Among my favorite things to follow during the fantasy baseball season is the emergence of potentially elite relief pitchers. They might not rack up gaudy saves totals or pitch in the highest leverage situations (yet), but every year there are a handful of arms who burst onto the scene with astonishingly good numbers that we must take notice of.
I have three recommendations for you as we’re reaching the point in the major league season when teams are really sorting out which relievers they can trust:
Austin Adams, San Diego Padres
Here’s a name that may sound familiar. Adams popped-up big time late in 2019 by striking out 51 batters in 31 innings and notching 10 holds for the Seattle Mariners. He suffered a knee injury and was traded to the Padres the following summer and appeared in only 3 games for San Diego late in 2020. Healthy now and still with the Padres, Adams has re-emerged as one of the preeminent strikeout pitchers in all of baseball and now he looks better than he ever has.
In just 13.2 innings Adams has 26 strikeouts and the best part is that he’s walked only 4 batters. His 27.3% K-BB% is not only his career best, it’s one of the best marks in all of baseball and trails only Aroldis Chapman, Matt Barnes, and James Karinchak. In May, however, Adams trails just one reliever (Jimmy Nelson) in K-BB% and has yet to allow a run in 6.1 IP.
Adams features a mid-90s fastball, but has more and more gone to his slider and it’s working out extremely well.
(Image courtesy of Fangraphs.com)
As the season has gone on Adams has been trusted with more leads late in games, notching two holds in his last three appearances. He may not be next in line for saves but in a league that counts holds or reliever wins or even just to rack up strikeouts with good ratios Adams can prove to be very valuable as we head to summer.
Sam Coonrod, San Francisco Giants
Late in 2020 the San Francisco Giants indicated hard-throwing righty Sam Coonrod could see some save chances, despite his shaky results to that point. That proved to be a mistake. Coonrod did save three games, but he also blew his final two save chances of the season in spectacular fashion. It seemed a shot at high-leverage innings had been lost. Jump to January of 2021 and Coonrod has been traded to the Phillies, owners of one of baseball history’s worst bullpens in 2020. Anything could be an improvement, right? Boy was that true!
In a complete reversal of his 2020 fortunes Coonrod has solidified himself as one of Philadelphia’s most trusted relief arms. He has allowed just 2 earned runs in 19 innings while striking out 20 batters and walking only 2. More sinkers, which he throws at upper-90s velocities, and fewer four-seamers and changeups have led to more strikeouts, fewer walks, and an overall much improved stat line.
With 5 holds and 2 saves so far this season Coonrod has demonstrated the ability to keep leads intact, meaning he could see more and more high-leverage chances as the season goes on.
Cole Sulser, Baltimore Orioles
You may remember Cole Sulser as the guy who quickly earned 5 saves for the Baltimore Orioles in 2020 before succumbing to control problems and eventually losing the closer’s job. Sulser walked nearly as many batters as he struck out and despite a low BABIP and home run rate still pitched to a 5.56 ERA in 22.2 IP. However, it didn’t make sense! His above average swinging strike rate wasn’t resulting in strikeouts and his previous body of work wasn’t reflected in his 2020 results. His work in the minor leagues and brief stint with Tampa Bay in 2019 pointed to that of a good reliever with plenty of strikeouts. That guy showed back up in full force in 2021.
In 16 innings so far in 2021 Sulser has a 41.7% K% and a 5% BB%, giving him a top-5 K-BB%. It’s almost insane how good his turnaround has been, but when you compare this season to the rest of his career then his bad 2020 is what appears to be the outlier. And the rise in strikeouts is backed up by an above average swinging strike rate and CSW%.
The biggest knock on Sulser is that he isn’t really close to saves or holds at the moment. Cesar Valdez, Tanner Scott, and Paul Fry seem to be Brandon Hyde’s high leverage arms. However in 8 of Sulser’s 12 appearances he has gotten 4 or more outs. This is a reliever who is going to continue to rack up strikeouts while pitching enough innings to be of value in terms of ratios, even if the saves and holds never come. But for a rebuilding club looking to capitalize on breakout relievers it wouldn’t surprise me to see the guys ahead of Sulser traded, or even Sulser himself. In that event he may find himself pitching the late innings eventually and you will want to have gotten in while he was still cheap.
Neither Reid-Foley or McHugh are good bets for holds, let alone saves, but each has performed exceptionally well in the last two weeks in getting 6+ outs.
So far in May Reid-Foley has pitched 6.1 innings, struck out 10 batters, walked none, and allowed just one earned run. All of his work has been in long relief but it should be noted that Reid-Foley has seen a large increase in zone%, Swinging strike rate, and CSW%.
McHugh is no stranger to fantasy rosters both as a starter and as a reliever, though he hasn’t been relevant for a couple of years due to injuries. Now on the Tampa Bay Rays McHugh has been used as both an “opener” and as a long reliever. In May McHugh has pitched 7 innings, struck out 12 batters, walked 2, and surrendered 0 runs.
If you have a rotation that is struggling and could use help in strikeouts and rate stats then Reid-Foley and McHugh could prove to be quite valuable and will cost you nothing.
What other relievers are being overlooked? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on twitter @JoeyThomasD!