In a fantasy landscape where many sites assign traditional roles in non-traditional bullpens, The Athletic embraces volatility, and the nuances each bullpen provides. There’s a changing of the guard in high leverage situations in the Bronx, new shared roles in Tampa Bay and will anyone emerge as the highest leveraged reliever in Boston?
There are also some closers struggling in leverage, others regaining form and roles in flux throughout the majors. Because of this, maintaining focus amidst all the noise remains the goal of the Reliever Roundup — staying committed to the pursuit of primary save shares, as every save matters in this game we play. Because of this, heed the evolving turbulence ratings broken down into three main components:
- Linear or mostly linear pathways towards saves
- One with a highest leveraged reliever (HLR) with ancillary support arms capable of garnering saves or bullpens with shared roles
- Fluid, match-up based bullpens with no definitive roles or in flux because of recent performance issues
Linear or Mostly Linear Bullpens
Closer/Reliever Notes of Interest
Nick Vespa and Keegan Akin, Baltimore Orioles
In an improved bullpen with Jorge López establishing himself as a capable closer and Félix Bautista representing a capable replacement at the trade deadline, Nick Vespa made a strong debut, collecting his first win by tossing two scoreless innings, both in extra-innings, stranding the “ghost runner” in both frames. He features a nasty slider which produced seven whiffs of 20 thrown (35 swinging strike rate) in his outing. At Triple-A, he recorded four saves with a 21:3 K:BB over 14.1 innings. He may not be in the leverage ladder at this time, but if he carries over his success from the minors, Vespa should emerge as another leverage option for the Orioles the weeks ahead.
Although he’s overlooked this season, Akin’s surging as a hybrid reliever, logging at least two innings in his first 11 appearances — the first Orioles reliever to achieve this feat. He also leads the majors in multiple inning outings of at least two innings — with the next closest reliever at eight. He owns a 0.78 WHIP, fourth lowest for pitchers with at least 25 innings this season, and he’s given up one hit or fewer in seven contests this year. More of a deep league play, or streamer in head-to-head formats, monitor his progress in this role.
Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
Turning his season around, his numbers in May align much more closely with last season than April. He’s converted his last five save chances, and nine of 11 this month with a robust 18:2 K:BB, 0.73 WHIP and 40% strikeouts minus walks through 11 innings. On the season, he’s recorded 13 scoreless appearances and 10 hitless efforts.
Gregory Soto, Detroit Tigers
Since his last update here, Soto’s notched his last three save opportunities, giving up two hits and striking out two in three scoreless frames. Noting he struggles when not throwing strikes, here’s his updated monthly chart, including these outings:
A.J. Puk, Oakland A’s
Extending his 15-inning scoreless streak, with a little help from his friends, Puk owns a 13:3 K:BB in it while facing 58 batters. He’s using his slider more, fueling this breakout, along with health:
During the scoreless streak, he owns a 20 swinging strike rate with the pitch and he’s throwing strikes 68 percent of the time. Attacking hitters and using the slider remain the keys toward a full-season breakout. Although his manager feels Puk may be on a trajectory similar to Josh Hader, it’s more likely he’s on an Andrew Miller path, especially with the heavy slider use, and there’s nothing wrong with this, health provided.
Closer/Reliever Notes of Interest
Mark Melancon, Arizona Diamondbacks
Perhaps the closer with the most tenuous hold on his role, Melancon walks a fine line in high leverage. He’s converted his last two save chances, giving him a bit of runway in save situations. However, in May he’s logged nine appearances spanning 6.1 innings giving up 13 hits, 13 runs (11 earned) with a 4:4 K:BB with a 2.68 WHIP. Reliant on ground balls and guile, can the veteran closer regain past form? Those in deeper formats should monitor how Joe Mantiply does going forward. He’s turned in scoreless outings in 18 of his last 19 contests with zero walks his last 18 games and 10 hitless appearances this season.
David Robertson and Keegan Thompson, Chicago Cubs
Nailing down an emphatic sixth save, Robertson fired a clean ninth, striking out two on 12 pitches (9 strikes – 75 Strike percentage), producing four whiffs (33.3 swinging strike rate) in Cincinnati. He’s worked his way back into leverage form and even though he could be trade fodder at the deadline, his role atop this bullpen hierarchy should remain stable until then, health provided.
