Holds Ain’t Got No Face!
These poor schlubs. No one’s favorite player is a middle reliever. The middle reliever never gets the girl. The signed middle reliever rookie card never fetches more than a buck-fifty on eBay.
Yet these working-class heroes continue to go out every day and grind away to bridge the gap between the billion-dollar, sexy starting pitchers and the dark, mysterious closers.
So here’s to you Graeme Lloyd! Here’s to you Mark Eichhorn! Here’s to you Matt Thornton! And MY personal favorite player of all time — here’s to you Jeff Nelson!
From a fantasy perspective, the middle reliever has been a non-factor since the beginning of roto baseball. In your standard 5×5 leagues there’s just no room for a player who barely contributes in any of the 5 pitching categories. However, after years and years of heart attacks from being forced to draft Fernando Rodney because they missed the closer runs — cardiologists have created a new fantasy category to prevent such cardiac conditions: saves + holds
Below I’ve ranked the top-40 non-closers for saves + holds leagues. In true Kerry-fashion, I’ve manufactured my own ranking system. I’ve ranked these guys out into three categories: sv/hlds, limiting runs, and K/9 — the three categories that middle relievers can consistently help you in. Limiting runs is a combination of ERA and WHIP — basically, in one inning, a reliever needs to keep guys off the bases — and if there are already guys on the bases — keeping them from scoring runs. You know — like the job of every pitcher!
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year and NL Reliever of the Year was absolutely deserving of those accolades. The only shame is that we didn’t get to see it in a full season. The only real knock on his game is his walk rate is a little high — but if you look over his last 4 seasons (minor leagues included) he’s dropped that number every year. What if he’s actually getting BETTER?! Even if the control issues flare back up — there’s still the fact that he was in the 100th percentile in: xERA, xBA, xSLG, xwOBA, K%, Whiff%. 100th percentile means there’s no one better than you — and that’s why he’s in a tier to himself.
I don’t LOVE having Fairbanks and Rainey up this high, but I’m going to live and die by these rankings. With Fairbanks the issue is you never know what inning he’ll pop up – anywhere from the 5th inning to the 9th is on the table. However, in last season’s playoffs he was continuously showing up in high-leverage spots which means the saves/holds could be there for him. He had 6 SV/HLDs in the playoffs alone.
As for Rainey, the K/9 is nice, the 8th inning should be his — but I worry a little about the hard contact he gives up. He had one of the worst exit velocities and hard hit rates in the majors last year, but was third in K% behind only James Karinchak and Devin Williams. He sounds like the perfect old school stomach-churning closer to me! He’ll either wipe them off the board 1-2-3 or blow the lead by allowing a monstrous HR.
Jordan Romano’s name might not pop off the page, but take a look at what he did last year (albeit in limited action.) In his 15 appearances he only allowed 2 earned runs to cross the plate and only 13 base runners total. Plus, for the month of August he was mostly pitching in the 8th and 9th inning for the Blue Jays. Their closing job was looking to be his until the Jays signed Kirby Yates. However, Yates didn’t look great in limited action after returning from elbow surgery last year – so there could still be some closing opportunities that pop up for Romano.
Lucas Sims’s Baseball Savant page is covered in red. From his jersey, to the empty stadium seats behind him, to his percentile ratings. 99th percentile in xBA, xSLG, 98th percentile in xERA, xwOBA, barrel %. Among the best spin rates on his fastball (99th percentile) and curve spin (100th percentile) – might as well call him Lucas Spins! That spin on his fastball generated an elite 3.1 inches of vertical movement — 6th best in the league among pitchers who threw 100 4 seamers. That spinning curveball also generated the 6th most horizontal movement among pitchers who threw 100 curveballs. Basically batters couldn’t tell if his pitches were going to go.
I might not have included Austin Adams in this article if one of our commenters didn’t point him out to me in last week’s article. Adams might not get high leverage innings for the Padres, but he’s never had a K/9 under 10 at any stop. The walk rate is not pretty, but in 2019 & 2020 he did actually cut it to 4.5. A far cry from the 8.0 mark he had in the Angels minor league system in 2014. Yikes. ZiPS actually has him tabbed for 41 IP, 66 K’s and a 3.04 ERA. Maybe a little ambitious — but feasible with his mid-90’s fastball and high-80’s slider which generates 6.6 inches of horizontal movement.
On FanGraphs Cardinals team page they have four people listed at closer with Gallegos and Hicks being two of them. Of all four of them I actually like Gallegos best — that doesn’t mean he’ll be given the job, but just a quick look at his numbers show he deserves it. 97th percentile in xwOBA and xERA, 95th in xBA, 92nd in K% — and perhaps most impressive of all — 85th in BB%. A lot of these relievers you see with crazy fastballs and numbers, but they can’t locate the ball to save their lives. Gallegos to his credit has done a fantastic job in his career of limiting walks (2.1 BB/9 in 120+ IP.)
Maybe Trevor Rosenthal should’ve been on the closer rankings last week, but for right now he’s a man without a home. I’ll be honest — I completely counted Rosenthal out after his disastrous 2019. A 17:26 K:BB ratio in 15.1 IP? He’s cooked I say, cooked! But he roared back with an 8:38 number in 23.2 IP last season with a 0.845 WHIP. His landing spot will definitely alter his ranking — and maybe even his article placement!
Darwinzon Hernandez is another pitcher who was pointed out to me in last week’s comments sections. There is a huge, glaring, obvious, slap in the face weakness in Hernandez’s game — and that’s his control. In 38.2 major league innings he has a 7.9 BB/9. That’s not good. However, he does limit some of his own damage with a career 16.3 K/9 — and that’s when I’m intrigued again. He’s also done a good job of keeping the ball in the yard even while in the minors with a 0.3 HR/9 mark in 409.1 major league innings. Hope the control gets better, and trust that he can keep the ball in the yard and strike guys out.
Evan Marshall is an enigma on this list, because as opposed to the other guys who dominate with blazing velocities and crazy names like Drawinzon and Brusdar — little Evan Marshall gets forgotten with his gentle changeup and curveball. However, minimizing the use of his fastball is definitely working for him. Last season his changeup had an xBA of .202 and his curveball .067 while his fastball had an xBA of .318. Keep doing what you’re doing Evan Marshall — we won’t forget about you!
It wasn’t too long ago that Will Harris would’ve been in tier 1 or 2 on this list. I’m willing to give Harris a mulligan on last season. The 4.6 BB/9 is the highest of his entire career. I expect a return to the 2.3 BB/9 that he had in the previous 396.1 IP before 2020.
Nick Wittgren is definitely a guy whose baseball card you quickly flip past when you open a new pack. But hold on just a minute — in deep or AL-only fantasy leagues you shouldn’t be so quick to flip past him. Over his last 115 innings dating back to 2018, Wittgren actually has a 2.97 ERA and 1.130 WHIP. The 9.3 K/9 isn’t elite — but still isn’t bad either. Plus, if James Karinchak throws his 96 MPH arm off his body next season, Wittgren will be there to close out the few wins in Cleveland!