The baseball world is abuzz after the Tampa Bay Rays' decision to use Sergio Romo, traditionally a short reliever, as their starting pitcher for back-to-back weekend games, piggybacking him with "starters" Ryan Yarbrough and Matt Andriese.
For fantasy baseball purposes, the strategy was significant, but perhaps for a slightly different reason: Yarbrough's 6 1/3 innings of relief, earning himself a victory, were worth 21 points using ESPN's standard scoring system. That was the fourth instance this season in which any relief pitcher scored at least 20 fantasy points in a single outing, matching the league's entire total of such performances in 2017. It was, in fact, the second time this season that Yarbrough has scored at least that many points.
That's not to say that baseball's pitching structure is on the verge of changing overnight, but in what's often a copycat league -- especially with bullpens (see: 2015, 2016 and 2017 postseasons) -- the rising trend of multi-inning relievers is something that warrants our attention, and probably a tweak to our strategies. There's untapped value to be had here, especially regarding high-strikeout relievers.
The numbers speak for themselves: Entering play on Monday, an all-time record 27.6 percent of all relief appearances this season resulted in at least one shutout inning's work with the pitcher striking out at least one-quarter of the hitters he faced. We're on pace to set a single-season record of those accumulated for the fourth consecutive year, and we're on pace for a record 23.6 percent strikeout rate by all relief pitchers.
With a clear rise in multi-inning and high-strikeout relievers (or those capable of both, in a few cases), it's more important than ever to maximize the value of every inning available to your team, especially in a league that affords you daily transactions and/or has caps on games started. For one, these are increasing-in-value innings that don't count against those aforementioned caps, are often easily found on the free-agent list, and are becoming more valuable relative to starting pitchers' contributions, what with many starters seeing correspondingly smaller workloads.
It's not the first time I've made this point, having suggested you acquire at least one of these "relief dynamo" types just last week. If the Rays are setting a new trend with pitching specialization, however, the point will be hammered home only more dramatically. It's on us as fantasy managers to keep up.
Putting aside the quest for saves and wins -- though a Rays-like strategy, considering the official scorer's ability to assign the win to the game's most effective relief pitcher when the starter fails to complete five innings with a lead, does enhance these relievers' prospects for wins -- there are nine "relief dynamos" I consider slam dunks for these purposes. They should be rostered in every daily-transactions league and especially those that are points-based: Josh Hader, Brad Peacock, Chad Green, Archie Bradley, Chris Devenski, Andrew Miller, David Robertson, Carl Edwards Jr. and Adam Ottavino.
Digging deeper, though, there are some completely ignored pitchers who also fit the qualification, mainly because they fit the "multi-inning" more than they do the "high-strikeout" descriptions. Here are six that warrant closer attention:
Yarbrough (available in more than 96 percent of ESPN leagues): As a currently active member of the Rays' "rotation" who isn't currently making appearances in a starting capacity, the left-handed Yarbrough has been a top-175 performer overall in both rotisserie and points-based scoring this season. That's thanks in large part to a high-performing cutter that has done wonders for him in neutralizing right-handed hitters (.205/.276/.295 rates against, with his 6.3 runs above average per FanGraphs making it the second-best cutter behind Corey Kluber's). The Rays' "bullpen day" strategy for two out of every five turns of their rotation -- off days sometimes skipping one spot -- is helping Yarbrough maximize innings at little cost in terms of starts to a fantasy team, as his 26 relief frames were tied for 10th as of Monday morning, despite his having made only eight appearances in relief. If the Rays continue with this mix-and-match strategy, there could be a lot of utility with Yarbrough going forward.
Yonny Chirinos, Rays (available in more than 98 percent): He was the Rays' "Yarbrough" before Yarbrough, and it's possible the team might make him their right-handed counterpart once Chirinos is healthy enough to return from an elbow injury, likely in 2-3 weeks. Remember, one key advantage to starting with an other-handed short reliever, then piggybacking with a reliever who changes handedness, is throwing the opponent's lineup matchups into disarray early in the game. If the Rays continue with this strategy, Chirinos, who has great control and should get more ground balls than he has so far thanks to his sinker-/splitter-heavy pitch selection, will probably provide fantasy managers even more value than Yarbrough could.
Amir Garrett, Cincinnati Reds (available in nearly 95 percent): While the Reds would probably prefer Garrett to start long term, he has been a sensation for them in a multi-inning relief role thus far. He's throwing his four-seam fastball nearly three mph faster as a reliever than he did as a starter last season, and that's making his slider more effective, as hitters can't prepare for it. There's a good chance he'll deliver 80 innings of 100-plus K's in his new role, assuming the Reds don't need him to start at some point.
Robert Gsellman, New York Mets (available in nearly 95 percent): He has scored the 20th-most fantasy points of any pitcher with relief eligibility who has worked the majority of his time in that capacity. He is sneaking back onto the fantasy scene quietly, just as he did as a starter back in 2016. Gsellman even recorded a save on Sunday, a sign he's moving into a more prominent role for the New York Mets. His peripherals lead me to think he's been a bit lucky, but he's also good enough generating ground balls and weak contact to be a useful option for as long as the Mets keep him in multi-inning relief.
Seth Lugo, Mets (available in more than 98 percent): Interestingly enough, I prefer Lugo's raw stuff to Gsellman's, even if the Mets don't seem to regard their roles that way, and I'd anticipate that Lugo will out-earn Gsellman going forward. Lugo has better control and misses more bats, plus possesses the better curveball of the two.
Tyler Glasnow, Pittsburgh Pirates (available in 98 percent): He's the wild card of the list, as his control issues remain, even in a relief role, although at times he has seemed to rein in the walks coming out of the bullpen. With a little more consistency, Glasnow's 97-mph fastball -- that's roughly two mph faster than it was as a starter -- and curveball could be a real nightmare for opposing hitters, much in the way that same combination has served Dellin Betances well. Hmm, could Glasnow's 2018 mirror Betances' 2013, in which case the Betances-esque breakthrough is in store for 2019?