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“65 Mustangs” Booms n Busts – What I Learned About Drafting Relievers Last Season.

Happy almost Spring. It sounds funny to say that after the ice and freezing rain we endured lately in the Northeast, but the fact is that Spring Training starts in less than a week. The Not-So-Warm Stove is finally heating up and our teams should be welcoming their new teammates soon enough. For us, that means it is time to get ready for the 2018 drafts and we only have a few weeks to do it. I start by looking at what I learned from last year’s drafts and in-season decisions that shaped my level of success in 2017. I don’t dwell on last year, but I don’t want to make the same mistakes either. Fernando Rodney can’t close forever, can he?

The good thing about getting burned big time in a draft is that we usually learn a thing or two about drafting in general and about our own drafting habits. The fantasy player who thinks he has it all figured out is likely finishing 5th every year. I like to think of myself as a student of the game, both the real game and our fantasy game. Both are continually changing, and we have to change as well if we want to finish better than 5th.

No other position is changing faster than the relief pitcher position. It was not too long ago when all that mattered was rostering enough closers to get our share of the Saves pie. Specialization is changing the way relievers are used, and at the same time managers have started toying with the idea that maybe they don’t necessarily need to name just one closer. They have more flexibility and are less susceptible to injury and ineffectiveness if two or three of their relievers can close games. But the debate still rages as to when to start drafting relievers, and when to stop.

Most of the leagues I play in have evolved to a more balanced use of relievers in response to the changes in the game played on the field. We believe in using the whole pool of relievers, not just those who garner saves. You will hear me talk about stats like Holds (H) and Inherited Runners Stranded (IRS) along with Saves (S), and you will hear me talk about one of my own favorite positions on a fantasy roster, the CLEW (Closer En Waiting). Without going too deep into strategy in this article, a CLEW is a guy who has a pretty good chance at getting the Saves if the incumbent closer succumbs to injury or ineffectiveness. I’d rather fill my bench spots with a bunch of CLEWS than rostering any backup position players who will only play on Monday or Thursday if they are lucky. I start as many of my CLEWS as I can every day to maximize my counting stats instead of leaving inactive starting pitchers in my lineup when they are not pitching. Then, when the Closer Carousel starts to turn, Hopefully, I have my own stable to plug in instead of spending all my FAAB on Closers or making imbalanced trades just so I can compete.

Trivia Question: What reliever accumulated 125 saves by the time he was 28 for three separate teams, but has not been in the preseason closer conversation for almost four years. He is 29 now and has a chance to close for his new team in the AL. The answer is below in the body of the article.

So, enough about that, what happened last season?

BOOMS!What guys made me look smart last season?

Brad Hand, RP, SDP: The Brotato, as he is known to his, um bros, turned 27 during Spring Training last season.  Ok, so I am a huge believer in the age 27 breakout phenomenon, but that is not the only reason I picked him up, and in fact, I didn’t draft him. I picked him up off the wire like the rest of you, but long before the Padres named him the closer. Like I said in my intro, I try to stockpile as many CLEWS as possible on my roster because I don’t like scrambling for saves and I don’t like spending my whole FAAB budget chasing them. Enter lefty Brad Hand, age 27. Hand was not unknown. He toiled in Miami for years as a sometimes starting pitcher, seldom a good one. He walked far too many batters and didn’t have the stuff to dominate to offset that. The Padres picked him up off waivers in 2016 and put him right in the pen where he proceeded to strike out 111 batters in 89 innings. A reliever who K’s 100 plus tends to get drafted if only for the K’s, but Hand also had a whopping 10% walk rate which is not the stuff of closers. When he turned 27 it seems the light went on. If you want another theory, lefties tend to take longer to develop on average, but it was Hand’s time. In 2017 he had his lowest walk rate (2.3/9 vs lifetime 3.5/9) and his highest K rate (11.8/9 vs 8.0 lifetime) of his career. His 5.2 K/BB rate more than doubled his lifetime 2.2 K/BB. To put that in perspective, the league average K-BB % was 12.3%. In 2017, Hand posted up a 27% K-BB%. I picked him up for the 100 K’s and he also didn’t hurt with a 2.16 ERA and .933 WHIP against a 3.03 FIP. In the 2nd half, he made me look like a genius posting up 21 saves for a pretty bad Padres team after they traded the current closer, the immortal Brandon Maurer. That performance got him a 3 year $20M contract from the Pads, seemingly assuring him of closer duties until 2020. 2018 Strategy: He’ll be drafted as one of the first 15 or so closers off the board. I’ll be looking for his potential replacement. Hand had by far the best season of his career, but he also blew 5 of his 26 save opps., and I’m not sure he can sustain the walk and K rates that carried him last season. I’d draft him as a reliever, but he’ll be drafted as a closer. As they say on Shark Tank, “I’m out.” With a $20M contract and his wife Morgan, Brad had a lot to celebrate this New Year’s Eve.

