most valuable reliever, least valuable reliever

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Electric left-hander Josh Hader was arguably the biggest story among relief pitchers in fantasy baseball this season. Hader entered 2022 as the first relief pitcher off the board in most leagues, roto and points, and for good reason. Hader saved 34 games with a 1.23 ERA in 2021, with a 2.26 career ERA, a 44.0% strikeout percentage and three seasons with 100-plus strikeouts. Fast forward to September, however, and Hader is not among the leaders either on the ESPN Player Rater or in points formats.

Hader, who didn’t permit his first run of the season until June, suddenly started allowing a lot of them. At first, fantasy managers gave it little attention. Then Hader was scored upon in six of his 11 July outings and then everyone certainly noticed when the Milwaukee Brewers sent him to the San Diego Padres for their closer and a package of prospects. Pundits praised the Padres. Then Hader lost the closer role for them, and fantasy managers started dumping his shares. Then Hader re-established himself.

What should a fantasy manager do with him in 2023? Well, there is no right answer here.

We know Hader has a long history of run-prevention excellence and missing bats, and there is little in his current numbers that tell us he cannot return to previous statistical glory. He may be awesome again. Then again, he may not. He may be the ultimate risk/reward proposition among hurlers on draft day. Hader’s 5.98 ERA tells an incomplete story. His expected ERA is 3.75 and his xFIP is 2.98, as he has been unlucky on balls in play and with runners left on base. Hader’s fastball is arriving as hard as ever, on average. His slider has been less effective, but it remains a solid pitch. He could well be the top relief pitcher in 2023 … or far from it.

My stance on relief pitching has been clear for a long time: I had no shares of Hader this season, not because I was worried that he would suddenly fall apart. Nobody could have predicted this. I had no shares of Liam Hendriks and Edwin Diaz, either. I avoid the top closers, feeling that hitters and aces are better targets in the first 10 rounds of roto drafts. I also aim to avoid risk. Hader will be a risk in 2023. Diaz will not be, but still, we’ve seen his rough seasons. Stuff happens. Saves are always coming into the league mid-season, as you will see from our reliever MVP candidates. Perhaps it’s a bit of a guessing game but, in general, there are never guarantees with relief pitchers.

As we finish up the 2022 season, we reflect both on what happened, as well as what to expect in 2023. We already covered the starting pitchers here. Today, our focus shines on relief pitchers.

Fantasy RP MVP: Kudos to New York Mets RHP Diaz and Cleveland Guardians RHP Emmanuel Clase, who (barring a colossal late-season collapse) figure to finish among the most valuable relievers in the sport, but they were supposed to do this. Clase went in Round 7 of ESPN ADP and Diaz not long after. Hendriks has been fine and a top-10 reliever on the Rater, too. Fantasy managers got numbers with these fellows, but several pitchers drafted in the final rounds (or not at all) provided significant statistics as well.

Few considered St. Louis Cardinals RHP Ryan Helsley, Minnesota Twins RHP Jorge Lopez, Baltimore Orioles RHP Felix Bautista or New York Yankees RHP Clay Holmes back in March, at least in standard leagues. These were not closers last season — or in any season. Lopez, despite abysmal numbers as a starting pitcher last season and prior ones, took over closing duties for the Orioles in May and earned himself an All-Star berth. Then the Twins dealt for him. Bautista replaced Lopez in Baltimore at that point and has been tremendous. Holmes is closing for a 100-win team, inducing ground balls at a record rate.

Helsley, however, gets the nod for MVP honors with his 1.26 ERA and a 38.0% strikeout rate. He hasn’t been closing all season, thus his modest save total, but Helsey also boasts nine wins. Those matter, too. His teammate Giovanny Gallegos was the No. 10 reliever in ADP, a 15th-round selection. He’s readily available now. Helsley is the closer.

Fantasy RP LVP: Well, it’s not Hader, despite his troubles. It’s not Atlanta Braves RHP Raisel Iglesias, the No. 4 closer in ADP who no longer saves games regularly after the trade from the Los Angeles Angels. Future Hall of Famers Craig Kimbrel of the Los Angeles Dodgers and current Braves closer Kenley Jansen have been up-and-down, but up enough to provide value.

Yankees left-hander Aroldis Chapman, however, may not make it to double-digit saves this season, despite averaging more than 30 saves per full season for his career. His ERA is 4.70. Blame injuries and walks, but even if he finds a closing role in 2023 with the Yankees or another organization, be wary.

The Coors Field factor: Colorado Rockies RHP Daniel Bard deserves much credit for his fantastic season. Fantasy managers kept ignoring him despite strong numbers, expecting the inevitable struggles because, well, it’s Denver and high altitude, but the struggles have yet to happen. Bard saved 20 games in 2021 but with a 5.21 ERA. Eight pitchers have saved 30 games in a season for the Rockies, but none with an ERA close to Bard’s current mark of 2.06. Brian Fuentes saved 30 games with a 2.73 ERA for the 2008 Rockies. Bard may be having the most valuable relief season in Rockies history! That noted, we should not expect a repeat, despite his roundly questioned two-year contract extension, so be careful.

Numbers that matter

  • Brewers RHP Devin Williams took over closing duties after the Hader trade and has been one of the top relievers in the sport. He may finish with the most fWAR among relief pitchers. He is fourth among relievers in strikeout percentage and a potential top-five closing option next draft day.

  • Seattle Mariners RHP Andres Munoz is not closing, but he ranks second to Diaz in strikeout percentage. Saves aren’t everything. Run prevention and strikeouts are critical as well, and while we can’t predict which pitchers return to the Seattle bullpen, if Munoz is one of them, expect some inevitable saves.

  • Tampa Bay Rays RHP Pete Fairbanks leads all relief pitchers in fWAR since the All-Star break and he has six saves. Perhaps no Rays pitcher will ever pile on the saves under the current regime, but Fairbanks is rarely permitting baserunners, yet alone runs. Rays relievers can be valuable.

  • Twins RHP Jhoan Duran is among the relief leaders in ground-ball percentage, and nobody ahead of him combines this ability with his strikeout rate. Duran, a 24-year-old rookie, figures to earn myriad saves in future seasons with his special skillset, regardless of other pitchers in his bullpen.

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