How to Use Relief Pitching to Win Fantasy Leagues
It's a common practice to load up on offense and as many top tier starting pitchers early in fantasy baseball drafts.
It's not until the mid rounds do you start to see relief pitchers coming off the board. The purpose of this article isn't to persuade you to reach on the top closers available, but rather to give you a different strategy to utilize during your draft if things start to fall apart.
Most people will play in a standard Yahoo! weekly head to head format. Meaning managers will play opponents for a week at a time, accumulating points in a variety of categories. Most leagues will include categories such as wins, losses, ERA (earned run average), WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings pitched), strikeouts, saves and a newer category we've been seeing more of is the combination of saves and holds into one category.
This is due to the fact that many people don't like having to draft and keep up with closers. There are only a handful of closers that have enough job security warrant a mid round selection in fantasy drafts. By combining the saves and holds category it allows fantasy managers to worry less about grabbing a closer and instead on getting quality relievers who don't necessarily have to get saves.
Most leagues will still run with a more traditional setup though and that means either splitting saves and holds into two separate categories or not having a holds category and only including a saves category for relief pitchers (as this has always been the equivalent to "wins" for starting pitchers).
For the purposes of this article we are looking at pitching stat categories of Wins, Losses, Saves, Strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP.
Obviously starting pitchers will be who you turn to in order to make up most of your wins and strikeouts. Closers are going to get your saves. You hope that all your pitchers help to limit your weekly losses. ERA and WHIP are categories that are representative of how consistently your players perform.
If a starter goes out in the first inning and gives up four runs and gets replaced he ends the day with a 36.00 ERA. But if that starter goes eight innings not allowing another run, he finishes the day with a 4.5 ERA. A player like Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer is going to be given the opportunity to overcome bad starts. A backend rotation guy that happened to land on your roster may not.
Gerrit Cole gets Didi on three pitches: 83 mph curveball 98 mph fastball 90 mph changeup (!!) https://t.co/If9H2gaWda— Talkin' Yanks (@Talkin' Yanks) 1615488218.0
If you are a fantasy manager that is lucky enough to land some top end starters early in the draft, you know that you have the ability to turn to building your offense in the mid rounds and are probably putting getting relievers on the bottom of the priority list.
That's good for you if you are one of the managers that missed on the Jacob deGrom's and Yu Darvish's of the world.
Jacob deGrom faced 9 Astros tonight. He struck out 7 of them. 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/qQGFwupF6m— SNY (@SNY) 1615509255.0
I've never personally prioritized getting starting pitching when playing in a head to head format. The reason for this is, I instead focus on getting strong relievers to pad my teams' stats. This also allows me to be adding bats to my roster with my first few (usually four or five) picks giving me an edge offensively in my matchups.
Okay that's step one. Gain an offensive advantage by ignoring starting pitching early.
Now even though this is about using bullpen guys to help you win, after adding a few top tier position players I typically will grab one or two starting pitchers here. Get the best available that will help you in at least three categories. A guy like Dallas Keuchel is a perfect example. In 2020, Keuchel, went 6-2 in 11 starts with a 1.99 ERA, 1.09 WHIP. But only accounted for 42 strikeouts over 63 and 1/3 innings.
Lucas Giolito. Dallas Keuchel. Lance Lynn. You absolutely love to see it. https://t.co/ipf8Hx0cCO— Chicago White Sox (@Chicago White Sox) 1607814006.0
This is the opposite of a sexy fantasy pick. It is so boring that you may want to shotgun a Red Bull before hitting the draft button on him. But it's laying the foundation for building the rest of your pitching staff up.
After grabbing a few starters, now you may want to start picking off relievers in rounds 7-10. This seems really early, I know. But remember this is a different strategy and you've got four studs on offense already in the draft.
So here's a quick snap shot of how I break down the relief pitcher "tiers".
Liam Hendriks looks like the kid on your little league team who slept in his uniform the night before picture day b… https://t.co/60NTBTHxm2— Jessica Kleinschmidt (@Jessica Kleinschmidt) 1615424914.0
Josh Hader MIL
Liam Hendriks CWS
Aroldis Chapman NYY
Brad Hand WSH
Kenley Jansen LAD
Fun fact: James Karinchak had the 7th highest BB% among qualified relievers last season. However, since he punches… https://t.co/rcWyYsj5Yn— The Stable (@The Stable) 1615477383.0
Edwin Diaz NYM
James Karinchak CLE
Drew Pomeranz SD
Raisel Iglesias LAA
Craig Kimbrel CHC
Kirby Yates TOR
Next Best (it's pretty early to really know enough about a lot of these guys)
Get to know the guys on the 40-man roster! RHP Ryan Pressly had an impressive Spring Training debut, striking out… https://t.co/J3QxCkw3TT— Houston Astros (@Houston Astros) 1615328454.0
Ryan Pressly HOU
Rafael Montero SEA
Archie Bradley PHI
Greg Holland KC
Richard Rodriguez PIT
Jake Diekman OAK
Jose Leclerc TEX
Will Smith ATL
Joakim Soria ARI
Daniel Bard COL
Matt Barnes BOS
So from this list you can see there aren't a lot of closers with clearly defined roles. There are far more options that might be the closer or that are hanging on by the thinnest of threads. I try to seek out three of what I consider to be top 10 relievers. They can be non-closers. I drafted Josh Hader before he was a closer in this spot and would draft someone like Devin Williams in this spot now. Just make sure that the players you're getting here are consistent and can get you saves if he isn't the primary closer.
Most important is that these relievers will consistently lower your team's weekly ERA, WHIP, and contribute to strikeouts. Some weeks your best starter only pitches once. If three of my best pitchers are relievers they are going to have much more exposure to playing throughout the course of a week and thus giving my fantasy team more chances for my best pitchers to rack up stats for me.
Step two complete. Gain an advantage in relief pitching against opponents.
Considering in fantasy baseball there's really only three ways to score: offensive stats, stats that starting pitchers primarily get, and stats that relief pitchers primarily get, you've put yourself in a good mathematical situation to win on a week to week basis.
Try this strategy in a few mock drafts and see how the roster shakes out. Keep checking back for more things fantasy baseball before your draft happens this month.