With an increasing number of teams using a closer-by-committee approach and some starting pitchers potentially having their innings pitched limited as a result of 2020’s abbreviated season, familiarizing ourselves with relief pitchers who can positively impact our 2021 fantasy baseball season is extremely important.

Get ready for big league teams to be even more creative when it comes to managing their real life pitching staffs this season. More teams than ever before are likely to use an opener at some point, some will experiment with using a six-man starting rotation, and still others will slyly exploit the 10-day IL from time to time.

With more teams utilizing advanced stats and carefully monitoring pitch counts and the number of times a pitcher works through a batting order, starting pitchers' IP per game has steadily decreased from six in the 2014 season to 4.8 in 2020.  












Relief pitchers have also been credited with the decision in an increasingly higher percentage of big league wins of late. In 2017, relief pitchers got the decision in 33% of total MLB wins. That percentage has steadily increased each season. In 2020, relief pitchers got the decision in 48% of total MLB wins.  












Both examples demonstrate that the relief pitcher’s overall role is steadily expanding but, you’re probably not looking to roster a relief pitcher to help you in the wins category. However, we should note that Tampa Bay Rays relief pitchers finished second in the major leagues with a total of 25 wins in 2020 and led all relief pitchers in wins in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks led MLB relievers with six wins in 2020. Fantasy Alarm projections expect him to win four games and strike out 90 batters this season. He’s a good example of a reliever who will have opportunities to produce in 2021. He has a significant role in a bullpen that will continue to be heavily relied upon by the Rays. In the NL, the Dodgers have finished first, fourth, sixth, and second over the past four seasons in total wins among relief pitchers.

What you’re obviously looking for from your fantasy relief pitchers are contributions to your saves, holds (if your league tracks them), ERA and WHIP categories, as well as above average K/BB ratios.

With teams gradually moving away from using one traditional closer in just about every save situation, if you play in a fantasy baseball league that only tracks saves, it’s time to petition your league’s commissioner to replace the saves category with the saves and holds category.

Knowing which pitchers can potentially be among the league leaders in the holds category can help you identify pitchers who are accustomed to pitching in high leverage situations and might have a clear path to pitching in save situations should a team’s normal closer be unavailable. The Twins’ bullpen led baseball with 53 holds last season, followed by the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Nationals, and the Rays.

Although only 47 percent of the total wins in MLB in 2020 included a save (the lowest rate since 1985) and fewer teams are utilizing one closer, most fantasy baseball leagues still feature saves as a category.

The closer is one of the most volatile positions in both real life and fantasy baseball. How much do MLB teams value their closers? The fact that three of the four 2020 MLB leaders in saves (Brad Hand , Liam Hendriks and Alex Colomé ) signed contracts with new teams in 2021 tells you all that you need to know.

Josh Hader (Brewers), Liam Hendriks (White Sox), and Aroldis Chapman (Yankees), are widely regarded as having a lock on their jobs this season and usually the top three closers selected in typical drafts. From there it gets a little dicey.

The Mets’ expected closer, Edwin Díaz , pitched to a 5.59 ERA in 2019. He bounced back in 2020, but can he do it again? Kirby Yates will likely open the season as the Blue Jays’ closer but how effective will he be following season-ending surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow?  We can go on and on and that’s why many fantasy baseball managers won’t pay top dollar or invest an early-round pick for closers in their drafts.

Theoretically, winning teams whose starting pitchers don’t work deep into games should be a good resource for productive relief pitchers. Rays starters worked an average of 4.3 innings per start last season (third-lowest in baseball) and their relievers led the major leagues in save opportunities and saves (23). Unfortunately, those saves were spread out among 12 different pitchers. Rays relievers also finished fourth in 2019, and second in 2018 in total save opportunities. Cleveland (20), the Royals (19) and the Marlins (18) were all right behind the Rays and among MLB’s leaders in total team saves.

You can find saves in the later rounds of your draft. Trevor Rosenthal , (A’s, ADP 183), Rafael Montero (Mariners, ADP 192), Richard Rodríguez (Pirates, ADP 211), Amir Garrett (Reds, ADP 279), Anthony Bass (Marlins, ADP 359), Hunter Harvey (Orioles, ADP 376), and Reyes Moronta (Giants, ADP 414) all have opportunities to be their teams’ closer to start the season. They’re not perfect, and a few pitch for teams that probably won’t win too many games, but they are all usually available in the 16th round or later of typical 12-team drafts. When determining your long term in-season closer strategy keep in mind that closers on non-contending teams sometimes get traded to contending teams at MLB’s trade deadline and unfortunately, might not be the closer for their new team.

With the unpredictability surrounding both the starting pitching and closer position, almost any relief pitcher who has an opportunity to pitch multiple innings in relief, provides good ratios and high strikeout rates, or has an inside track to eventually becoming a closer, should be on your watch list this spring. You’ll need to do your own homework, but the following is just a small sample size of some of the relievers who demand your attention.

Cleveland’s Nick Wittgren , may have an opportunity to earn saves this season should James Karinchak slump or get injured. He was also fourth in the big leagues with ten holds last season. Keep an eye out for Emmanuel Clase as well.

If Royals pitcher Josh Staumont can improve his control he could eventually be the Royals’ future closer. He was sixth in the big leagues with eight holds last season.

White Sox reliever Matt Foster was tied with Fairbanks for having the most wins (six) among relievers. He posted a 31/9 K/BB ratio in 28.2 IP last season.

Angels setup man, Mike Mayers , struck out 43 batters in 30 innings of work and posted a 2.10 ERA.

Tyler Duffey has a 12.5 K/9 rate and a 2.31 ERA over the past two seasons for the Twins. He also had 12 holds last season, second best in baseball.

Zack Britton , saved eight games for the Yanks while Aroldis Chapman was on the IL due to COVID-19.

Braves reliever Tyler Matzek hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015 but stepped in and struck out 43 batters in 29 IP and posted a 2.79 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. If he could repeat his 2020 performance over a full season he may strikeout more batters in a week than some fantasy starting pitchers.

Trevor May will start the season as Edwin Díaz ’s setup man. He recorded 10 holds last season as well as a 14.7 K/9 rate.

Tanner Rainey will be the Nationals’ setup man. Should Brad Hand falter, he has the potential to fill the closers role.

Watch Jordan Hicks ’ progress this spring. He has a good shot at being the Cardinals closer at some point this season. Some think he might even be the Cardinals closer on Opening Day.