Corey Knebel, RP, MIL: Unlike Brad Hand, we were waiting for Knebel to show up, and he did, big time, in 2017. In the minors, he only started three of his roughly 100 games pitched, saving nearly 30, so he was being groomed to close. In 2017 he saved 39 games against 6 blown and even chipped in 11 holds before taking the closer role for good in mid-May. I drafted Knebel as one of my target CLEWS in 2017. Not only hoping for Saves but assuming I’d get the K’s and some Holds even if he didn’t get the gig. He got the gig though and never looked back. The Brewers are gearing up to win now and Knebel is part of the reason. He had a strikeout rate in 2017 of 41%, twice the league average, and logged 126 K’s in 76 innings for a 15 K/9. That is like having an extra starting pitcher every week adding to your counting stats. He also chipped in with a 1.78 ERA buoyed by a 2.53 FIP and a 1.158 WHIP. The WHIP is low because no one can hit him. His .311 Babip shows it is not likely luck as he gave up very few HR or extra-base hits, but he did have a 12.9% walk rate or 4.7 BB/9. That is pretty terrible and is his only Achilles heel. I’m glad I drafted Knebel late in 2017 but I can’t claim to have discovered him. I was just smart enough to time it just right. He needs to get the walk rate down though if he does not want to cause coronaries in the hearts of fans and managers alike. He will be 26 in 2018, so I believe he is still developing and will be one of the best closers in the NL in due time if he is not already. 2018 Strategy: All in if I don’t have to reach too early. He is not yet arbitration eligible and won’t be a free agent until 2022. This kid is hungry and on a team that expects to contend. 

Addison Reed, RP, MIN: As I stated in my intro, I like playing in leagues that lessen the value of the save in the scoring by also assigning value to holds and inherited runners stranded. Every year I try to target relievers who have a good chance of contributing in all three, especially among my final few picks in the draft. They come cheap, never paying more than a buck or a 20 plus round pick for them, but they can add a lot of value over the course of a season compared to a backup 2nd baseman who may sit on my bench whenever he is not going 0 for 4 in my lineup. Reed started the season on the Mets and ascended to the closer role when Jeurys Familia, whom I also owned in many leagues, was suspended. Reed nailed down 19 saves while blowing 2, but also added 15 holds and 20 IRS. His 9.0 k/9 and 1.8 BB/9 rates didn’t hurt me and neither did his 2.84 ERA and 1.093 WHIP. When entering mid-inning, he had a 61% strand rate, which while not elite, did add to my IRS totals. His bugaboo is the HR, another reason it is good he does not put a lot of ducks on the pond. His 4.7% HR rate and 18.5% HR/FB rates are well below average which may be why the stat geeks and closer hoarders don’t like him too much. However, while he may not be elite, Reed has closed before, and there is a good chance he closes again in 2018, as Fernando Rodney, Matt Belisle and the ghost of Glen Perkins are not exactly reliable options either. Trivia Question Answer: Reed is only 29 this season, and I doubt many people remember that he has accumulated 125 saves already in his brief career serving as the Chisox and D’backs closer for three years in his early 20’s before racking up nearly another 20 for the Mets in 2017. 2018 Strategy: My saying, and yes I have quite a few of them, is that “Closers Close”. Reed is a closer, and he will close again. If he is still on the board in the later rounds he will be on all my teams. 

