched. Montero was projected to have a high leverage role in the Rangers bullpen behind closer Jose Leclerc. This projection came to fruition in 2020. Once LeClerc went down with a torn muscle in the back of his right shoulder, the former New York Mets top-prospect Montero became the Rangers closer. He finished 2020 with a 4.08 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, a perfect eight saves in eight opportunities, and 19 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings pitched.

Now the "presumptive" 2021 closer for the Seattle Mariners after a December trade, Montero has heightened fantasy value. That said, there will still be risk for managers drafting him as a closer. First, it is not set in stone Montero will immediately slide into Seattle's closer role. The Mariners could still look to other internal options (e.g., Yohan Ramirez), or they may make additional off-season moves to fortify a bullpen that was among the worst in the American League in 2020. Secondly, Montero's 2020 numbers do show signs of regression. While Montero is now averaging better than 96 mph on his fastball, he yielded a 44.4% overall hard-hit rate, a very high overall barrel percentage of 15.6%, and an overall 23-degree launch angle in 2020. In addition, his sinker, which he used more frequently in 2020, was also much less effective where he allowed an exit velocity of 93.1 mph off of it, versus just a 71.1 mph exit velocity off of it in 2019. Furthermore, despite his 4.08 ERA, Montero compiled an xERA of 4.61 and an xFIP of 4.85. He also saw a 4% decline in his 2019 K%. These are numbers that were well below 2020 MLB averages and don't equate to those of a lock-down closer.

While Montero could generate save totals in the mid-20s, to go with an ERA near 4.25 and a strikeout per inning, his fantasy value is almost entirely dependent upon his attaining and retaining the Mariners' closer role. Given the potential for bullpen competition and regression, this is a risky proposition. With a current ADP of 189, managers should be cautious and potentially look elsewhere in the middle rounds of drafts for more sound closer options.

Other Notable Risers: Richard Rodriguez (PIT), Trevor Rosenthal (KC),  Tanner Rainey (WAS), Alex Colombe (CHW), Yimi Garcia (MIA), Pete Fairbanks (TB), Jalen Beeks (TB).

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