A new draft approach

I read a lot of fantasy baseball articles, and it’s not often that I come across anything really new. But that changed this week when I read an article by J.B. Branson of Rotoballer. In the article, Branson broke down his favorite baseball strategy called the Bullpen Method. It’s a unique approach to roster construction that flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

Here’s how the Bullpen Method works. In a standard league, you will roster 10-13 pitchers. Five or six of these are starting pitchers, and the rest are relief pitchers. The relief pitchers rostered may be closers, but Branson doesn’t pay up for either starters or relievers. Therefore, he will wind up with a number of setup guys who might become closers later.

In his article, Branson points out the need for balance in your pitching staff, and maintains this is not possible with a lot of starting pitchers on your roster. Starting pitchers will help you in wins and strikeouts, but they will blow up your ERA and WHIP. If you want the small number of starters you can trust to not blow up your ERA and WHIP, you have to pay up.

With the Bullpen Method, you can pay up for one or two aces and focus the rest of your early picks on position players you want on your team. When you get to the end of your draft, use your last few picks to complete your roster of pitchers with relief pitchers that will be available because no one else will touch them. If one is gone, move on to the next.

Branson contends that starting pitchers are heavily overrated in fantasy and subsequently relief pitchers (especially setup men) are heavily underrated. He encourages fantasy managers to take advantage of the common industry mistake and instantly witness improvement on their teams. I won’t guarantee you this works, but I’m going to try it out on a team.

While the Bullpen Approach was new to me, I had actually had some experience with it by accident. It seems like each year, I would blow through my 200 allowable starts and have to drop all of my starting pitchers in August or September and roster only relief pitchers. If you play fantasy baseball, you know that starters won’t get credit for wins after you’ve had 200 starts.

I can tell you, based on my experience, that utilizing relief pitchers didn’t cost me a league championship. If I was ahead in the standings at that point, I still won. Keep in mind that most of these relievers that I added late in the season were not closers. These were middle relievers and setup guys who had low ratios. They would pick up an occasional win, or save, too.

I would encourage you to try out the Bullpen Method in your home, or public league. You will get a lot of strange looks from other managers when they see you passing on the big-name pitchers and loading up on position players. They will wonder about the relief pitchers you roster that they’ve never heard of. Let them wonder, and maybe you’ll have the last laugh.

Disclaimer – Branson makes it clear in his article that you shouldn’t use the Bullpen Method in Points Leagues. Points leagues are made for heavy-volume starters and the elite closers. The Bullpen Method works best in Roto leagues but also works in H2H leagues where you can easily beat your opponent in 3 of 5 pitching categories (5 of 5 if you are a talented SP streamer). 

I have compiled a list of relief pitchers that you should consider in the last rounds of your draft (or adding from the waiver wire if you’ve already drafted your team). I recently completed a 12-team ESPN Roto league. In 26 rounds, there were 312 players drafted. And all of the players on my list are available today on the waive wire, so they should be easy to acquire.

AARON BUMMER, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

He is by far the second-best reliever on the White Sox right now and should be for a while. Bummer had some injury trouble in 2020 but when he was out there, he was filthy. In 9.1 innings (over nine appearances), he had an ERA of 0.96 and a WHIP of 1.071 with 14 strikeouts.

JAKE DIEKMAN, OAKLAND

He was the favorite to be the A’s closer before Trevor Rosenthal signed. He’s been a key left-hander out of the bullpen for the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s over the last two years. He took his game to a new level in Oakland and made a pretty drastic change to his slider grip.

TYLER DUFFEY, MINNESOTA

The Twins signing Alex Colome ruined my hopes of Duffey getting a good share of saves in Minnesota. Regardless, he’s been one of the most skilled relievers in baseball over the last two seasons. With low ERA and WHIP projections, he should help in ratios as a middle reliever.

PETE FAIRBANKS, TAMPA BAY

Fairbanks was acquired from the Texas Rangers in 2019 in exchange for Nick Solak and paid it paid off. He recorded six wins and seven holds. Although his WHIP left something to be desired, that could improve with some regression to the .350 BABIP Fairbanks posted last season.

