By Eriq Gardner
One myth that is constantly perpetuated in the echo chamber of fantasy baseball analysis is that relievers are one-category players. Quite a number of very smart analysts have been telling competitors for years that relievers are good for saves and hardly anything else.
This analysis may be true for Head-to-Head leagues with short scoring periods and Roto leagues with high innings maximums — where ability to dominate often depends more on the bulk rather than the quality of innings pitched.
But in the vast majority of rotisserie leagues, the notion that relievers don’t contribute value beyond saves just doesn’t hold any water. In fact, people may be surprised to learn that a great reliever can contribute just as much value in ERA and WHIP as a good starter.
Let’s take an example from the 2009 season.
Pretend two competing fantasy teams each finished the year with 1200 innings. The pitchers on Team A let up 500 earned runs. The pitchers on Team B let up 520 earned runs. Doing simple arithmetic tells us that Team A wound up with an ERA of 3.75 whereas Team B wound up with an ERA of 3.9.
In other words, Team A was superior in ERA based upon those 20 earned runs saved by his pitching squad.
Now, here’s what most people miss: Great relievers have the ability to save just as many earned runs as good starters.
Don’t believe us?
Let’s take a comparison of two closers last year — Jonathan Papelbon and Fernando Rodney.
In the minds of some, the fact that Papelbon ended up the year with 38 saves and Rodney finished with 37 saves makes them roughly equal and proof positive that it’s foolish to invest a high draft pick on Papelbon when a fantasy team could have gotten those saves from a guy who was hardly drafted before last season. But what about the ERA and WHIP contribution? Let’s take a look at how many earned runs, walks and hits these two relievers allowed last year:
As you’ll see above, Papelbon saved 23 runs and 33 H+BB over Rodney.
Now let’s compare two starting pitchers from last season: Wandy Rodriguez and his spectacular 3.02 ERA versus Jon Garland and his decent-but-not-great 4.01 ERA. Both pitchers ended the season with about 205 innings. How many runs, hits, and walks did Way-Rod save over Garland?
The answer is just 22 earned runs and 31 H+BB.
This means that having the combination of Jon Garland + Jonathan Papelbon instead of Wandy Rodriguez + Fernando Rodney was very slightly more beneficial to a team’s ERA and WHIP in 2009. Stated another way, a team that decided to draft Papelbon very high in drafts last year instead of waiting to fill the closer spot with someone of Rodney’s caliber managed to boost his team’s ERA and WHIP about as much as having one of baseball’s top starters from the previous season instead of Garland.
I know this conclusion may be hard for some people to stomach.
Yes, a starter who puts up a 3.75 ERA is more valuable than a reliever who puts up a 3.75 ERA. But what about a reliever like Jonathan Broxton who is projected at 2.76? How do we weight his contribution?
If we figure that teams will roughly wind up with the same amount of innings pitched in total, the real question becomes how many runs will be saved by Broxton against inferior relievers. By our math, an ERA difference of 1.00 for a reliever in 75 innings translates to 8.3 saved earned runs over the course of a season. That’s about the difference we see when looking at Bloomberg Sports’ projections on Broxton versus Leo Nunez.
Eight runs might not sound like a lot, but it’s the equivalent of an ERA difference of .36 for two pitchers who are both expected to reach 200 innings. The difference between Broxton and Nunez is the difference in ERA value from a 3.75 starter (Justin Verlander‘s 2010 Bloomberg Sports projection) and a 4.12 starter (like Aaron Cook‘s ’10 forecast).
Of course, there are other factors such as variability and scarcity to consider too. In Part 2 of this study, we’ll examine those variable, and also discuss the implications on a fantasy team’s strategy when it comes to drafting relievers. Does it make sense to draft a stud closer high? If relievers bring ERA and WHIP value to the table, does it make more sense to draft a great middle reliever over a shaky closer? Stay tuned.