It’s that time of year when you might be considering signing up for some new fantasy leagues and possibly using unfamiliar platforms, like Ottoneu, created by Pitcher List’s own Niv Shah. If you’re entirely new to the game, Pitcher List has published some very helpful introductions for you. Once you’ve got a good grasp on the basics, you’ll want to start thinking about more detailed strategies that are specific to your league. That’s where this article comes in. In it, I will outline the relief pitching landscape in Ottoneu points leagues and look at some basic strategies you should consider as you prepare for auctions and keeper deadlines (featuring Eno Sarris‘ Stuff+).
The first thing we have to do is discuss the various formats and point systems available in Ottoneu. There are two points systems, SABR points (SPTS) and FanGraphs Points (FPTS), which can be used in either H2H or season-long formats. Hitting is valued the same way in both leagues, the differences have to do with pitcher valuation. With respect to relievers, both points systems utilize saves (5 points) + holds (4 points) to add value to late inning relief. SPTS, the original Ottoneu points system, is based on FIP. That means it only looks at innings pitched, strikeouts, walks, and home runs.
FPTS, now the more popular system, offers a slightly more complicated measure of pitcher performance, which increases the value of innings while adding negative points for hits allowed:
On a season-long scale, the two systems track fairly closely, although pitchers generally accumulate a bundle of extra FPTS over the course of the season, especially if they reach a high innings total or if they excel in hit prevention. In 2021, that difference sat around 40 points for the top 50 relievers and 10 points for all other relievers. In short, FPTS players should value top-end pitching slightly higher than SPTS, and this should inform any bullpen strategy.
The other main differentiator between leagues are the season-long and H2H formats. The primary differences with respect to relief pitching are that H2H leagues have limited lineup slots but do not have IP limits, while season-long leagues limit each lineup position at 162 games and total season IP for all pitchers (1250 for season-long leagues with playoffs, 1500 for season-long leagues without). Concretely, this means that within H2H leagues, relief pitching doesn’t compete with starting pitching for innings, it only adds or subtracts from matchup points totals. In season-long leagues, a manager must decide whether they are better off acquiring innings from relief or from starting pitching. Managers in season-long leagues with playoffs must also plan out their roster moves with an eye toward playoffs, since within playoff matchups there are no IP caps.
These differences are partially reflected in average league salaries. FPTS leagues inflate the costs of pitchers by a few dollars, but markets tend to value relievers similarly in H2H and season-long leagues. This makes sense, since, although relievers might be able to accumulate more points in an H2H setting, the season-long format incentivizes maximizing points per IP, which tend to be much higher for the reliever than for the starting pitcher. Regardless of format, reliever salaries rarely go above $20, in part due to limited innings, but also due to the volatility inherent in the position. After all, over the last 5 full seasons (2016-19, 2021), 37 different pitchers have placed in a season’s top ten.
Now that we have a sense of Ottoneu formats and what differentiates them, we need to look at player values. My fellow Pitcher List writer and one of Ottoneu’s co-founders, Chad Young, has written some excellent introductions to the concept of player valuation. His basic method for estimating player values is to calculate Points Above Replacement (PAR) by looking at the average amount of points that are easily available on the waiver wire in every league and then subtracting this number from a player’s projected totals. A good general rule in Ottoneu roster construction is to roster 5-7 relievers. Chad estimates an average of 6 relievers on each roster across 12 teams, giving him a total of 72. Replacement level, then, is the kind of points you could expect from the best players outside of that range (Chad estimates roughly 3.92 points per IP, though the number would be higher for relievers specifically). He then calculates a dollar-per-point figure in order to put an auction value on each player, which is then inflated for non-first-year leagues. A similar procedure is followed by the Auction Calculator on FanGraphs.
What is remarkable about these auction calculators is that they differ widely from how players are valued on the market, suggesting that reliever carry more value for a team than the market tends to accept. According to Chad’s calculations, the top 24 relievers in Ottoneu produce an average value of about $21 in 2012. According to the non-experimental FanGraphs Auction Calculator, that number is around $17 for 2022, while the experimental calculator (which gives additional replacement value to players with part time roles) has the number at $25 for 2022. In most Ottoneu leagues, the average salary for the 24 highest-paid relievers is only around $9! This suggests that the market seriously undervalues relief pitching and that it may be possible to take advantage of this in order to differentiate your team from other teams in your league.
