Collette Calls: The Next Batch of Valuable Middle Relievers

Collette Calls: The Next Batch of Valuable Middle Relievers

This article is part of our Collette Calls series.

Reliever volatility is an issue which has been in baseball for many years now and is unlikely to go away any time soon. There have been many articles written on the subject over the years (sample, 1, sample 2, sample 3) and I even last touched on this subject in late September looking at how non-closing relievers were contributing to the success of many fantasy managers. We saw 16 different middle relievers contribute seven or more wins over the course of the season, led by the 12 wins Colin Poche had in just 60.2 innings of work. 

We were reminded of reliever volatility again in recent days when Atlanta traded five players to the White Sox for Aaron Bummer. Bummer is coming off a season where he pitched to a 6.79 ERA and walked 13.5 percent of the batters he faced while otherwise being the unluckiest pitcher in baseball. The high groundball reliever was hurt by a terrible infield defense in Chicago and 45 percent of his baserunners ended up scoring, which led to such a high ERA despite a xERA of 3.53 and a FIP of 3.58. Atlanta paid the price they did because they see the upside in Bummer's stuff despite the unfortunate outcomes. His StatCast profile shows what Atlanta is valuing in 2024:

The change in location from Chicago to Atlanta raises Bummer's fantasy profile for 2024 because he gains the most important condition for middle relief wins: pitching for a good

Reliever volatility is an issue which has been in baseball for many years now and is unlikely to go away any time soon. There have been many articles written on the subject over the years (sample, 1, sample 2, sample 3) and I even last touched on this subject in late September looking at how non-closing relievers were contributing to the success of many fantasy managers. We saw 16 different middle relievers contribute seven or more wins over the course of the season, led by the 12 wins Colin Poche had in just 60.2 innings of work. 

We were reminded of reliever volatility again in recent days when Atlanta traded five players to the White Sox for Aaron Bummer. Bummer is coming off a season where he pitched to a 6.79 ERA and walked 13.5 percent of the batters he faced while otherwise being the unluckiest pitcher in baseball. The high groundball reliever was hurt by a terrible infield defense in Chicago and 45 percent of his baserunners ended up scoring, which led to such a high ERA despite a xERA of 3.53 and a FIP of 3.58. Atlanta paid the price they did because they see the upside in Bummer's stuff despite the unfortunate outcomes. His StatCast profile shows what Atlanta is valuing in 2024:

The change in location from Chicago to Atlanta raises Bummer's fantasy profile for 2024 because he gains the most important condition for middle relief wins: pitching for a good club. Bummer was able to win five games for a terrible White Sox club last year despite all the issues around his numbers, but he now becomes very well positioned to continue some middle-relief success in Atlanta, especially if he can reduce the walks back to previous career levels. 

The following pitchers earned at least $5 in fantasy value in 2024 out of the bullpen and did so while saving five or fewer games:

Brash and possibly Neris were the only ones drafted before the regular season, but the others stepped up and out-earned several pitchers drafted many rounds before them. The purpose of this article is to look for potential candidates to join that club next year if we are to assume none of those pitchers above repeat the 2023 fantasy value, honoring the theory of reliever volatility. I have reduced the talent pool to relievers projected with five or fewer saves for the upcoming season by Steamer

Let's stick with Atlanta as they signed Reynaldo Lopez to a three-year deal while I was working on this installment. Lopez was once a starter but has moved to the pen full-time and even opened the 2023 season as the White Sox closer before a couple of blow-ups cost him that job. His final numbers were better than his early numbers, but pitching for two sub-.500 teams hurt his chances at wins. Meanwhile, Lopez added 1.5 mph to his fastball and saw his strikeout rate jump five percentage points. He has continued to gain more whiffiness since his days as a starter:

Lopez now joins a situation which gave us two separate seven-game winners out of the pen last season in Kirby Yates and Michael Tonkin, while Lopez is also coming off consecutive seasons of double-digit decisions for lesser teams. There is still some good in Lopez and his new home team raises his draft-day value to where he could be considered a final pick in a mixed league even without the closer role being available. If you have previously been burned by Lopez and aren't ready to put your toe back into that water, consider Pierce Johnson, who has a similar level of whiffiness and was fantastic in limited time with Atlanta once he was freed from the futility of spinning breaking balls at Coors Field.

DL Hall is in an interesting situation in Baltimore. The Orioles have already lost their primary closer for the season, and the club doesn't appear to have too much confidence in Yennier Cano as they are already rumored to be hunting for an experienced closer on a one-year deal. Hall already has four wins in 33 innings of major-league work while striking out 42 batters. Control has been an issue for him in his career, but it's tough not to look at his 101 strikeouts in 71 innings last season over three stops and not get excited for what he could do in a middle-relief role for a team that's going to play many close games. Baltimore is due for some regression after their amazing 30-16 record in one-run games last season, but Hall should still find himself in the middle of the later inning action in the Charm City. All three of Hall's pitches generated 30 percent whiff rates last season; he's just a bit of improved command away from being a Hader-like force out of the pen. He already has the hair for it.

Milwaukee has not said what Aaron Ashby's role will be for 2024, but given he missed the entire season with a shoulder injury and was never a model of health before that injury, he could spend 2024 working as a swingman in the Brewer pen. Milwaukee loved what they saw from Ashby in 2022 enough to give him a five-year extension that summer that has him signed through 2027, with club options in 2028 and 2029. His 2022 numbers looked good for a starter and could really play up in the pen, where he wouldn't have to worry about conserving velocity over the course of a start. Ashby could be deadly out of the pen with his slider and could be a bridge to get to Joel Payamps and Devin Williams. Ashby has always been able to get the swings and misses with non-fastballs, and the bullpen may allow his fastball to play up a bit more and not be as hittable as it has been the past two seasons (.321, .281) when he has pitched. 

Finally, we have to consider someone from the Tampa Bay bullpen given the club has given us six different relievers with at least six wins over the previous five seasons. They have an affinity for lefty relievers in the middle innings, which is how we saw Jalen Beeks get six wins in 2019 and Ryan Yarbrough bulk his way to eight wins that same season. Last season, Colin Poche won 12 games in just 60.2 innings of work. Enter Tyler Alexander, who replaces Beeks in the pen. Alexander is a Yarbrough-like clone as he has to bob and weave his way around the strike zone to be successful because he lacks the pure stuff to challenge hitters in the zone. He was miscast as a starter with Detroit but did well as a reliever for them last year with a 10-point jump in his strikeout rate while utilizing five different offerings around the zone. He could end up becoming a bulk guy behind an opener much like Yarbrough did when he had his successful fantasy run with the club.

I'm sure more names will come up as we continue to see clubs make moves this offseason, but these are some of the guys I am already targeting as I build my draft plans for the upcoming season. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Collette
Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999, and here at Rotowire since 2011. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Sleeper and the Bust podcast every Sunday. A ten-time FSWA finalist, Jason won the FSWA's Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2013 and the Baseball Series of the Year award in 2018 for Collette Calls,and was the 2023 AL LABR champion. Jason manages his social media presence at https://linktr.ee/jasoncollette
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