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What Did We Learn About Bullpens in 2023?

Our fantasy seasons ended recently, but as we know, our preparation and planning for the next season never really ceases.

At the end of every season, I have learned to be reflective, not only of the players I chose, but of my research and strategy for each league. I find that for me, the process is what I need to truly be thinking about as I begin preparations for the 2024 season. I ask this for every league I play in, hoping to glean and refine my strategy and ideas as we progress to draft season.

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What did we learn about bullpens this year that we can apply to our next fantasy baseball season?

  • Emmanuel Clase earned the most saves this year with 44, but that came with a whopping 12 blown saves as well.
  • Twelve pitchers earned more than 30 saves this season: Clase 44, David Bednar and Camilo Doval 39, Alexis Diaz with 37, Jordan Romano and Devin Williams with 36, Paul Sewald with 34, Felix Bautista and Josh Hader with 33, and Carlos Estevez and Ryan Pressly with 31 each.
  • Looking deeper, 23 pitchers had at least 20 saves.
  • We saw 38 pitchers with at least 10 saves.
  • 53 pitchers had at least five saves.
  • 214 pitchers had at least one save.

As fantasy baseball players, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. Yet what do we do with that information, and how do we contextualize it for our leagues?

Fantasy Baseball Bullpen Strategy for the Future

This isn’t rocket science, but considering league context is the first step when considering how to build your team and your bullpen. While it may be too early or many coming off a long grind of a season, it’s never too early to review and process what went well for your teams, but I seem to find I learn just as much when things don’t go as well for my teams.

I will share brief snippets here on my strategies for a few of my leagues here for you to examine and criticize.

My favorite league (and also the toughest one for me) that I play in is GLARF. I had the fifth pick in the draft this year which felt ideal to me. In the fifth round, I decided to get what I perceived to be an anchor closer in Houston’s Ryan Pressly. Pressly gave me four wins, a 3.58 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, 74 strikeouts, and 31 saves.  Not bad.  I wanted to be sure I banked 30 saves and ratios that would not sink my team.

Wanting more punchouts feels like I am being ungrateful. In later rounds, I wanted to get guys who I thought had a chance to close and maybe get between 10-15 saves for the full year. I drafted A.J. Puk in the 21st round and finished my draft with Andrew Chafin and Will Smith in the 29th and 30th rounds, both of whom provided value to my season.

I finished with 67 saves in an extremely competitive league where I doubted my ability to find saves on the waiver wire through the dreaded FAAB process.  In my mind at the draft table, I wanted to secure 75 saves.  Didn’t quite get there, but saves weren’t a problem here. My midround draft stinkers were the problem which led to a 10th-place finish.  I finished last and second to last in my first two years, so this represents progress.  My private goal was a top 5 finish, and that’s going to require more work this winter.

The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational

I also have the pleasure of playing in TGFBI, led by the guru Justin Mason. There were some incredible players in this draft room.  I had the seventh pick overall but had to adjust as closers went a little earlier here.  I was able to snag Milwaukee’s Devin Williams in the fifth round, who provided eight wins, a 1.53 ERA, a .92 WHIP, 36 saves, and 87 strikeouts in 58.1 innings.

I drafted Los Angeles’ Carlo Estevez as I felt he would be the closer for the Angels based on the information in front of us on draft day, and he gave me 31 saves with far lesser peripherals than Williams.

I rounded off my bullpen in TGFBI by grabbing Puk again, here in the 24th round, and finishing off with Andrew Chafin in the 29th. I thought 60 would keep me in the game here, and ended with 74 saves, good for third in the league.  I did pick up Joel Payamps later to help me with ratios.  My bullpen ended up not being an issue; the midround drafting of duds got me again, and I finished in a distant 7th place.

I have the good fortune as well to play in one of the On-The-Wire podcast listener leagues. I waited a little longer here because the premium closers went quickly, but I still felt I could get a “1A” type closer. That materialized again for me with Williams, who I nabbed in the sixth round. I rostered Paul Sewald in the 15th, Kendall Graveman in the 23rd (unfortunately, minutes after learning of Liam Hendriks’ cancer diagnosis), and finished again with Puk in the 29th. I finished third overall in the league, tabulating 75 saves, which also put me in fourth place in the category.

In my home league, which is a weekly points H2H league, I was able to employ a bit of a “star and scrubs” strategy, if you will.  Here again, I paid up for Devin Williams ($18) after the top-tier closers were taken off the board. We are allowed to start two relief pitchers in the RP slots on the roster. For my second closer, I cycled through the following players: Will Smith, Adbert Alzolay, Tanner Scott, and Matt Brash.  That worked well enough because I knew I could always find saves and ratio help on the waiver wire. In my other leagues, it’s not as simple. League context matters, of course.

These are just a few examples to share showing some strategies that might be possible into next season. League context matters.  Your ability to scan the waiver wire and secure saves there, whether it be FAAB or other styles of league, is key. Saves are so volatile year to year; we know a bunch of pitchers will earn 30 saves each year, but there is no sure bet as to who those pitchers will be. Many drafted the aforementioned Hendriks before we learned of his cancer diagnosis and then his need for TJS. A second or third-round bid on Hendriks netted you two wins and one save. Edwin Diaz earned no saves and had an even higher ADP.

Many fantasy players look for consistent closers 0n winning teams as their targets. But it’s also important to look for those guys who appear to be getting an opportunity based on context.  Carlos Estevez is a great example: the Angels signed him to shore up their bullpen, paid him a good amount of money, and created very little competition.  It was worth speculating on Estevez as your closer two. If you did that, he rewarded you with 31 saves.  That’s nice.

The Sure Bets

If you are looking for “sure” bets, my good friend Eric Cross posted last week that there were four relievers with a 33+ %K and sub 3.00 ERA over the last three seasons with a minimum of 150 innings pitched:

Josh Hader: 2:45 ERA, 39.8%K (103 saves total)

Devin Williams: 1.97 ERA, 38.7%k (54; not full-time closer until Hader trade last season)

Raisel Iglesias: 2.59 ERA, 33.2%K (84 saves)

Paul Sewald: 2.95 ERA, 33.9%K (65 saves)

Some people will go after an ace reliever early, hope for 30+ saves, and then build around that with guys who could chip in with 8-10 saves and give good ratios.  Guys like Jason Adam and A.J. Minter can fit well here.  Middle relievers have a market in many fantasy leagues now, especially as the back end of many MLB rotations leaves us lacking starting pitching depth for our rosters. Would you rather have a lockdown eighth inning guy who will contribute strikeouts, valuable ratio help, and maybe vulture 8-10 saves?  Or would you rather have the White Sox fifth starter?  It’s an easy decision in most places.

Some people will go after two foundational closers and leave it alone, hoping for 60-70 saves to stay competitive in the category.

Some people will punt the category altogether.

One thing is for sure: this winter I will be mining for saves and holds again, and I will be sure to share my findings, and what I THINK is going to happen, starting again after the New Year. Thanks again for reading my work this season.  You can find me on Twitter @mdrc0508.

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