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Valuable Long Relievers of 2020 and the Lingering Impact (Part 1)

The circumstantial insanity of the 2020 MLB season necessitated some adjustments in strategy, both for big-league managers and fantasy baseball GMs. One of these adjustments, prompted by frequent doubleheaders and the three-batter minimum rule, was the greater use of long-relievers and a generally reduced workload for rotation pitchers.

That makes sense from the perspective of an MLB manager, as it was impossible to tell how the altered season would impact each arm, and baseball has been trending towards fewer innings from starters with more specialty bullpen work for some time. However, if you are like me and you constantly found yourself in desperate situations (man, I really thought Justin Verlander would return), this trend presented an interesting strategic alternative: abandoning a weak rotation in lieu of a dominant crop of long-relievers.

The question remains: will long-relief remain a relevant approach for racking up IP, wins, saves + holds, and tolerable strikeout numbers for 2021 and years to come? With uncertainty looming as to the parameters of the upcoming year, let's look at some of the more prominent long-relievers from 2020 and assess their situations to project whether they should be on fantasy baseball GM radars for the 2021 season. For convenience, let's view the field in descending order by teams that made particularly potent use of long-relievers and the staff members they deployed.

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Toronto Blue Jays

First up is the Toronto Blue Jays, who made prevalent use of long-relievers Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Shun Yamaguchi, and (I'm counting it) Robbie Ray. While Ray, Kay, and Yamaguchi each reached extremely up-and-down results in varying roles, the crown jewel of the lot was the now 26-year-old Hatch, a product of Oklahoma State who was making his first go around the big leagues. Out of 17 appearances on the mound, only one came as a start, and in that time Hatch tossed 26.1 innings (1.55 IP per appearance) for a 2.73 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, a 3-1 record, and three holds (actually impressive considering how crowded the Toronto bullpen was at times). Hatch had a clear workload ceiling, but he consistently made the most of that time, never pitching less than o.2 innings (which happened just once) and going 2.0 or more IP on five separate occasions. Hatch's three wins scored him even with Toronto RP A.J. Cole (23.1 IP in 24 games) and were bested only by Hyun Jin Ryu, who notched five dubs in another excellent campaign.

Already we see something significant: only one Blue Jay rotation arm, who happens to be one of the best in the game currently, was able to record more wins with Toronto, while Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark, Matt Shoemaker, Taijuan Walker, and Ray only collectively earned six. Granted, Walker had four wins in 2020 for both the Jays and Mariners, but he had an excellent season in his own right, and his 53.1 IP over 11 starts might net much higher strikeout totals, but he also won't net any holds or make 17 separate appearances spread over a short season. In the situation of needing wins and saves/holds in the very limited window of a weekly format, the option of deploying a guy like Hatch for potentially three games in a week offers a lot of flexibility with the added bonus of additional IP as insurance in case another arm on your roster gets blitzed from the start, without necessarily having to forfeit the strikeout battle.

As it stands, it looks like Hatch, Ray, Kay, and Yamaguchi will remain in Canada barring intervening variables. The Blue Jays stand to lose Anderson, Shoemaker, Walker, Cole, Anthony Bass, and Ken Giles to free agency, and while they most likely will attempt to cook up a transaction or two for the pitching staff and have plenty of young talent waiting in the wings, it looks like the spot occupied by Hatch in the middle innings of extended relief is his to run with entering next season. As for Robbie Ray who tabbed a 4.79 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, and a bittersweet slash of 1.7 HR/9, 6.1 BB/9, yet 10.9 K/9 in 20.2 IP over five appearances (four starts), he is currently penciled in as a returning SP. However, that lone relief showing was of almost equal length as his normal starts, and it went just as well as his few solid starts on the year. If the front office or early results necessitate moving Ray to the bullpen, his rotation endurance coupled with his phenomenal K-rate could turn into a statistical smorgasbord.

For 25-year-old lefty Anthony Kay, the ball is in his court. While never a highly-ranked prospect, the former UConn hurler was one of two pitchers shipped by the Mets for Marcus Stroman, and the Jays definitely have hopes that he can turn into a serviceable mid-tier starter at the least. Kay had a rollercoaster trip in 2020, posting a 5.14 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, two wins, three holds, 6.0 BB/9, yet 9.4 K/9 in 21.0 IP across 13 relief outings (1.62 IP per appearance). Over the first two months, he actually achieved a 2.94 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, with a reduced BB/9 of 4.7 and one HR allowed over 15.1 IP, and would've clinched a marvelous season had it not been for a disastrous month of September (seven ER, two HR, six BB in 5.2 innings).

Will a longer year give Kay the time he needs to work past slumps and put his mark on 2021? While it's tough to project how the last year has impacted development for a guy in a notorious hitter's park, his 4.03 FIP compared to his 5.40 MLB ERA suggests the outcomes should start to even out. Notably, Kay was at his best last year when the game was on the line (.547 high-leverage OPS, 1.23 ERA in Wins/Save Situations). With it most likely that he starts the year in a pen that is probably losing a few key gamers, Kay is in great position to get back to capitalizing on scoring chances in the middle innings with extended work like Hatch, with potential to tally wins and holds multiple times in a week with strikeout volume that won't leave you punting.

Ah, now we reach 33-year-old former Japanese League star Shun Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi is signed through 2021, and he will need a huge bounce-back if he's going to be marketable. In 25.2 IP over 17 relief appearances last year (1.51 IP each) he totaled two wins, 0ne hold, 9.1 K/9...and an 8.06 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, 2.1 HR/9, and 6.0 BB/9. To his credit, he powered through an ugly two appearances as a start in July before producing a 1.54 ERA and 0.86 WHIP through 11.2 August IP before the wheels fell right back off with 17 ER in 13.0 September/October innings, and he often got the short end of the stick as evidenced by the vast majority of his workload coming in either low-leverage situations or those in which the game had already gotten away.

