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Operation Middle Reliever

This summer I played in the deepest league I’ve ever played in, a 20-team mixed league with traditional 5×5 scoring plus OBP and Quality Starts*. It basically came down to who had the best injury luck and made the shrewdest waiver wire/free agency pick ups (i.e. whoever grabbed Jose Bautista first). My offense was fine, propped up by Robinson Cano, Jayson Werth, Hanley Ramirez, Carlos Gonzalez, and (eventually) David Ortiz. I can’t say the same about my pitching staff.

Cole Hamels and (especially) Wandy Rodriguez started slowly before having monster second halves, and the same was true for Brian Matusz. Dallas Braden was solid yet unspectacular (I had him on the bench for the perfect game figuring the Rays would hit him around), but Ben Sheets was pretty much a flop before getting hurt. My most consistent starter all year was C.J. Wilson. My weekly ERA and WHIP pretty much sucked, and the wins were scarce.

My team was still competitive thanks to the offense and luck, but the pitching staff needed work. I started to pursue trades rather aggressively in early-June but after a week or two I gave up. Quality pitching was hard to come by in this league and everyone knew it, so if you wanted a good starter you were going to have to overpay. Frustrated but in need of some kind of fix, I gave up on starters and instead turned to the free agent pool for middle relievers. Not closers and not necessarily setup men either, but guys that pitched a fair amount of innings with high strikeouts rates.

In the first week of Operation Middle Reliever I grabbed Hong-Chih Kuo (this was long before Jonathan Broxton fell apart), Arthur Rhodes, Darren Oliver, Mike Adams, and a rookie just breaking in by the name of Jonny Venters. All five had sky high strikeout rates at the time and were getting a boatload of work, so I figured it was worth a shot. Here’s what they gave me that first week…

15 IP, 11 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 7 BB, 19 K (3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP)

The numbers would have been better if it wasn’t for Rhodes’ first meltdown of the season, a 0 IP, 3 H, 3 ER effort that put the always scary “inf” in his ERA and WHIP columns for a few days. Aside from that, the overall production is pretty damn good, basically the same as adding two good starters to my staff. Our league carried 3 SP, 2 RP, and 3 P starting spots, so from that point on I had four or five middle relievers going every night. As the season progressed I got a better handle on things and leveraged my roster spots by keeping track of workloads (via Daily Baseball Data). The production was solid and best of all, there’s a seemingly limitless supply of these kind of relievers available. If someone got hurt or hit a rough patch, a capable replacement was just a few clicks away. Trust me, those were just the first five relievers I picked up, there was another dozen or so that came in and out as the season went on.

There’s a downside as well. Blow-ups like the one Rhodes had are inevitable and can screw up your week rather easily. If two relievers have performances like that, I basically done for the week. I was also close to punting QS, though things improved there once Hamels, Wandy, and Matusz hit their strides late. Roster efficiency was another issue; I needed four or five guys to give me the production I could be getting from two or three. I was pretty desperate for help, but the strategy worked. I finished the year with the best regular season record in the league but ultimately lost in the Championship Round.

While I recommend going heavy on quality middle relievers in deep leagues, my best advice to make sure you have good starters. I know it’s a helluva lot easier said than done, but I wouldn’t go into the season counting on bullpeners to carry my pitching staff. If you need help at midseason and aren’t willing to meet to asking price for starters in a trade, grab some high strikeout relief arms to tide you over. Don’t try to catch lightning in a bottle with sketchy starters.

* Not a fan of QS in fantasy, probably won’t use them again.