Happy second half, fantasy baseballers! With fantasy football just around the corner (have you checked out InsiderFootball.com, recently?), this is the time of the season that separates the championship teams from the pretenders. The All-Star break is the unofficial cutoff for those of us serious about competing for fantasy baseball championships and those who are merely filling the fantasy void until football - take advantage! While there wasn't a lot of baseball action this week, we will give a brief update at the end, but more importantly this week's column will bring back one of my personal favorite traditions - the mid-year award ceremony! After taking a pandemic-assisted hiatus in 2020, this year's awards are back and better than ever!
First Half Awards:
Best Draft Day Return: Mark Melancon - Rewind to the pre-season by the time the regular season started, Melancon's average draft position in the NFBC was sitting at 299th! Teammate Drew Pomeranz was averaging about 40 spots earlier than Melancon after coming off a strong season pitching out of the bullpen for the Padres and Melancon was the newcomer in town after posting a mixed bag of results during his tenure in Atlanta. So what changed in 2021 and why has Melancon been so successful? For Melancon, his age regression hit him relatively gracefully, but when it hit in 2017 at age 32, it seemed unlikely he would ever return to form as a sub-2.00 ERA pitcher with an elite strikeout-to-walk ratio. Yet, 4 years later, Melancon went back to the basics - scrapping all his pitchers other than his trusty curveball and cutter - and put a renewed focus on command and attacking the strikezone. The results obviously speak for themselves and there's no denying Melancon's value to teams that waiting on closers and fell into one of the best performers in the league.
Biggest Surprise: Craig Kimbrel - Much like Melancon, Craig Kimbrel seemed like he was on his way out of town during Spring Training, and if it the Cubs had a decent alternative at closer, it's quite likely that Kimbrel would not be having the type of season that he's having. As it stands, he's one of the most attractive trade chips for the Cubs and likely the best available reliever on the open market. Walks have been Kimbrel's kryptonite throughout most of his career and every year he has struggled, he has seen his walk rate rise into the double digits. This year he has it down to 8.5% with his hard hit rate allowed at his lowest level since 2018 with Boston. Curiously, he's doing it while throwing his fastball less - about 10% less than his career average. Instead, he's relying more on his slider, which he now throws about 40% of the time. His pitch rating on that pitch is 3.26, the second highest pitch rating he has ever had in any season with any pitch.
Newcomer of the Year: Kendall Graveman - While he's technically not new to fantasy baseball, he's definitely new to the closing pool and he stormed the court with a full court press. After Rafael Montero failed to claim the job in spring training, Kendall Graveman took the job and didn't even allow an earned run until June 12th, his first day back after being on the injured list for 4 weeks. Unfortunately, playing for Seattle means save opportunities are few and far between, so Graveman has just 8 saves on the season. Overall, Graveman doesn't get many strikeouts (relative to his closing peers), but his 25:5 strikeout-to-walk rate is excellent and his 54% groundball rate both help keep him out of trouble. He's not flashy, but he's effective and he came out of nowhere to burst onto the scene in 2021.
Biggest Draft Day Bust: Devin Williams - Unfortunately, this category had so many options that it was difficult to choose, but Devin Williams ultimately came out ahead simply because he was being drafted in the 12th round of NFBC drafts and he never actually became a closer. In fact, Williams still doesn't even have a save in his major league career. The amount of helium that pushed Williams into his draft slot this pre-season - particularly because Milwaukee already had one of the best closers in the game - was truly mind boggling. Williams is a solid pitcher, but many people fell in love with his statistics in a short season in 2020. His walk rate has regressed back closer to the levels he was at in the minor leagues and while his 36% strikeout rate is excellent, it's difficult to envision him being much of a contributor in mixed leagues this season.
Best Home Run Derby Pitcher: Raisel Iglesias - This one was a little surprising, but Iglesias currently has a 25.7% HR/FB rate and in the 11 games Iglesias has allowed an earned run, Iglesias has allowed a home run in 8 of them. That's a scary number from a player who has allowed just 16 total earned runs, so imagine how impressive his season could be if he was able to limit the long balls. It's an interesting situation because his groundball rate is up and he's pitching in a really favorable pitchers ballpark, so the output is not typical considering his inputs. His barrel rate is really high - 11% - despite a better than average 36% hard hit rate. This paints the picture of a player who should see improvement to his numbers in the second half.
Soft Contact King: Kenley Jansen - Another late 2010's elite closer makes an appearance! It's interesting - it's almost like across the board, the aging relievers benefited the most by having a shorted 2020 season. In Kenley Jansen's case, he has the highest soft hit rate among all active closers at 25.6%. Interesting, his hard hit rate allowed is also 25.6%.
Most Likely To Be Traded: Craig Kimbrel (CHC), Brad Hand (WAS)
Best Closer in a Committee: James Karinchak (CLE)
Best "Skill" Handcuff in the 2nd Half: Anthony Bender (MIA)
Best "Opportunity" Handcuff in the 2nd Half: David Bednar (PIT)
Best "Skill & Opportunity" Handcuff in the 2nd Half: Anthony Bender (MIA)
Best "No-Namer" To Speculate Saves: Mike Mayers (LAA)
Around the League:
-With James Karinchak pitching a clean 8th inning, Emmanuel Clase got the call in the 9th inning on Friday and proceeded to put the tying run on base before giving up a game-winning home run to Jed Lowrie two batters later. That makes three straight appearances with at least one run for Clase. Terry Francona undoubtedly was hoping the ASB would be enough to set him straight, but Friday's performance indicated otherwise.
-Pete Fairbanks got the first save of the second half for the Rays with an 8-pitch 10th inning.
-Heading into the All-Star break, Liam Hendriks blew his 4th save of the season, continuing his relatively rocky recent stretch. Since June 26th, Hendrik's has a 5.63 ERA, yet his other underlying metrics aren't so ugly. His 0.75 WHIP and 42% K-BB% walk rate indicate he's still capable of dominating hitters even when he's giving up hard contact (53%). Hendriks isn't in any real danger of losing his gig, particularly because he's pitching pretty well otherwise.
Closer Chart & Handcuff Ranking By Team:
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