Even with the arms that will depart from Toronto and the others who have had their share of struggles, Yamaguchi must string together a pair of solid months at a time to survive with the Jays and hold on to any relevance in this incredibly niche situation. It's also possible that he is more at home as a starter, as he ended up with pretty performances when he made it to 2.1 IP or more (up to 4.0). For that to happen, it would probably require struggles from at least two Toronto starters, struggles from Kay (as Hatch seems to be capped at less than 3.0 IP), and probably would still only come to fruition if the top Jays pitching prospects had the organization thoroughly convinced that they aren't ready. With Kay and Hatch swallowing most of the joint wins/holds opportunities, Yamaguchi doesn't just need to pitch better, he needs to start leap-frogging.

 

Cincinnati Reds

Next up is the Cincinnati Reds, who leaned on the long-relief trio of Michael Lorenzen, Lucas Sims, and Tejay Antone amidst Wade Miley's IL stint, Anthony DeSclafani's implosion, and Tyler Mahle's unpredictable innings limit on route to a momentous birth in the postseason. I have to confess: as a Reds fan, I fell in love with the way these pitchers performed in their respective roles of 2020, and Cincinnati wouldn't have seen the postseason without them. Unfortunately, this setup also appears destined to dissolve, but that might just pave the way for something new to bloom. With DeSclafani having signed with San Francisco, Trevor Bauer likely to move on for astronomical money (it was fun while it lasted), and the Reds even engaging in trade talks (no secret that Cincy is chasing an All-Star caliber shortstop) regarding the other aces Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo, Michael Lorenzen currently is slated as the fifth man in the rotation with Mahle in the middle of the pack. If Gray and/or Castillo are sent elsewhere, that leaves some gargantuan shoes to be filled.

With the strong finish between injuries in late-August and late-September (as both a starter and reliever) for Miley and the significant step forward taken by Mahle last season, they make perfect sense as members of the rotation from the offset. While "Mikey Biceps" is the current fifth-man, circumstance could dictate that spot being taken by Antone, Sal Romano, reclamation projects like Jose De Leon or Jeff Hoffman, and especially elite prospects Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, or Tony Santillan. The flip-side of the uncertainty is: no matter who ends up in the rotation, those left out will likely occupy similar long-relief roles, and that's good news because with Raisel Iglesias being traded to the Angels, there is no longer as much a frustrating barricade between the long-relievers and high-leverage innings.

After the season that Lucas Sims had, he is almost certain to hop right back into the spot where he has proven most lethal. Though his stints weren't as lengthy as others on this list (25.2 IP, 20 relief appearances, 1.28 IP each game), Sims put together a gorgeous season to watch, netting a 2.45 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, three wins, five holds, a greatly improved HR/9 of 1.1, 3.9 BB/9, and a nasty 11.9 K/9. At 26, he arrived in noisy fashion, and his efficient workload maxing out hard at around 2.0 IP makes it all but certain that Sims is preparing to pick up where he left off as Cincinnati's lights-out middle-inning man.

Regarding Tejay Antone, it's likely he will be a bit more liquid in his usage, being asked to toss long-relief and make occasional spot-starts. It took Antone just 13 games (only four starts) to rack up 35.1 IP in 2020, finishing with a 2.80 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, yet just one hold and zero wins. Month by month, rotation or bullpen, it didn't matter: Antone was rock-solid, and was a workhorse in relief, powering through 19.0 innings in nine relief showings. However, he as good as his starts were, his relief outings were distantly superior, as he struck a 1.89 ERA, 0.63 WHIP, and punched 27 strikeouts over those 19.0 IP. For the reason of his relief dominance alone, it is more likely that Antone persists in his swing-man role moving forward.

Especially with Lorenzen producing inverse results over the same period. The rightful winner of the 2018 NL Silver Slugger award at pitcher (argue with me...make my day) clocked in 33.2 IP over 18 appearances, two of which were starts. With a 4.28 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 4.5 BB/9, and a goose egg for saves after achieving seven in 2019, it would appear that multi-talented Mikey took a sizeable step back. However, he did manage to strike two holds, three wins, career-high figures for HR/9 (0.8) and K/9 (9.4), and his FIP (3.87) combined with his .297 BABIP on just 26.6% hard contact indicates that his stat line will trend in a preferable direction over time. Lorenzen also performed better as a starter than he did from the pen, in contrast with Antone, posting a 2.79 ERA and 0.93 WHIP over 9.2 IP in two starts against a 4.88 ERA and 1.58 WHIP in the remaining 24.0 IP.

Taken together, as very close, yet different sides of the spectrum, that probably will lead to Lorenzen starting 2021 in the rotation, with Antone doing the heavy lifting in relief, and Sims occupying slightly fewer innings in higher-leverage situations. The trick is, as mentioned, it is easy to see how Miley, De Leon, Hoffman, Lodolo, and multiple others could end up in the rotation and/or the bullpen at different times this year. The Reds pitching staff is worth keeping an eye on for their long-relief assets, as with Iglesias out as closer in Cincinnati, that could leave an early closing committee of Amir Garrett, Noe Ramirez, and possibly Ryan Hendrix or Joel Kuhnel at the helm. With less of an established hierarchy, that lends a great window of opportunity for the Reds long-relief men to put in even more middle work, increasing the chances each week of tallying wins, holds, saves, and pleasantly surprising strikeout numbers, with the low ERA and WHIP holding up over time due to the volume of innings.



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