BUSTS!What guys made me want to turn in my Fantasy Baseball Membership Card?

Jeurys Familia, RP, NYM: Familia is a bonafide closer, and often one of the best and most reliable in baseball. I doubt I need to bore you with his stats from 2015 to 2016. He started off the 2017 season suspended for the first month or so. When he came back in May he had shoulder problems which ended up being a blood clot in or near his humorous bone which kept him out until August. In the end, he ended up with six saves and an ERA over four after losing the gig first to Addison Reed and later to AJ Ramos. It was a lost season for Familia and a lost early pick for me. I drafted him as my first closer in three leagues, maybe as late as 12th -14th round since people were already allowing for the 15 game suspension. Reed is gone on to Minnesota, but Ramos is still on the roster. Then, on Friday, Familia stated he does not need to have the literal title closer or exclusive use in the role. Hopefully, he is just trying to say the right thing and not getting soft on us. Closers Close, and he will too. Ramos, while a decent closer in his own right is not as talented as Familia. 2018 strategy: I’m going to hope Familia falls in drafts, and if so I’ll pounce. AJ Ramos would make for a great handcuff if your league-mates let you have him a few rounds later.

Dellin Betances, RP, NYY: This one broke my heart.  I invested a lot in Dellin Betances, and not just in 2017. I’ve had the pleasure of doing the reliever rankings for Major League Fantasy Sports for the past four years now. I’ve bucked the trend of ranking solely closers in the upper ranks of Fantasy relievers and based on our Fantrax Scoring System have ranked Betances as the 5th best reliever in all of baseball four years running. Well, in those first three seasons, Betances finished in that top five, including closers, even coming in first place in our leagues one of those seasons and second the other. But, in 2017 he failed me and all his owners. He simply forgot how to throw strikes. Some thought it was his arbitration loss and the lousy way he was treated by Yankee Brass at the time, but he pitched well enough in the first half of the season before falling apart in the second half. He didn’t lose velocity at all, he just lost the strike zone. If he is too sensitive to handle a negative arbitration experience, he does not belong in NY, and I’d welcome a trade….to the NL (Yes, I’m a Yankee fan). I’m hoping he just suffered some burnout and after an offseason of rest, he’ll be fine come Spring. That happens with relievers who are used a lot and maybe even over-used. They’ll have two or three good seasons followed by a bad one, then go back to what they were again the following season. 2018 Fantasy Draft Strategy:I’m not predicting that will happen, I’m not telling you to go out and draft him expecting a rebound. However, that is just what I plan on doing in my own drafts. Yes, I have some foibles when it comes to drafting my boys. I’m not a fantasy machine, but I also look for opportunities to buy low and this may be one. Wish me luck.

That is it for now. I’ll be back soon with some rankings of catchers and relievers and before you know it the season will start and it will be time to “Pick Your Spots” with me every Sunday on the Reddit r/fantasybaseball sub. I’m also on the Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show this Sunday night which you will see a link for below.

Good luck in your drafts if I don’t get to talk to you beforehand and if you have any questions about relievers, spot starters or anything else fantasy, email me at joseph.iannone021@gmail.com and I’ll respond as fast as possible

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Major League Fantasy Baseball Show: Join host Brian Roach, Jr, and John Gozzi live on Sunday February 11th, 2018 from [7:30]-9pm EST for episode #97 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. This is our kick off show for the new 2018 fantasy baseball season. We will discuss the latest information in the world of fantasy baseball.

Our guest this week is Joe IannoneJoe is a tenured writer with majorleaguefantasysports.com. Click on his name to see his portfolio of writing. His main focus is in the pitching arena.

I'm an accountant and an amateur writer of fiction and sports commentary, mostly baseball. I've been a student of the game of baseball since the Dinosaurs roamed the earth, or at least since a few years before the world knew what a designated hitter was. Otherwise, I like "antique" cars of the 60's and 70's and have been a fantasy baseball fanatic since my first draft many years ago. I live in CT with my wife Megan of 25 years, our daughter Caitlin and their (their) cats. I'm also the better looking of the two guys in the the photo.

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