Originally written on Baseball Professor  |  Last updated 12/17/12
There’s a reason most fantasy baseball managers put relief pitching at the bottom of their pre-draft to-do list; the position is extremely volatile. One injury, one trade, or one particularly bad stretch can render a top fantasy producer nearly irrelevant. Even if that player breaks out of his slump in a big way, that might mean his value is still shot if his ninth inning duties aren’t restored. People in holds leagues don’t see this drastic swing in player value quite as much, but overall there’s no other position in fantasy quite like relief pitching. Here are five of 2012′s biggest surprises in the bullpen. Fernando Rodney allows 5 ER all season Rodney broke into the Majors back in 2002. His 2012 season makes no sense in the context of the rest of his 11-year career: His best ERA in the five years prior to 2012 was 4.24. His 2012 BB/9 was 1.81, but his previous career-best was 3.48. In the four years prior, his best BB/9 was 4.63. His 2012 WHIP was 0.78, but his previous career-best was 1.19. His second-best was 1.27. In the four years prior, his best WHIP was 1.47 — almost DOUBLE 2012′s WHIP. Prior to 2012, Toronto traded one of their top pitching prospects, Nestor Molina, for RP Sergio Santos with the idea that Santos would slam shut the revolving door at closer for the Blue Jays. Santos pitched five terrible innings, got hurt, and missed the rest of the season. Rodney pitched 74.2 innings in 2012 and allowed exactly as many earned runs on the year (5) as Santos did in his extremely brief season. Heath Bell saves 19 games with an ERA over 5.00 I can’t say I’m completely surprised Bell fell from the ranks of the elite. At the beginning of the year I wasn’t exactly on Bell’s bandwagon: Bell has been a reliever for eight seasons now, and before being an elite closer for the last three years he was an elite setup man for two years. Last season Bell saw his strikeout rate plummet even though his peripherals didn’t change much and his velocity remained constant, so what gives? I think Bell is a big risk this season because of his new contract and change in location (read: Not Petco). Miami is a volatile environment with a lot of uncertainties, ballpark included, and I’d rather not risk a higher pick to draft Bell when I can wait on someone like [Sean] Marshall. Of course, Marshall saved just nine games and probably never had a realistic chance at keeping Cincy’s closing job with Aroldis Chapman‘s cannon also residing in the Reds’ bullpen, but the overall point still stands. Bell saw his strikeout rate rise exactly one K/9, but his walk rate rose one BB/9 as well. Not exactly a great trade-off. Jim Johnson saves 51 games?! Perhaps the larger surprise here is that Baltimore gave one reliever over 50 save chances, but Johnson’s numbers — 51-for-54, 94.4% — are still ridiculous. If you had to guess which pitcher would be the first to save 50 games since Francisco Rodriguez‘s record-setting 62 saves back in 2008, would you have guessed Johnson? Nine RP register at least 30 holds Despite the fact that the league hands out twice as many holds as saves each year, elite holds totals are comparatively lower than elite saves totals. Last year there were nine relievers who registered at least 30 holds, the most we’ve seen in any one year at least since 2001 (Fangraphs started tracking the stat in 2002). Joe Nathan posts career-best 6.00 K:BB ratio Last season Nathan was 37 years old and entering his 12th MLB season after debuting way back in 1999. It was his second year back from Tommy John surgery, and his 4.84 ERA the year before was his highest since a 5.21 mark back in 2000 with the Giants. In fact, in seven full seasons from 2002-2009 Nathan’s worst ERA was 2.94 and he’d had a one-point-something ERA four times during that span. That means in those seven years his ERA was under 2.00 more times than it was over 2.00. Ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as the 37-year-old, post-op veteran posting a career-best K:BB ratio. His 10.91 K/9 wasn’t much different than that of Nathan’s peak years, but his 1.82 BB/9 was a new best. That kind of command is rarely seen and always results in dominance.
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