Not a closer, but still worth highlighting, Thompson recorded his fourth win on Sunday and currently ranks fourth among pitchers in WAR. He’s limited opponents to two runs or fewer in all nine of his appearances, eight in relief and one start. He owns a 31:10 K:BB in 35 innings with a 1.00 WHIP. With some ratio benefits, and potential vulture win upside, he’s a deep league target or for those who stream pitchers in head-to-head formats weekly in this role with the Cubs.
Josh Hader and Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Prayers for Hader and his family, he landed on the family emergency list Monday night. There’s no timetable for his return this week, it’s possible he meets up with the team in St. Louis for this weekend, but it’s not certain. This puts Williams into the interim closer role but also places the leverage ladder in a bit of peril. Without him in the eighth inning, the set-up crew in the bridge may struggle this week if starters do not complete six innings. There’s no doubt Williams can thrive as a closer — getting to him may be the struggle in the days ahead. He’s registered at least one strikeout in each of his 16 appearances this year, and multiple strikeouts in each of his last five contests. Stay tuned and heed the news about Hader when setting lineups this weekend.
David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates
In a rare outing giving up baserunners, Bednar allowed a walk and an infield single during his win on Monday, in 1.1 scoreless innings. Still, he’s retired 28 of the last 32 batters faced and leads the majors in saves requiring more than three outs with four. He also owns the second best ERA (0.74) since August 15 of last year, trailing Josh Hader (0.00 ERA in this sample). Talent does not always win out in leverage situations, but it’s refreshing seeing the Pirates deploy him as the closer despite their payroll limitations.
Taylor Rogers, San Diego Padres
Through 42 games, the Padres have 28 wins, with 20 of them being by three runs or fewer, including 10 by one run. Rogers has anchored the bullpen and leads the majors with 16 saves in 17 chances this season. Fueling his success? He’s only allowed three hits all season against his slider and owns a 0.67 WHIP with 23 strikeouts against four walks over 19.1 innings.
HLR Bullpens or Co-Closer Situations
Before diving into the highlights from these teams, a reminder of what an HLR represents:
- “HLR” – Highest Leveraged Reliever: this represents a reliever who does the dirty work or faces a team’s toughest part of the lineup, regardless of inning. For example, Giovanny Gallegos filled this role until September last year. Paul Sewald also played this part well for the Mariners in 2021. An HLR does not get used exclusively in any of the late innings, it’s game-by-game dependent on match-ups.
Boston Red Sox
In what feels like a weekly segment about this bullpen, perhaps some of the blame in the late inning losses falls upon Alex Cora. During Boston’s loss on Sunday, Hansel Robles tried for a 1.2 inning save but fell short by one out, giving up a game tying solo home run to Eugenio Suárez. Jake Diekman recorded the win courtesy of a rally in the bottom of the 10th, but usage patterns remain unpredictable in this leverage ladder. When all else fails, using underlying data and FanGraphs’ WPA (win probability added) help discern which relievers perform best in high leverage situations. With this in mind, here are the viable candidates in the bullpen and their results so far in May:
If you’re perplexed how the top two relievers in terms of WPA have one save this month between them, welcome aboard. Game constructs sometimes affect how a reliever gets deployed in a match-up based bullpen. This does not apply fully for the Red Sox, but for now, plan on Matt Strahm, John Schreiber and even Matt Barnes getting more leverage chances in the days ahead. There’s no guarantee any will run with the role.
For those taking the long view approach, here’s a wild thought. Chris Sale will ramp up activity in his rehab efforts for a return this season. Could the team use him as a closer, or high leverage reliever this season, then return him into the rotation next year? He notched 12 saves in his first 79 games in the majors while breaking in with the White Sox. With each passing week, getting him ramped up as a starter may be tougher — but as a reliever, his return could happen sooner, so stay tuned.
Jhoan Duran converted his third save on Sunday and Emilio Pagán recorded a two-inning win on Monday. Even though the two may share leverage events all season long, they could possess mixed league value based on volume. Minnesota improved its record in one-run games to 9-4 and keeping both relievers rested, along with being capable of multiple inning outings, makes this a pliable bullpen for leverage events.
As for Duran, he leads American League relievers with a 40.3 strikeout percentage and ranks second in strikeouts with 31 over his 20.1 innings. Pagán has two saves and a win in his last three appearances with six strikeouts against zero walks over four innings.