YIMI GARCIA, MIAMI

Since his Tommy John surgery in 2019, Garcia has a faster fastball and greater spin on his slider. There should be a good number of save opportunities in Miami, and Garcia is in the mix to close. In 2020, he pitched to a 0.60 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, with an 11.40 K/9 and 23.3 K-BB%.

CODI HEUER, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Another promising young reliever in the White Sox system, Codi Heuer, had an outstanding debut season. With a high-velocity fastball and whiff-inducing slider, Heuer is primed for a long future in a high-leverage role, although it’s unlikely that he has any road to the closing job.  

PIERCE JOHNSON, SAN DIEGO

After a disaster 2018 season, Johnson pitched in Japan for a year, where he earned All-Star honors. Ditching his cutter for a curveball worked well for Johnson. In 2020, he was 3-1, with a 2.70 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. However, he does not appear to have a road to the closing job.

SETH LUGO, NY METS

The Mets are planning to use Lugo out of the bullpen in 2021 after he recovers from February elbow surgery. Lugo served as both a starter and reliever in 2021, making nine appearances out of the bullpen. As a starter, his ERA was 6.15.  Lugo’s ERA as a reliever in 2020 was 2.61.

EVAN MARSHALL, CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Since the start of 2019, Marshall has a 2.45 ERA in 73.1 innings for the White Sox. Marshall has been dropping his fastball usage over the last three seasons. The results have led to more strikeouts. Marshall should continue to see high-leverage work behind Liam Hendriks.F

TYLER MATZEK, ATLANTA

Matzek returned to the game after four seasons, and his 97 mph fastball from the left side induced a 14.3% swinging-strike rate. Now, with Mark Melancon, Shane Green, and Darren O’Day out, Matzek should see work. But Will Smith and Chris Martin are ahead of him for saves.

TREVOR MAY, NY METS

Trevor May had been consistently good for Minnesota over the last few seasons. In 2020, he raised his game even further with an improved swinging-strike rate after dropping his fastball usage. Now with the Mets, May should be the primary setup man behind Edwin Diaz.

MIKE MAYERS, LA ANGELS

Mike Mayers enjoyed a breakout season for the Angels in 2020. By adding a cutter, Mayers saw a 4% jump in his swinging-strike rate. While he’s no longer in line to close with Raisel Iglesias in town, Mayers could be a middle reliever worth rostering, and he’s second in line to close.  

EMILIO PAGAN, SAN DIEGO

The Padres acquired Pagan acquired last winter. Pagan started the season rough, but from August 1 on, he had a 2.95 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 18.1 innings. He should continue to see work behind Drew Pomeranz and new Padre, Mark Melancon. He is in the mix to close games.  

TANNER RAINEY, WASHINGTON

Rainey will start the season in a setup role behind newly signed Brad Hand. His 21.7% swinging-strike rate was second in the majors among relievers, behind only Devin Williams. If healthy,   Rainey should be among the more valuable middle relievers for holds, ratios, and strikeouts.

ALEX REYES, ST. LOUIS

The Cardinals’ goal is to get Reyes 100 innings of work in middle relief. When healthy, he can be electric. He has a career 2.48 ERA over five years and parts of four Major League seasons. He has a 97.5 mph fastball and two lethal breaking pitches in his arsenal and can really miss bats.  

JOELY RODRIGUEZ, TEXAS

Still recovering from an ankle sprain, Rodriguez is expected to be ready for opening day. He impressed last year with his return from Japan. He is a dark horse to close if Jose Leclerc stumbles. Regardless, he should be in the mix for high-leverage work out of the bullpen.

JORDAN ROMANO, TORONTO

Another talented young reliever blocked from the closing job by the signing of Kirby Yates.  Romano broke out in a big way before suffering an injured finger in 2020. He had a 19.4% swinging-strike rate combined with a 58.1% groundball rate. He could close if Yates is injured.  

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