ROTISSERIE: The Crisis in Wins

You may have heard: Starters aren’t going long any more. In 2017, for the third year in a row, innings pitched per games started in MLB declined; now to less that 5 2/3 innings each. And the trend became even more pronounced in the post-season.  

As a result, starting pitchers (SP) generally earn both fewer wins and fewer Ks as they encounter innings limits or managers quickly to go to the pen.  So what’s a Roto GM to do?

For those in 4x4 leagues with no strikeout category, a LIMA strategy becomes even more of a viable option, with more emphasis on relief pitchers (RP).  Team owners projected to be near the top in the qualitative categories and saves can punt wins if necessary.  But owners in 5x5 leagues or those with stringent minimum innings limits may seek more creative solutions. 

How about stocking up on cheap relief pitchers who come in when the starter begins to falter?  It stands to reason that somebody has to be getting those wins—they don’t just disappear.  Shouldn’t roto GMs be going after the likes of Mychal Givens (9 wins), Dustin McGowan (8) and Michael Lorenzen (8)?  These pitchers might collect more wins than starters such as Ubaldo Jimenez (RHP, BAL; 6) or Eduardo Rodriguez (LHP, BOS; 6). After all, vulture wins are still wins!

Focusing on relief wins has occurred to others, including the fantasy pundit involved in this winter’s hot stove chat exchange:

Fan: “(W)as interested in what you were saying about the relievers being more valuable and wins may not be something you use to draft starters… Should I draft a couple of studs and then draft guys like Maeda and Green and hope to run into a couple wins a week with them?”

Pundit: “Ya I definitely think the wins landscape is changing and these guys coming in the 5th and 6th and going 2+ IP could wind up chasing down double digit dubs and not cost you much at all.”

One hitch in this strategy is that it’s not really a thing yet, except maybe in the post season when playoff teams can push their back-of-the rotation starters to the bullpen.  Kenta Maeda (RHP, LA), referenced above, only pitched in relief four times during the regular season. And he’s on one of the teams seemingly most likely to follow such a strategy, because of its phenomenal depth.  If we roster Maeda, it’s primarily as a starter. Other teams that cannot muster five decent hurlers for their rotation are both less likely to garner wins and less likely to have a strong reliever available in that spot regularly.

Many Vultures are just Bad
There are other problems with a relief-wins strategy, and the first is that many of the relief pitchers who earn vulture wins are just not very good. McGowan (RHP, FA), for example, ended the season with a 4.75 ERA and earned exactly $0 for his owners despite the boost in wins in a 12-team mono league. Seven-game winner Hansel Robles (RHP, NYM) produced similarly mediocre results (4.92 ERA, -$1). 

Looking at the whole universe of RP who racked up seven or more wins last season, 40 percent are projected to earn $0 or worse in 2018, while another 40 percent are projected at $2 or less even in deep mono leagues. (Excluded from the study are RP who started 2017 as closers, because these pitchers were not available at a cheap price.)

Relief Wins not Repeatable
Secondly, there is not much evidence that relief wins are a repeatable skill.  Only Givens and Robles among the top RP winners earned five or more Ws the previous year, though Chris Devenski (RHP, HOU) (8 wins in 2017) and Matt Barnes (RHP, BOS) (7) did garner four that season.  (Despite a few wins, there was little reason to roster Barnes, with his 4.05 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and -$1 value). Let’s look at the top relief winners from 2016 and see how they did the following season:

Relief W          2016  2017
============      ====  ====
Miller             10     4
Brach              10     4
Thornburg           8     0
Givens              8     8
Feliz               8     4
Phelps              7     4
Bush                7     3
Blanton             7     2
Barnette            7     2
Feldman             7     7*
Grilli              7     2
Quackenbush         7     0
E. Ramirez          7     5
Warren              7     3

(*Feldman is included only for reference, because he was converted to a starter in 2017; you didn’t want him on your team anyway (4.77 ERA, $0)).

There is great fluidity in relief wins.  Only one of the top 13 relief winners from the previous year repeated in 2017 (Givens). And 2016’s 10-game winners Andrew Miller (LHP, CLE) and Brad Brach (RHP, BAL), while still quite valuable in AL-only leagues, each generated only four wins apiece in the following season.

Those numbers won’t solve the wins crisis. Trying to target non-closer RPs who will earn Ws is a fool’s errand for the most part. Wins are scattered throughout the bullpen, and when many teams feature eight or more relievers (and several more throughout the course of the year), there are plenty to share the bounty.  Analysts show little ability to project in advance the few who will stand out in the wins column in a given year.

For fantasy owners who need to roster non-closer relievers, a superior strategy is to target high-strikeout guys with skills. The latter stand a better chance to help in multiple categories. With opportunity, they could morph into closers or starters … or occasionally luck into wins. Whether they continue to collect multiple wins or not, bullpen standouts such as Givens (projected 10.6 Dom, 112 BPV and $8) and Chris Devenski (10.5 Dom, 130 BPV and $12) are typically underpriced in auctions and thus positioned to return some value, as are relievers with little Wins history such as Tyler Lyons (LHP, STL) (116, 9.2 and $6). 

Draft skilled relievers, and count any wins as gravy.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.