Late Draft RP Diving – 2017

Last year I shared with you one of my favorite draft strategies – drafting quality relief pitching late. The idea is to grab high-end set up pitchers who will help your ratios while waiting for the inevitable closer carousal to land in their place. I’m much more concerned with grabbing the best arms than looking at their closer competition. It’s not simply performance issues that cause such a massive turnover rate in closers, but it’s that injuries can happen anywhere. The point is, these arms can help with or without a closing opportunity, and one never knows what opportunities may arise.

The other advantage to drafting extra relievers late is the cost savings versus trying to acquire them in-season, either via trade or through FAAB. There is a gap between what people are willing to pay for a closer in the draft, where everyone says “never pay for saves”, and the reality as the season goes on that “I need saves”. The better you do in the draft identifying possible RP game-changers, the better your season will unfold.

The key is to find the right people, and what better way to do that than to look at what the best relievers in baseball are doing. I’m going to give you a sneak preview of my Top 10 relief pitchers for Dynasty Leagues; these are just my rankings so make sure you come back on Sunday to see our teams’ consolidated report.

Rank RP K% K%-BB% AVG SwStr %
1 Kenley Jansen  41.4 37.1 .147 17.1
2 Aroldis Chapman  40.5 32.4 .157 18.6
3 Dellin Betances   42.1 32.8 .200 15.4
4 Andrew Miller   44.7 41.5 .159 16.4
5 Zach Britton   29.1 22.1 .161 17.2
6 Ken Giles  35.7 26.9 .232 19.9
7 Edwin Diaz  40.6 33.6 .226 18.5
8 Robert Osuna  28.5 23.6 .203 15.1
9 Alex Colome  31.4 24.8 .206 15.1
10 Craig Kimbrel  37.7 24.1 .151 15.1

Generally speaking, when looking at next year’s draft, I’m going to be looking to target late any relief pitcher with similar attributes to those above. I want high K% rates, low BB rates, low AVG against, and the ability to miss bats. I’ve listed below some relief pitchers with similar peripherals in what will be my early watch list for potential late round steals in 2017.

RP K% K%-BB% AVG SwStr%
Shawn Kelley 35.7 30.8 .192 15.7
Michael Feliz 35.2 27.0 .222 13.6
Kelvin Herrera 30.4 26.2 .215 15.2
Pedro Strop 32.1 24.1 .161 16.3
Luke Gregerson 29.1 21.3 .181 20.1
Hector Neris 31.1 22.0 .200 15.4
Adam Ottavino 32.7 26.2 .184 11.1
Kyle Barraclough 36.9 22.6 .173 13.8
Koji Uehara 34.2 28.3 .199 15.0
Matt Strahm 34.1 21.6 .171 12.2
Grant Dayton 38.6 32.7 .149 15.0
Tyler Thornburg 34.2 24.7 .161 12.0
Bruce Rondon 31.3 22.9 .178 15.8
Carl Edwards Jr 37.7 27.5 .121 17.8

Notes on some of the more interesting names:

Shawn Kelley: Kelley ranked in the top-15 among all relievers in K%, K%-BB%, and SwStr%. The Nationals went out and re-signed Mark Melancon, but for us that only means Kelley becomes available as a late round flier in 2017 drafts. Kelley was featured in last year’s edition of this piece, and you’d have been reasonably happy with his numbers, even if he didn’t get many saves or wins. If the Nationals hadn’t traded for Melancon late, Kelley could have gotten some or all of those 17 saves and been a top 20 relief pitcher. You don’t win the gambles you don’t take. He was a good gamble, but it only paid off a small dividend.

Luke Gregerson: Did you know that Gregerson had the highest SwStr% of any reliever last season? Sure, it was 5 points higher than in 2015, but he has consistently put up an above average mark here. That led to a 6-year best 29% K rate, and when you throw in a 60% groundball rate, you’ve got a recipe for dominance. The Astros are likely to go with Ken Giles as their closer, but Gregerson could very easily step back into the role and succeed for a full season. This is an arm that for his career has struck out a batter per inning and has posted a 2.84 ERA over 558 games. The resurgent strikeouts make him worth considering at the end of the draft. If he gets some saves, you are a winner. 

