Updated: Apr 10, 2021
We’re now a week into the 2021 baseball season and some interesting players are starting to emerge. On the hitting side it’s been Yermin Mercedes and Cedric Mullins. On the pitching side it’s been mostly the status quo when it comes to starters. But what about relievers? Julian Merryweather has stolen our attention and Mark Melancon, it turns out, is San Diego’s closer. If you were in on any of those players early you’ve certainly been rewarded. But what about the guys nobody is on, that might have just as much impact down the road?
I have three names, three relievers, for you to monitor or even stash before your league mates do that have the upside to be difference makers in your season. Let’s explore them!
Corey Knebel, Los Angeles Dodgers
You’re probably thinking, “Wait, I know Corey Knebel. He was good, wasn’t he?” You’re right! Corey Knebel for a handful of seasons was a relevant, high-quality relief pitcher. He even spent a good chunk of time closing games for the Milwaukee Brewers from 2017-2018, a stretch during which he threw 131.1 innings, striking out 214 batters and racking up 55 saves and 17 holds with a sub-3 ERA. Knebel wasn’t just good – he was one of the best, but only for a short while. Injury gave way to ineffectiveness. So much so that he missed the entire 2019 season and threw only 3 innings in 2020 before the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired him in a salary dump by Milwaukee.
I’m here to tell you that Knebel is looking quite good so far in 2021, making him relevant once more. https://924a1c60-1416-43c8-99a5-0a1e6b7f4821.usrfiles.com/html/db9376e69cfa487ea0fa0b912ae51a4f_v1.html
Peak Knebel was an elite bullpen arm approaching 40% strikeouts with reasonable walk totals (11.7%) and manageable home runs rate (0.89 HR/9). He’s thrown just 2.1 innings this season but his 37.9% strikeout rate, 12.5% walk rate, and 12.9% swinging strike rate look normal. In only 2.1 innings those rates look like 3 strikeouts to just 1 walk and he has yet to allow a hit. He’s also earned a hold and a save in his 3 appearances. Yes, the sample is small but I’ve seen enough.
Maybe I’m blinded by my loyalty to someone I’ve been on since before he broke into the big league or maybe it’s the fact that the best team in baseball, known for reclaiming broken pitchers (ahem…Brandon Morrow…ahem), has been using Knebel in high leverage situations. Don’t overlook the fact that Kenley Jansen is far from the lights out closer he’s been most of his career or the fact that the Dodgers aren’t above mixing and matching with their late-inning arms. Yes, Blake Treinen is there. Victor Gonzalez is also there. Both of those pitchers are quite good. They also have as many combined saves for the Dodgers since 2020 as Corey Knebel: 1.
One last thing: Knebel’s velocity is up to peak levels. From 2017-2018 Knevel sat 97.2 MPH and so far this season he’s not far off at 96.5. If you are in a league that uses holds in any way, Knebel is a must-own arm. If your league doesn’t count holds but good late-inning relief arms carry value with their ratios and strikeouts then Knebel is also a must-own. If this was a bold predictions article I would say that I see Knebel saving more games than Kenley Jansen. That’s how much I believe in Corey Knebel and if you wait too much longer to make a move, it will be too late.
ESPN: Rostered in 3.9% of leagues, CBS: Rostered in 6% of leagues, Yahoo: Rostered in 8% of leagues
Connor Brogdon, Philadelphia Phillies
Unlike Knebel, Connor Brogdon likely is a name you’ve not heard before. He is a 26 year old Philadelphia Phillies middle reliever, though I doubt he stays just a middle reliever for long. In 15 major league innings dating back to 2020 Brogdon owns a 3.00 ERA, 4.34 FIP, and 3.26 xFIP with 24.6% K-BB and 15.4% swinging strike rate. With a mid-90s fastball and an excellent changeup that he throws about a third of the time Brogdon has cemented himself in the Phillies bullpen, already appearing in 3 games this season.
(Video courtesy of BaseballSavant.com)
You may be aware that last season the Phillies bullpen was a mess – historically bad even. And while they’ve improved it with the additions of Jose Alvarado and Archie Bradley I believe there’s room for Brogdon at the back end. As electric as Alvarado is he’s never been constant or healthy. He’s pitched more than 30 innings just once and has only one sub-3.50 ERA season to his name (excluding 2021 so far). Bradley, on the other hand, has pitched much over the past few years and has been quite good, however his decline may be closer than most want to admit – he’s lost more than 3 MPH off his fastball since his peak. That’s not nothing.
Brogdon has notched wins in all three of his appearances this season, entering games in the 10th, 8th, and 5th inning, respectively. What happens when Alvarado gets hurt or Bradley falters? We may start to see Brogdon used in more high leverage situations. In leagues that count holds he’s definitely an arm worth watching.
ESPN: Rostered in 0.8% of leagues, CBS: Rostered in 3% of leagues, Yahoo: Rostered in 1% of leagues
Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
Want to impress your league mates and demonstrate your fantasy genius? Go get Michael Fulmer. Okay, I admit that’s an exaggeration. But the sentiment behind it is not – I think we could be looking at another fail-starter-turned-relief-ace in the Detroit Tigers righthander. Injuries the past couple of seasons have not been kind to Fulmer, and despite each of his appearances up through 2020 being starts the 28 year-old’s future may be in the bullpen.
Pitching in relief Fulmer has seen an uptick in fastball velocity, back up to his early career norm (95.3 MPH) and is throwing his breaking pitches harder than ever before. His slider is coming in at 89 MPH, matching it’s 2017 velocity, and he’s throwing his curveball more than 2 MPH harder than he ever has. He’s also cut back on his fastball usage (down to 40% in 2021) while increasing both his slider and curveball usages by about 4% each. The results so far have been good: 3 IP, 5 Ks, 2 H, 1 ER. He’s also sitting on a 13% swinging strike rate, the best of his career so far.
(Video courtesy of BaseballSavant.com)
It’s been just 2 appearances for Fulmer in 2021, but he’s earned holds in each of them and with no rock-steady late-inning arms in his path there’s a path to saves, or at perhaps a multi-inning fireman role. As much as I like Jose Cisnero and others like Gregory Soto, if Fulmer flat out dominates they won’t keep him from closing games for Detroit.
There won’t be any competition for Fulmer in your league right now, so he’s simply someone to watch moving forward. But There could be a lot of value to be gained by making a move and grabbing Fulmer early.
ESPN: Rostered in 0.7% of leagues, CBS: Rostered in 2% of leagues, Yahoo: Rostered in 1% of leagues
Who are you in on early this season? Anyone else I should know about? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on twitter @JoeyThomasD!