Right-hander Brandon Lyon likely isn’t on too many fantasy radars this winter. After all, he has only compiled five saves over the past two seasons and owns an uninspiring 6.15 K/9 career strikeout rate. A shoulder injury in 2011 and two-plus years with the Houston Astros also contribute to his removal from the collective fantasy consciousness.
With the news that Lyon should be joining the New York Mets bullpen, however, fantasy owners should once again start paying attention to the 33-year-old former closer.
Non-closing relievers do have value in most deeper fantasy formats, but aside from the standard solid run prevention, they ideally must provide ample strikeouts and a chance at save opportunities to justify selection on draft day. Coming into the 2012 season, Brandon Lyon did not project to offer either of those. His strikeout rate had been below-average throughout his career, and Brett Myers had the closer’s role on lockdown in Houston.
A year can make quite the difference.
Lyon enjoyed significant improvement on the mound last season. He fanned more than a batter per inning for the first time in his career, compiling a 9.30 K/9 strikeout rate and a 10.1% swinging-strike rate. Many have pointed to the increased usage of his cutter, but the real reason his strikeout rate improved so dramatically appears to be a lights-out curveball. Opposing hitters swung and missed at a Lyon hook 21.4% of the time. That’s the highest swinging-strike rate on his curveball since FanGraphs started logging PITCHf/x data in 2007.
If that heightened strikeout rate carries into the 2013 season, his fantasy stock obviously rises. What makes Lyon potentially worth a roster spot as a non-closing reliever, however, is the fact that he’s joining the New York Mets’ bullpen that currently has the shaky Frank Francisco as their incumbent closer. Francisco posted a 5.53 ERA last year, and GM Sandy Alderson recently stated that he lacks confidence in Francisco as the Mets’ closer.
Currently, the competition for the Mets’ ninth-inning role appears to come from 28-year-old Bobby Parnell. He logged seven saves last year and posted a 2.49 ERA and 2.99 FIP — making him the most likely option should Francisco stumble — but fantasy owners should be slightly concerned that Parnell lost 1.5 mph on his average fastball and that he blew five saves. A veteran reliever such as Lyon, who experienced an uptick in his strikeout rate and found success in both the National and American Leagues last year, could be an attractive option down the road for Terry Collins should Francisco and Parnell both struggle as closing options.
Fantasy owners who are scrounging for saves late in the draft should target Bobby Parnell before Brandon Lyon. In fact, owners should probably shy away from Lyon on draft day — other than deep NL-only leagues — until the right-hander can prove his increased strikeout rate sustainable in 2013. If his curveball remains largely unhittable and his K-rate once again approaches one strikeout per inning, grab him off waivers. There’s a solid chance he could receive some save opportunities with the Mets this upcoming season. Even if he doesn’t receive save opportunities, though, he would still be able to provide value in strikeouts and solid overall rate statistics.
So don’t get overly cute and select Lyon on draft day, but be sure to monitor his performance early in the season and be prepared to grab him off the waiver wire. He is a sleeper candidate for possible save opportunities in New York by the end of summer.