Bruce Rondon: I’ve been waiting for Rondon to take hold of the Tigers closer job for a couple of years now. He could always miss bats, but he often couldn’t find the zone. 2016 was a different story for the young fireballer, though, especially late in the season as he settled into the setup position. He cut his walk rate to 8%, which along with a 31% strikeout mark will do just fine in the late innings. He became even more of a flyball pitcher which plays in Comerica, but led to a 17.6 HR/FB% on the road. If the gains in control hold, Rondon looks like a beast in the 8th and a lock to take over when Francisco Rodriguez surely falters. He’s nearly unhittable and could prove to be a huge steal in 2017. 

Tyler Thornburg: I was pretty excited about Thornburg heading into 2017, but the trade to Boston really killed his fantasy value. Fortunately, it may give the opportunity to get him at a great value in the draft. Like Rondon above, Thornburg is an extreme flyball pitcher who may not find the AL East and Fenway to be as kind to him. He had a fortunate HR/FB% last year and is surely in for some regression in his ERA in 2017. Are you convinced yet to take a shot on him? Well, consider the 34% K rate, the .153 average opponents hit off him in the 2nd half, along with its 2.24 FIP. This could be a stud arm who puts up big strikeout numbers next year. If Kimbrel struggles or gets injured, Thornburg could have a monster season. Remember Kimbrel wasn’t so good last season, posting a career high 13.6% BB rate and 3.40 ERA. The Sox are built to win, and if Thornburg keeps some of last year’s gains, he’ll be the one to own – and now he comes at a huge discount. 

Carl Edwards Jr./Pedro Strop: I could list Uehara here too, as his numbers were just as good, if not better, than either of these Cubs arms. The point is, with the addition of Wade Davis and Uehara, the Cubs have got themselves quite a nice bullpen. With that rotation and lineup, this is a team that is going to win a ton of games and offer opportunities for boatloads of holds and saves. Can Wade Davis stay healthy and return to form? He’s been great, but is his shoulder okay, and can he reverse the 3-year drop in strikeout rate? Perhaps it is nitpicking one of baseball’s premium relievers over the past three seasons, but I was nervous enough to not rank him in our Dynasty RP rankings coming out on Sunday. My guess is that someone is going to get saves here besides Wade Davis. Edwards Jr and Strop have the skills to hang on to the job for the long haul if it came down to it. Certainly if I’m a Davis owner, I am handcuffing him late in the draft, but even if I am not, these two are worthy fliers in the final rounds. 

Grant Dayton: While Kenley Jansen is off getting married in Curacao, the baseball world is holding its collective breath waiting to hear which team he is going to play for. If he chooses to not return to LA, the Dodgers will almost assuredly still find a closer this offseason. If they don’t, Dayton’s draft stock is going to go way up – something I don’t think is going to happen. For the sake of argument, let’s assume LA signs a closer and Dayton is relegated to an after-thought to those drafting in anything other than NL-Only leagues. Dayton has such an incredible season that his K%-BB% rivaled that of Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman. In his age 29 rookie season, Dayton struck out 38.6% of all the batters he faced, after putting up marks of 48% and 45% this year in AA and AAA. Those are some ridiculous numbers, and with him being a very late bloomer, many will discount him automatically. Don’t be one of those people – grab Dayton with one of your last picks this year. 

Adam Ottavino: Ottavino likely heads into 2017 with a grip on the Rockies closer role, but I point him out anyway if only to show the insane level of dominance he had in 2017. If it’s not enough that he struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, Ottavino put up a 61.9% ground ball rate. That’s Zach Britton-lite happening here, and in Coors it’s about the only recipe for success. Draft Ottavino with confidence!

Hector Neris: While Jeanmar Gomez racked up the saves in 2016, remember he did it with a 15.8% K rate and a 8.4 K%-BB%. Those numbers will never fly. Neris is in a 3-4 man competition to win the closer battle in 2017, but even if he doesn’t win it outright, his skills suggest that he is the man who will end the season in that spot. Neris was one of eight relievers last season to strike out more than 100 batters and he did it in 80 innings pitched. With the exception of Kyle Barraclough and Brad Hand, the others are all premium relievers. I listed Barraclough as well above, and Hand would have been next on the list had I extended it. High strikeout relievers are valuable regardless of saves; I just think Neris is going to get them too. I’m hoping that he isn’t listed as the team’s closer early so that there will be some huge value late for him.

I hope that I have given you some names to consider late instead of grabbing a Dan Straily or Hector Santiago type. Take a gamble that has a chance to pay off; we all know how volatile the closer position is, and this is where your biggest payoff could be. Best of luck in your 2017 drafts.


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Paul Hartman

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Fantasy Baseball player since 1987. Creator of Fantasy Assembly, yet just fortunate enough to be a part of it.