Comparing mid-May relief ranks

My how quickly things change in this game.

Two days ago, we published, as an ESPN Fantasy team, our updated top 250 rankings. They were based on a standard ESPN 10-team mixed league with rotisserie 5x5 scoring and projected player value from Tuesday, May 15 through the end of the 2012 fantasy baseball season.

On that date, we ranked David Robertson our No. 213 player overall and No. 18 relief pitcher. I ranked Robertson 137th overall and my No. 11 reliever.

But it wouldn't be this crazy closer year if, two whole days later, Robertson's ranking looked entirely wrong, would it?

The New York Yankees placed Robertson on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left oblique, mere hours after our rankings were published. In an instant, I'd have altered my ranks, dropping Robertson to 175th and moving new Yankees closer Rafael Soriano to 185th. It wouldn't have been my first rankings change this week; I made no fewer than 10 changes to my top 250 between Sunday and Tuesday.

That's simply how fantasy baseball works. Injuries happen, streaks happen, roles change, supporting casts change. We must be prepared to react with our rankings, and no other position exemplifies that this season than closer.

Here's the other fun part about rankings: It's impossible to create one set that covers every anticipated span of time. Ours -- and the ones found weekly in this space -- are to-year's-end rankings. They are not rankings for merely today, the next week or the next month. They are through Oct. 3, or longer if there are any tiebreaker games.

That explains why, despite Robertson's DL status, I still rank him higher than Soriano. There's no doubt that, for at least the next two weeks, Soriano is the superior fantasy option. Heck, I could make the case that Soriano will be the more valuable reliever of the two for at least the next month.

But through Oct. 3, why can't Robertson outperform Soriano? Take saves out of the equation and Robertson appears to have the edge: Since the beginning of 2011, Robertson leads in ERA (1.33-3.71), WHIP (1.14-1.37), strikeouts per nine innings (13.78-8.27) and K's per walk (3.02-1.88). Robertson also received the first two save chances in the post-Mariano Rivera era and appeared to be the leader in the race for future opportunities before May 11, the day he initially got hurt. Barring Soriano being lights out in Robertson's absence, who's to say Robertson won't be reinstated to the role upon activation?

That's only one rankings explanation of mine. Another important one addresses the fact that, of our group, why I ranked relievers most generously?

It's simple. In the preseason, we ranked 12 closers among our top 150 players. I ranked 11 among my top 150. On our Player Rater as of today, 15 pure relief pitchers rank among the top 150. Saves remains one of the 10 rotisserie categories, so no matter how much we kid about the volatility of the category or that investments in closers are foolish, we still have to fill said category. I chose to put 14 closers in my top 150 -- three between 141st and 150th -- because I felt that they represented the "safest" of the bunch.

Despite my generous overall relief pitcher rankings, I did have a few examples of individuals who stood out in rank from the rest of the pack. As with 60 Feet, 6 Inches and Hit Parade the past two days, this week's Relief Efforts discusses some of these outliers.

Unlike the previous two columns, this only includes individuals I liked better than the rest of the group, because apparently I liked all relievers better than the group. Every one, however, was an example where I ranked the pitcher at least 30 spots higher than the group average.


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.

Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers: I love Jansen, and it's time for fantasy owners everywhere to fall in love with him. He has soared into the closer role on the strength of a 2.29 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 13.73 K's-per-nine ratio. The ERA/WHIP represent improvements on his 2011 numbers, and the K's per nine ranks him among the 10 best relievers in the game. Jansen actually has a 15.46 K's per nine in 73 1/3 innings pitched since the beginning of last season. To put that into perspective, the only pitcher in the history of baseball to manage better than that in a single season of 70-plus innings was Carlos Marmol (15.99, 2010). Jansen has lights-out stuff that more than makes up for his occasionally shaky command -- at least in the short term -- and the case could be made that he'll be the No. 1 relief pitcher in fantasy from this point forward.

Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers: Though his year-to-date statistics have yet to show it, Nathan looks a heck of a lot closer to his pre-Tommy John surgery, fantasy-elite self from 2009 than the slow-to-recover pitcher we saw for the majority of 2011. His average fastball velocity is nearly identical this season (93.6 mph) to 2009 (93.5), his swing-and-miss rate of 33.3 percent is almost identical to 2009's 33.2 percent and well up from 2011's 21.3, and his breaking pitches (curveball and slider) have been nearly as effective this year (.200/.200/.300 triple-slash rates allowed) as in 2009 (.143/.224/.238). Nathan has merely been unlucky with his fastball, as his .400 BABIP with the pitch suggests. He'll always remain slightly more risky with the Rangers than he was pre-surgery, due to both the ballpark and his age, but he's a top-10 fantasy closer for sure.

Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers: Gee, thanks a lot, Jose, for straining your back mere hours after we published our rankings. I did say that this has been a wacky year for closers, didn't I? My Valverde ranking was mostly a leap of faith that the Tigers would remain faithful in their $9 million closer; a 7-for-9 performance in save chances plus a 5.51 ERA hardly screams "panic button." Today, the ranking looks awful. Tomorrow? Valverde could be entirely healthy, throwing a perfect frame for a save, and he'd be right back among the top 10 in fantasy.

Brandon League, Seattle Mariners: What can I say, I do love those ground-ballers. Here's what most perplexes me about League, though: He has improved both his ERA and OPS allowed in each of the past three seasons, yet no one seems ready to perceive him as a top-10 potential fantasy closer. Well, I sure do. The Mariners back League with one of the game's better defenses -- ranking third in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating, per FanGraphs -- which alleviates concerns about his modest strikeout rate, and they're sure to call on him often to protect what should be a decent share of tight leads due to the team's weak offense.

Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles: He's another ground-baller, an even more extreme one than League. His 72 percent rate is second among relievers to only Brad Ziegler's 73.9. Like League, Johnson's ground-ball tendencies -- his fair to classify among the most extreme in the game -- help compensate for his 6.11 K's per nine to date. He has become phenomenal locating his two-seam fastball, often classified a sinker by our pitch-data tool, between this and last season, and just as I hinted he might be, he's quietly becoming to 2012 what League was to 2011. League finished last season 15th on the Player Rater with 37 saves and a 2.79 ERA. Johnson is third on the Player Rater this year, is on pace for 55 saves and has a 0.51 ERA.

Santiago Casilla, San Francisco Giants: Again, it figures that two of Casilla's worst outings of the season came the day before and the day we published our updated rankings. But let's not be too rough on him simply for that. His 1.84 ERA still ranks in the 82nd percentile among qualified relievers. Sure, Sergio Romo has a sparkling 0.00 ERA and a strikeout rate substantially greater than Casilla's, but don't ignore that the Giants have afforded Romo the opportunity to face only 12 left-handed hitters all season. Casilla, meanwhile, has faced 27. It's pretty clear that the Giants regard Romo as a situational reliever and Casilla as a one-inning type, and it's for that reason I think Casilla's leash is lengthy.

Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians: His ranking was less an endorsement of him as a pitcher than it was my questioning who would steal his closer job, especially since his 12 saves currently rank tied for second in the majors. Suggest Vinnie Pestano if you wish; I see Pestano's lifetime .286/.375/.460 triple-slash rates allowed to left-handed hitters, his OPS allowed against that side 413 points higher than against righties, as a limitation. It reminds me a bit of Cla Meredith during his brief, dominant run as a setup man, and like Octavio Dotel, who possesses similarly steep platoon splits, Pestano might be a frustrating nightly option if given a chance to close. But let's also credit Perez for a key improvement: He has slashed his walk rate from 3.92 per nine last season to 3.07 per nine this year.

Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox: In a season as messy as this, you need to take some wild stabs at upside. (See Jansen, Kenley.) Reed qualifies. He managed a 1.41 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and 12.88 K's-per-nine ratio during his minor league career, then made Keith Law's preseason top 100 prospects (No. 97), an impressive feat for a relief pitcher. Reed has experienced success in his brief time as a big leaguer; he has had only three bad outings so far and hasn't afforded a run in any of the other 18, allowing only nine hits in 15 2/3 innings in the latter. Sure, White Sox manager Robin Ventura has been unpredictable with his ninth-inning strategy thus far, but he's not going to be able to afford to do so for much longer, not when it is becoming increasingly clear that Reed, the team's "closer of the future," is also his best option today. Reed has converted all three of his save chances this month, and fantasy owners should prepare as if he'll lead the team the rest of the way.