2021 Fantasy Baseball Breakout Relievers

by Matt Wiener
2021 Fantasy Baseball Breakout Relievers

In this article, I will breakdown four of this year's breakout relievers. Each of these 2021 Fantasy Baseball Breakout Relievers can provide excellent draft day value and be the 2021 version of Brandon Kintzler.

In 2020, fantasy baseball managers drafted Brandon Kintzler outside of the top 275-ADP. However, Kintzler finished the shortened season with 12 saves, tying Ryan Pressly for fourth-most in the MLB. That trailed only Brad Hand, Liam Hendriks, and Josh Hader. Kintzler also posted numerous career lows, including a 2.22 ERA and .247 BAbip against.

In evaluating possible reliever breakout candidates, it is helpful to look at a combination of underlying metrics and opportunity.

Let’s examine some relievers outside the top-275 ADP that could be this year’s breakout stars. Each of these relievers can vastly outproduce his ADP and be a difference-maker for your 2021 fantasy baseball team.

2021 Fantasy Baseball Breakout Relievers

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Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies (ADP: 297.2)

After not pitching in the majors since 2013, 35-year-old Daniel Bard was an amazing comeback story in 2020. In 2020, Bard stepped up for a rocky Colorado bullpen. Bard secured all six of his save chances on his way to winning NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2020.

Bard compiled a respectable 3.65 ERA, 1.297 WHIP, and 27/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB). Further, Bard had an above-average 9.4% walk rate and struck out over a quarter of the batters he faced. In addition, Bard mitigated the impact of Coors field by keeping the ball out of the air. Bard posted an above-average 48.5% ground ball rate and an excellent 18.2% fly-ball rate.

Bard displayed considerably improved velocity and elite spin on his fastball. Per Baseball Savant, Bard’s fastball velocity was in the 96th percentile and his fastball spin was in the 99th percentile in 2020.

However, Bard was also in the sixth percentile for HardHit% and the 19th percentile for exit velocity. Bard will need to improve these numbers to avoid falling victim to the perils of pitching in Coors Field.

To maximize his effectiveness, Bard will need to maintain his velocity gains and grounder and fly ball rates. Notably, Bard was perfect on save chances in 2020. If Bard can hold on to the Rockies' closer job, he can be a solid source of saves and strikeouts.

Jose Leclerc, Texas Rangers (ADP: 328.8)

After the Rangers traded Rafael Montero to the Mariners, many wondered who will serve as their primary closer in 2021. Montero was the only reliever on the Rangers to secure more than one save in 2020.

According to Rangers manager Chris Woodward in mid-February, while he did not name a closer, he acknowledged that Jose Leclerc would get save chances in 2021. Leclerc pitched only two innings in 2019 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. But when Leclerc was healthy in 2018 and 2019, he led the Rangers in both saves and save chances. Further, Leclerc is one of the only Rangers bullpen options that has more than a handful of career saves.

Over 189 career innings, Leclerc has held batters to an impressively low .170 BA. In addition, Leclerc has struck out a third of the batters that he has faced in his career. Leclerc’s killer stuff is evidenced by his bloody Baseball Savant page from 2019 (see above).

Leclerc has had control issues in the past. However, Leclerc demonstrated improved control from 2017 to 2018, nearly cutting his walk rate in half. Leclerc’s control regressed slightly in 2019, but he still posted by far the second-lowest walk rate of his career. Moreover, though Leclerc posted a career-worst 4.33 ERA in 2019, his 3.59 FIP hints at some bad luck.

In 2021, I expect Leclerc to post numbers closer to his career averages of 3.19 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Leclerc has had some struggles as a closer for the Rangers over the last few years. However, the Rangers may look to Leclerc for saves early and often given the inexperience of the Rangers bullpen.

If Leclerc can prove up to the task, he will be a big-time bargain at his current ADP.

Update: Fellow Rangers' reliever Jonathan Hernandez suffered a sprained UCL in his right elbow and will be shut down for at least four weeks, affording Leclerc a stronger hold on the closer role to start the season.

Pete Fairbanks, Tampa Bay Rays (ADP: 364.6)

Welcome to the Drunk Tank.

