Is 2011 the Year of the Reliever?

By E. Gardner //

Time to give relievers some love.

It’s no secret that in the past few seasons, pitching has gotten stronger. One trend that hasn’t been remarked upon in 2011 is that relievers as a class are having a banner year.

Relievers are known as a fickle bunch, and sure, there’s been some attention paid to the closer carousel for the Dodgers, Blue Jays, Cardinals, among other teams, but overall, closers are having a pretty solid season. There’s currently 17 pitchers on pace for 35 saves. Last season, only 11 ended up with that total. Among the 17 pitchers who are on that 35-save pace, every single one of them has an ERA under 4.

But it’s not just closers who are providing value this season.

Throughout baseball, relievers this season have an ERA at 3.65. That compares to the collective ERA of starters at 3.94.

Compare this to last year: In 2010, relievers had an ERA at 3.93; starters had an ERA at 4.15.

In other words, the ERA of starters have dropped two tenths of a run, but the ERA of relievers have dropped nearly four tenths of a run.

Perhaps the most valuable reliever this season was hardly drafted, is still not universally owned, doesn’t have many saves, and yet, according to nearly every player rater measuring value in fantasy leagues, is atop such pitchers as Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, and Tim Lincecum.

We’re talking about Jonny Venters, and if you don’t believe us about his value in 2011 to date, check out ESPN’s player rater for confirmation.

Venters currently has a microscopic ERA at 0.618, an infinitesimal WHIP at 0.8015, and is also contributing in wins (4) and saves (3). His 47 strikeouts this season (in under 44 innings) are also impressive. It’s only two less than teammate and Cy Young candidate Jair Jurrjens.

But Venters isn’t alone.

For those looking for help in ERA, there are pitchers like Mike Adams, Eric O’Flaherty, Aaron Crow, and Antonio Bastardo, who all rank as top-25 contributors in the category this season — even with diminished innings. These guys are available in most leagues.

For those looking for help in WHIP, there are pitchers like Daniel Bard and Tyler Clippard who are producing more in WHIP than even the most elite starters. Again, these guys come free in most leagues.

Undoubtedly, as pitching has grown stronger in baseball, fantasy competitors must chase an ERA in the low-3’s and a WHIP around 1.2 to be successful. Leaning on elite relievers has grown more important than ever.

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