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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fantasy Baseball: The Reliever Conundrum

Fantasy baseball owners year in and year out face the reliever conundrum.

What is the reliever conundrum? The fact that in standard 5x5 rotisserie leagues saves is a major fantasy category yet in the grand scheme of things relievers do not offer much value.

For instance, say you want to win the saves, ERA and WHIP categories and plan on doing it with mostly relievers. The first big problem here is that most leagues have a minimum qualification for innings pitched. You do not reach that threshold you are out of contention for winning that league. The innings requirement in turn marginalizes relievers ERA and WHIP totals because those categories are based on cumulative results. The innings threshold makes you carry starting pitchers. Say you have five starters and four relievers with a couple pitchers in reserve. Most fantasy baseball players want to maximize their starters innings to have the highest possibility of strikeout and win totals so a diligent owner might see each one of those five starting pitcher slots throw 250 or so innings to their total.

Of the 16 players with more than 30 saves last year, only four threw more than 70 innings (with Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton topping out 76 for, who else, Joe Torre) with the majority of pitchers falling between 60-69 innings. Even if your four to five relief pitchers have sterling ERAs and WHIPs, the cumulative effect of your relievers 250 to 300 innings will only be about 20 to 30 percent of your overall ERA and WHIP categories.

There is a flip side to this argument as well. If you are behind in saves in the middle of the season and there are multiple yet less than stellar options available either via trade or free agency, go get them and plug them in to your roster. Players like Matt Capps of the Nationals, Leo Nunez of the Marlins or Frank Francisco of the Rangers do not have typical closer ERAs but can get your team some saves. With their marginal amount of total innings pitched you should not be too worried about the cumulative effect of their poor numbers. They can help you tremendously in one category while having a negligible effect in others.

That is only half of the conundrum though. What about head-to-head leagues where being on top of your starting pitching is what separates winners from the also-rans? Since the scoring is on a week-to-week basis, the cumulative effect gets tossed out the window. The key with handling relief pitchers in head-to-head circumstances is to try and play the matchups with as much precision as you can. Are the Nationals visiting the Philles for a four game weekend set? Probably not a good weekend for Capps. Nats have three against Pittsburgh and three against Houston? OK for Capps.

Also check the starting pitching matchups. Ubaldo Jimenez starting twice in a week against, say, Bronson Arroyo and Job Niese? Start Huston Street (when healthy, of course). Head-to-head fantasy is all about the matchups and being able to pair closers with teams that are hot or are playing weak opponents etc. is a beneficial tactic.

For the most part, depending on the depth and scoring style of your league, closers are the only real viable fantasy options. In deeper leagues that use holds as a stat it is beneficial to pick up a few key setup men on good teams. Pair them with their closers will make it a double whammy. Imagine a 3-1 Red Sox victory where your fantasy team had Josh Beckett go seven innings, Daniel Bard in the eighth and Jonathan Papelbon the save in the ninth. Your fantasy team had a monopoly on that entire Red Sox win and with a finite amount of opportunities available to pick up stats, that would be a very valuable combination. Not only are you taking that game, you are keeping those stats out of your opponent’s categories.

Dan Rowinski is a Fantasy Baseball Columnist at If you have any questions or comments feel free to email him at or you can follow him on Twitter at Dan_Rowinski.

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