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Relief Pitchers: Top 5 Targets

Ah, relief pitchers, the little brother of the fantasy baseball team. No matter how well they do, they still don’t measure up. Take last year for example. The most valuable reliever – Carlos Marmol – had a 3.1 WAR, which is terrific until you consider that it was still less valuable than Juan Uribe and his 3.2 WAR. This is a lesson savvy fantasy owners take to heart – very rarely does it pay to pump a significant portion of your budget into relievers. There will always be guys who emerge as closers early in the season, and if you can pick them up on the cheap, you’ll do just fine. But, if you’re going to pay for closers, you want to at least get it right. You don’t want to pay $20 for Jose Valverde, and then watch your blood pressure balloon along with his BB/9 rate. With that in mind, here are the RG top five targets at relief pitcher. Neftali Feliz is ostensibly a top five guy (see the reliever rankings here), but since he may end up in the Rangers’ starting rotation, we’ll leave him out of the discussion for now.

Fear. The. Beard. Brian Wilson

It’s Brian Wilson’s world, we’re just living in it. While Wilson may be unpredictable off the mound, he’s becoming more and more predictable on the mound – in a good way. Wilson’s strikeouts have gone up while his walks and home runs allowed have come down. In addition, you can’t even say he’s due for a huge BABIP regression, as his BABIP allowed was .314, which was 14th worst among relievers with 60 innings pitched last season. In addition, in each of the past three seasons, batters swung and missed at Wilson offerings inside the strike zone at least five percent more frequently than the average pitcher, and nearly seven percent more last seasons, evidence that his strike out rate should still be elite. Just one rule – if you draft Wilson, you have to get the t-shirt.

Blown Away Heath Bell
It seems like Heath Bell has been a closer for a long time, but really it’s just been the last two seasons. However, in those two seasons, no one has saved more games. Unlike many San Diego pitchers, Bell is not a PETCO Park creation. Over the past two seasons, Bell’s away FIP has been 2.10, barely second in the Majors behind Matt Thornton at 2.10 (minimum 60 away innings pitched). His away xFIP in the same timespan does paint him as a little home run lucky, but using the same thresholds that 3.14 away xFIP is 10th overall and eighth among relievers. So even if Bell coughs up a few more homers outside of San Diego, he’s still going to be pretty money moving forward. As with Wilson, you’re not going to get Bell at a discount, and you don’t want to overpay/draft, as sub-2.00 ERA, 11+ K/9 seasons don’t exactly grow on trees, but if you can avoid that massive overpay/draft, you’ll be golden.

Insert new nickname here Joakim Soria
The biggest news surrounding Joakim Soria this spring has been his plea for people to stop calling him “The Mexicutioner,” which is probably for the best. And while the suggestions have piled in, the results may not be known for a little bit. What we do know is that Soria’s performance on the hill is certainly nickname-worthy. Soria has much better control than either Bell or Wilson, and so is likely to keep your WHIP a teeny bit lower. In addition, the gap between Soria’s FIP and xFIP the past two seasons (0.35) is less than half that of Bell’s (0.83) and Wilson’s (0.76), so you wouldn’t expect as large of a regression from Soria either. And since he still generates a similar amount of strikeouts as the other two – 10.62 K/9 for Soria the past two seasons, compared to 10.63 for Bell and 10.78 for Wilson – you could end up getting the same value, with less downside risk, from Soria. He ranks lower simply because of the opportunities – he had four less opportunities than Bell, and seven less than Wilson last season.

Better the second time around? Carlos Marmol
If there’s one closer in this group that you definitely want to avoid overpaying for, it’s Carlos Marmol. From 2001-2010, there were 37 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in a season and had a K/9 of at least 12. The aggregate K/9 for those 37 seasons was 12.79. In the year prior to those seasons, that same group of pitchers struck out 10.67 batters per nine innings. In the year after? 10.98 per nine. So history tells us that Marmol’s K/9 is going to drop, especially since of the 37 pitchers, Marmol’s 15.99 K/9 from last season was more than a full strike out better than the next best total (Eric Gagne’s 14.98 K/9 from his MVP 2003 campaign). And while a better pitcher could possibly fade that loss, Marmol may not be able to. Despite the ridiculous K/9, Marmol’s BB/9 totals were equally ridiculous, leaving him with a rather ordinary K/BB of 2.65 – the same figure that Mark Hendrickson tallied last year. What’s more, of the last 140 fly balls Marmol has allowed, only three have been deposited in the cheap seats. Expect that to change in 2011. Marmol was spectacular last year and is rightly in this group, but he is treading right on the razor’s edge. Be sure you don’t jump the gun with him.

This isn’t the year either Mariano Rivera
The last time Rivera failed to save 30 games in a season was 2002, and even then, with a shortened workload thanks to three stints on the disabled list, he came pretty damn close. If there’s any concern with Rivera, it’s that he didn’t strike out the same percentage of batters as he normally does last season, but that is mitigated by two factors. First, the last time Rivera’s K/9 dipped under 7.0 was in 2006, when he struck out just 6.60 per nine innings. But then Rivera rebounded with three straight seasons with a K/9 of at least 9.34, so this has happened before. Second, while his SwStr% was slightly below league average last season, batters still chased his pitches out of the zone – Rivera’s O-Swing% of 38.2% the past two seasons is tops among relievers (minimum 100 innings pitched). As long as batters are chasing those cutters outside the zone, they’re unlikely to make hard contact. The only other concern for Rivera owners, and the one legitimate reason to give pause to how high you select him, is the possibility that Rafael Soriano might vulture some saves from him. After six straight seasons of 70-plus innings pitched, Rivera has logged in the 60’s the past two seasons. Soriano isn’t a two-inning guy himself, but there could be days when Rivera simply gets a day off where he might not have in the past. Still, he’s the Cyborg Reliever ($1, Joe Sheehan). Draft with confidence.