New York Yankees
Since we highlighted Aroldis Chapman last week, his struggles continued and he suffered his second loss on Sunday, giving up a go-ahead home run by A.J. Pollock, then issuing a walk, uncorking a wild pitch and allowing an RBI double by Adam Engel. While his 22-game save streak remains intact, his hold on the closer role does not:
Clay Holmes riding a 19-game, 21 inning scoreless streak does not bode well for Chapman and his Achilles issue. In fact, Holmes joined Mariano Rivera (2008) as the second Yankees pitcher with at least 20 strikeouts and one earned run allowed in his first 20 games. He also leads all MLB pitchers with an 83.3 ground ball percentage and 19 scoreless appearances.
Placing Holmes atop the leverage ladder does not come with much reservation; however, it will create ripple effects. With Chad Green out for the year (Tommy John surgery) and Jonathan Loáisiga struggling with his two-seam fastball tailing, not riding, Michael King may shift into a more traditional one-inning relief role. This puts pressure on Clarke Schmidt filling the multiple inning “Swiss Army Knife” option King provided this year and calls upon more leverage work by both Wandy Peralta and Miguel Castro. Getting to Holmes will be trickier than naming him the closer.
Fluid, Match-ups Based or Leverage Roles in Flux
After seeing how well San Diego and Minnesota perform in games with low run differentials, the Marlins own a 6-13 (.315) record in one-run contests this year. It’s part performance based and part deployment. Another team representing a leverage ladder in flux, how the Marlins finalize roles this month (or in June) will affect how fantasy values its relievers. Starting with the numbers, here’s how each of the main set-up relievers have performed in May:
Perhaps last year’s stigma sticks — Anthony Bass owns the best data in the chart above, but does not get called upon in save situations. Of course, with zero converted this month, it’s tough suggesting anyone could run with the “closer” label. For now, stay the course with Cole Sulser being the “HLR” and see how the late innings shake out. Target relievers in this bullpen with trepidation.
Tampa Bay Rays
Would it be a Reliever Roundup without a Rays bullpen reference? It hasn’t been as crazy in years past, but with Andrew Kittredge landing on the injured list with a back issue, the leverage roles may be reshuffled. Ryan Thompson suffered his third blown save on Sunday, so it’s possible one of the three relievers at the top of May’s underlying metrics may receive the next save opportunity:
Over the last 15 games, Tampa Bay relievers have suffered eight blown saves and given up the go ahead run in five of these contests in the eighth inning or later. Perhaps forging new roles makes sense. Jason Adam flies well below the radar but has recorded 10 strikeouts on three pitches this year, plus owns three pitches with a swinging strike rate of 18 percent or better this year:
J.P. Feyereisen allowed an unearned run on Sunday, but has surged in May, as the chart reflects. Brooks Raley gets more fantasy acclaim because of his two saves accrued this year, but Colin Poche represents the better southpaw reliever in May, so he could be an intriguing stash as well. There’s never anything guaranteed in this bullpen, so use the numbers in the chart, select a target and hope for the best. Hopefully some roles stabilize as the month winds down.
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High Leverage Ladders
**For a primary save share, or ancillary saves with an HLR
- Clay Holmes, New York Yankees
- JP Feyereisen; Jason Adam; Colin Poche, Tampa Bay
- John Schreiber, Boston
- Andrew Chafin; Alex Lange, Detroit
- Josh Staumont, Kansas City
- Rafael Montero, Houston
- AJ Puk, Oakland
- Diego Castillo; Sergio Romo, Seattle
- Adam Cimber, Toronto
- Ryan Helsley, St. Louis
- Scott Effross, Chicago Cubs
- Luis García, San Diego
- Seth Lugo; Adam Ottavino, New York Mets
- Tyler Kinley, Colorado
- Joe Mantiply, Arizona
- Daniel Hudson, Los Angeles Dodgers
- John Brebbia, San Francisco
- Kyle Finnegan, Washington
**Relievers who work multiple innings, or provide ratio protection with strikeout upside
- Michael King, New York Yankees
- Ryan Helsley, St. Louis
- J. Minter, Atlanta
- Spencer Strider, Atlanta
- Paul Sewald, Seattle
- J. Puk, Oakland
- Colin Poche, Tampa Bay
Multiple Inning Hybrids (Whitlock wannabes)
- Spencer Strider, Atlanta
- Cody Poteet, Miami
- Keegan Akin, Baltimore
- Keegan Thompson, Chicago Cubs
- Wil Crowe, Pittsburgh
- Reynaldo López, Chicago White Sox
- Jimmy Herget, Los Angeles Angels
Relief Pitcher Tiered Rankings
(Top photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports: FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, BaseballSavant.com, BrooksBaseball.net)