Both RotoChamp and RosterResource have Tampa deploying a three-headed monster of Pete Fairbanks, Nick Anderson, and Diego Castillo at closer. RotoChamp has Fairbanks compiling the most saves on the team (14). However, Anderson (13) and Castillo (10) are not far behind. Yet, fantasy baseball managers are currently drafting Fairbanks almost 200 picks after Anderson and almost 100 picks after Castillo.

During the 2020 regular season, Fairbanks had only half of the save chances of each of Anderson and Castillo. But during the 2020 postseason, the Rays gave each of Fairbanks, Anderson, and Castillo the same number of save chances. Fairbanks was unable to convert any of his three save chances during the regular season. However, he successfully converted all three of his save chances during the postseason.

The Rays seemed increasingly willing to turn to Fairbanks to close out games late in the postseason. In nine playoff appearances, Fairbanks had the same number of save chances as he did in 27 regular-season appearances. That is not surprising considering Anderson's considerable struggles to end the year. Anderson allowed at least one earned run in each of his final seven appearances, all during the playoffs.

Standing at a towering 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Fairbanks terrorizes hitters with his filthy fastball/slider combination. Fairbanks pairs his electric 96th percentile fastball velocity with an elite spite rate of 2,432 RPM. In addition, Fairbanks' slider was devastating in 2020. The pitch held hitters to a weak .185 BA against and induced an absurd 42.7% Whiff%.

Fairbanks has flashed high-level strikeout stuff. In 2020, Fairbanks struck out a third of the batters that he faced. Further, Fairbanks ranked in the 91st percentile for K% and the 95th percentile for Whiff%. However, through 47.2 professional innings, Fairbanks has also posted a well below average 4.72 walks per nine innings (BB/9). Perhaps it is because his stuff has so much movement and spin. Regardless, Fairbanks will need to display improved control to maximize his closer potential.

Vegas Insider projects the Rays to win over 85 games in 2021. After seeing Fairbanks' usage in the postseason, I expect Fairbanks to lead the Rays in save chances in 2021. If so, Fairbanks will provide massive value at his ADP, despite ceding some chances to Anderson and Castillo.

Anthony Bass, Miami Marlins (ADP: 414.17)

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Like Kintzler before the 2020 season, Anthony Bass signed with Miami as a free agent before the 2021 season. Now it is Bass who seems to be the early frontrunner for saves in South Beach.

RotoChamp and RosterResource both currently have Bass and Yimi Garcia sharing closing duties for Miami. However, both sites also have Bass getting more saves. Further, per Craig Mish of the Miami Herald, when Marlin’s Manager Don Mattingly was asked about the Marlins closer role in mid-February, he “went to Anthony Bass often...[and] then went to Yimi Garcia”.

In 2020, Bass led the Toronto Blue Jays in both saves and chances, recording seven saves in nine chances. Bass posted a solid 3.51 ERA and a fantastic 1.01 WHIP. In addition, Bass compiled 21 strikeouts and only nine walks over 25.2 innings. Moreover, Bass kept the ball on the ground, with a career-high 61.4% grounder rate. Though unsustainable, Bass has steadily increased his grounder rate each year since his 2011 debut.

Bass was very effective in limiting hard contact with his sinker/slider combination in 2020. According to Baseball Savant, Bass was in the 99th percentile for xERA and xWOBA, the 98th percentile for xSLG, and the 96th percentile for xBA and Barrel %. Further, Bass induced an incredible 52.2% Whiff% on his slider.

If Bass opens the season as the Marlins primary closer, he should get plenty of chances for saves. The Marlins were an improved team in 2020 and well over half of their wins ended in saves. In addition, the Marlins gave Kintzler 14 of their 23 save chances in 2020. That distribution bodes well for Bass’ chances to accumulate the majority of Miami's save chances in 2021.

Bass has a good chance at being this year’s Kintzler in the same uniform. However, fantasy managers are currently drafting Bass almost 100 spots lower than Kintzler's 2020 ADP. Further, managers are not even currently drafting Bass as the first closer on his team.

Bass could be a great catch in 2021 and blow his ADP out of the water.

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