Finding RP Value
The name of the game in Ottoneu is finding “surplus value,” i.e. the value a player is paid subtracted by the value that player produces. The concept of surplus value helps Ottoneu simulate major league economics, while also reminding us that real-life baseball ownership thrives by paying players less than they produce. While you might initially think that the current state of the market suggests that surplus value can be found in the $10 range, knowing that these players might produce twice as much value, this strategy has its pitfalls. The reason the market undervalues relief pitchers when compared to auction calculations is largely because the position is inherently volatile. Closers lose their closing roles, relief pitchers sometimes convert into starters (or make “starts” as an opener), good pitchers can be deployed in non-save situations, and, of course, as with all pitchers, injury risk is high. Consider Amir Garrett’s 2021 season as an example. After putting up stellar numbers in 2020, Garrett looked locked into late-inning relief for Cincinnati, but after struggling in April, he spent the rest of the season in an undefined, constantly shifting role. While players like Josh Hader, who could produce his $20ish salary in half a season, might be worth targeting, loading up on RP salary in Ottoneu poses a risk.
Instead of loading up on high-cost relievers, consider how this volatility impacts the entire relief pitcher pool and how this should inform your approach. While $20 pitchers go for around $10, $10 pitchers can often be rostered for as little as $1-6. In other words, a roster with seven $2 players might produce as much as $70 worth of points, while simultaneously allowing for easy mid-season replacement. The key to identifying these players can be broken into two general ideas: (1) prioritizing relief pitchers with good “stuff,” (2) identifying non-closer, high-quality relief pitchers on winning teams who you can reasonably expect to be deployed in the late innings of a game.
The Good Stuff
Both SPTS and FPTS place a premium on strikeouts, so the best relievers in the game have high-quality, strikeout stuff. You may already be familiar with new cutting-edge metrics like Eno Sarris᾽ Stuff+, Location+, and Pitching+ which evaluates pitches entirely based on things like spin, movement, and velocity without taking results into account. Pitching+, like Barrel% for hitters, is relatively predictive after a smaller sample than is required by more traditional metrics. That means that Pitching+ is actually more predictive before the start of the season than both ERA estimators and projection models. What’s more, Stuff+, the component of Pitching+ which considers the quality of a pitch without reference to command or location, is stickier year-to-year than Location+, which can be used as a proxy for command. Each of these stats are as easy to read as other “+” stats, like wRC+ or OPS+, which compare a player to league average, set at 100.
A good way to find value in the relief pitcher market is to look for pitchers with above-average Pitching+, but with a special eye toward quality Stuff+. Excellent stuff numbers could suggest that a reliever is underrated, whether this is because their results haven’t been good yet or because they haven’t spent much time in a late-inning role. With strikeout stuff, a pitcher is much more likely to reach their potential. If you’d like to take a more manual approach, you can take a deeper-dive into a pitcher’s arsenal with PL7’s new Player Pages, driven by Statcast data, paying attention to a pitcher’s arsenal and usage.
Either approach should yield good results. Consider, for example, Jonathan Loáisiga. By the end of last season, people began to realize that Loáisiga’s success was legit. A savvy Ottoneu player who recognized the quality of Loáisiga’s Stuff+ or who read Max Greenfield‘s insightful pre-season analysis of Loáisiga’s arsenal likely could have acquired him for $1-2 dollars on the waiver wire. By the middle of the season, Stuff+ rated Loáisiga’s arsenal well-above league average. By the end of the season, the Nicaraguan Nightmare was a top 20 relief pitcher in Ottoneu points leagues.
The Good Place
A key aspect of Loáisiga’s success was when and how often the Yankees used him. Already in April, it was clear that the Yankees would be penciling him in for late-inning appearances. Anticipating usage is the second key aspect to identifying valuable relief pitchers. Paying attention to how relief pitchers are being used is an integral part of any fantasy league, but in Ottoneu, it helps to gain familiarity with every teams 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th relief pitcher, so that you can identify who might be on the rise.
