Tuma: Relief Pitcher Rumblings

Jul 14th 2022

Brendan Tuma

I believe the standard relief pitcher category for fantasy baseball leagues in 2022 and beyond should be saves plus holds instead of just saves.

Is that controversial? I'm not sure, but what I do know is that I'm enjoying my leagues that incorporate holds in some capacity more than my saves-only setups. There are a few key reasons for that:

  1. SV+HLDs leagues put more of an emphasis on skills analysis, as opposed to constantly tracking a manager's arbitrary decision for who gets the ninth inning role.

  2. The high-end closers are still the most valuable relievers in SV+HLDs leagues. There are more saves to be had in the usable pool of RPs than there are holds. In 2021, for instance, just 4 pitchers recorded 25 or more holds. However, 12 arms registered 25 or more saves.

  3. Most importantly - nasty, late-inning arms are some of the most exciting players to root for as a baseball fan. Without holds, fantasy managers are simply ignoring an incredibly valuable (and fun) subset of the player pool.

There's my rationale for why your league should switch to SV+HLDs next year if it's currently a saves-only situation. As always, I'm more than happy to continue discussing the topic on Twitter @toomuchtuma.

Below are some thoughts on 5 thrilling RPs midway through the 2022 MLB campaign.

Stats entering Thursday, July 14th

Andres Munoz, RP, SEA

The 23-year-old flamethrower was acquired from the Padres in the 7-player deal that also brought Ty France to the Mariners at the 2020 trade deadline. It's safe to say Seattle is winning that deal right now.

Munoz is having a breakout year in 2022, ranking 5th among qualified relievers in K% and 3rd in K-BB%. He has been particularly exceptional over the past month. In 14 2/3 innings since June 13th, Munoz hasn't allowed an earned run. During this stretch he has a 29:3 K:BB with a -0.23 FIP. Alrighty then.

He's part of a Mariners bullpen that is quite good - and quite underrated. Among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched this season, Seattle had 5 of the top 28 leaders in K-BB% entering the week.

Paul Sewald has established himself as the club's primary ninth inning option, but hopefully Munoz's time as a closer is coming. For now, he'll remain a high-upside strikeout option while posing strong-to-elite ratios.

Evan Phillips, RP, Dodgers

At this time last year, Phillips was pitching in Triple-A for the Orioles and certainly wasn't on anyone's radar as a potential big league breakout. The Rays claimed him off waivers last August, used him in one big league game, and tried to sneak him through waivers and back to the minors.

The Dodgers were lurking, however, and they then claimed him. Phillips ended up pitching for LA down the stretch and even in the NLCS against the Braves.

One lesson from recent history when it comes to evaluating relievers, pitchers, or players in general: If the Dodgers think someone is good, then they probably are.

With Craig Kimbrel going through another slump at the moment, the 27-year-old Phillips has arguably become the team's best bullpen weapon. Among Dodgers RPs, only Daniel Hudson has a better K-BB% than Phillips (in fewer innings) and nobody has more WPA (win probability added). Phillips even picked up his first save in place of Kimbrel on Wednesday night.

Where Phillips really shines is in Eno Sarris' Pitching+ model. In the latest update on July 9th, Phillips had the 12th best Pitching+ metric among relievers with at least 400 pitches thrown. (Interestingly, Kimbrel was still ahead of him, suggesting the possible HOF closer isn't finished just yet).

The keys to Phillips's success have been throwing his four-seamer less, developing a cutter, and adding a lot more "sweep" to his slider. Here is the change in horizontal inches of break on Phillips' slider throughout the years:

  • 2019: 7.4 inches

  • 2022: 15.4 inches

The adjustments appear to be working:

John Schreiber, RP, Red Sox

The 28-year-old was picked up off waivers from the Tigers in February 2021. Fast forward 16 months later and he has become Boston's best relief pitcher absent a healthy Garrett Whitlock.

His fastball used to average under 90 mph with Detroit, but in 2022 its clocking an average of 94.4 mph.

Watch the video of his pitching style below and you'll notice the low release point that Schreiber attacks hitters with. This causes them to struggle picking up the ball, especially because they're expecting horizontal offerings.

Instead, Schreiber's combination of fastballs up in the zone, sinkers with good drop, and a sweeping slider is pure nightmare fuel for anyone unfortunate enough to stand at the plate against him. He's tied for 5th in WPA among RPs this year.

Furthermore, he's becoming an absolute staple of a roster option in SV+HLDs fantasy formats. Not only do his 15 holds ranks 7th in all of baseball, but they've all come after his April 27th promotion to the majors. Since that date only Devin Williams, AJ Minter, and Taylor Rogers have more combined SV+HLDs than Schreiber.

Felix Bautista, RP, Orioles

Disclaimer: I don't think Bautista is as well-rounded of a relief pitcher as the first 3 players we've discussed, but he still has some outlandish qualities that make him worth talking about here.

It starts with his fastball, which averages 98.6 mph and ranks as the 11th hardest thrown four-seamer in the majors, per Baseball Savant. But that isn't even what makes it cool.

The true absurdity with Bautista's heater is that it only drops 8.6 inches on the way to home plate. The 2nd place leader in this metric is Ryan Helsley all the way up at 9.8 inches. In 2021, nobody had a fastball that dropped less than 10 inches. So yeah, Bautista's primary offering is quite special.

Add in a devastating splitter that perfectly plays off the four-seamer, plus a slider, and "King Felix" makes for a very uncomfortable at bat. It has led to a strong 31.7 K% that positions him as a possible future closer in Baltimore, though control issues have held him back from joining the elite ranks of relief pitchers.

Entering Thursday's action Bautista's 22.3 K-BB% ranks just 36th among qualified RPs. That isn't a death sentence for a pitcher who just broke out this season, but it's a reminder that he's likely one more adjustment away from pure dominance.

Jhoan Duran, RP, Twins

We'll close with a player who truly embodies the rationale for switching fantasy leagues to SV+HLDs in the Year of our Lord, 2022.

Duran currently ranks 3rd in WPA, 17th in K-BB%, and first in fastball velocity. He even has a hybrid splitter-sinker pitch called a splinker. This is the exact type of young, emerging power arm we should be exposing baseball fans to through fantasy leagues.

But, after some early-season optimism that he'd overtake 9th inning duties, he has just 5 saves.

It isn't as if Duran is piling up holds at an outrageous rate. He only has 10 as of Thursday morning. Still, using SV+HLDs makes him a viable roster option, especially when factoring in his elite ratios.

Outside of Duran, Minnesota's bullpen has been an abomination, which is why they've had to use him in a variety of roles instead of just the ninth inning. The organization is also being cautious with his usage after throwing just 16 innings in 2021. Similar to Munoz, he's someone whose value in saves-only formats could erupt if given more of a regular closing role in 2023.