Since holds and saves differ only by a point in both FPTS and SPTS, it’s far more important to see who regularly gets reps in the late innings and who isn’t being used as a specialist than it is to consider who may or may not solidify the closer role. On a good team, knowing those 3rd and 4th relievers is that much more important. With the modern emphasis on rest, teams tend to alternate between multiple late-inning hands, all of whom get some piece of the save-hold pie.
Relievers to Target in 2022
Putting all of this together, a basic strategy for finding RP value is to identify late-inning, non-closer relievers on good teams (or set-up/closer types on worse teams) with well-above average stuff. Let’s take a look at the top ten relievers by Stuff+ with a minimum 400 pitches (generously provided by Eno himself) who do not have a closer role in 2022 according to Roster Resource and/or who had fewer than 10 saves in 2021:
Here, each pitcher has an above-average (> 100) Pitching+, which projects future success, but the most sustainable component, Stuff+, stands out as elite. These are the pitchers you’re looking for. The table showcases bullpen staples like Chad Green (~$5 average salary) and Devin Williams (~$8) as well as pitchers like Anthony Bender (~$4), Adam Cimber (~$3), and Aaron Loup (~$4) who saw major league success in 2021. The other pitchers listed here produced mixed results. For some, the results of individual pitches showcased their potential: Ryan Thompson‘s (~$3) sinker had the 12th highest GB% of any pitch in baseball with a minimum 20 BBE. Anthony Castro‘s (~$1) slider, with its elite horizontal movement, resulted in a 17.9 SwStr%.
Others didn’t see their elite stuff reflected in the results. Despite above average velocity and spin rate, Yohan Ramirez‘s (~$3) 4-seam fastball produced below average CSW%, SwStr%, and O-Swing%. With some positive regression on his fastball, coupled with his dominant slider, Ramirez is likely to take the next step forward in 2022. Brusdar Graterol‘s (~$5) 4.59 ERA and 4.16 xERA might cause some to question his small-yet-successful sample from 2020, but his primary pitch, a 100 MPH sinker, remains one of the best in the game.
Of course, no metric is comprehensive, and each of these pitchers deserve special consideration. Jake Cousins (~$4), whose Stuff+ in 2021 was effectively tied for best among non-closer MLB relievers, threw his slider 61% of the time with a remarkable 43.4 CSW%. Whether you are looking at a fine-tuned analytical numbers like Stuff+ or simply picking apart the spin, velocity, movement, and results of a given pitch, Cousin’s slider jumps off any stat page. Using metrics like Eno’s Stuff+, Cameron Grove’s Pitching Grades, or Alex Chamberlain’s Similarity Scores is a great way to take your first steps into breaking down pitcher arsenals in order to examine which relievers have the potential to break out.
All of the players listed above are positioned to contribute to an Ottoneu league in 2022, while also showing signs of their potential to excel. Rostering a deep bullpen with these types of players allows you to churn relief roles until something sticks. Good stuff in a good place makes that all the more likely. While it may be better to put players like Thompson on your watchlist until his role is more solidified, players like Graterol and Cousins should surely be circled on your auction board.
With a handle on bullpen construction, you are now positioned to couple this approach with any number of additional strategies: you might consider rostering 2-3 pitchers from the same team, like Graterol, Alex Vesia (~$4), and Phil Bickford (~$4) or Green, Loáisiga (~$4), and Clay Holmes (~$3), knowing that you can maximize IP by benching whichever pitcher is due for rest that day; you might consider adding a follower or long-relief type, like Ryan Yarbrough (~$6) or Collin McHugh (~$5), who can maximize H2H points by providing the equivalent of an additional start; you might consider identifying which of last year’s set-up men are poised to take on a closer role and who have the elite stuff to match, like Blake Treinen (~$6). With a solid foundation, creative strategies abound, you just have to narrow down which kinds of pitchers might be worth your consideration.