5 Setup Men to Target in Fantasy Baseball

While they won't add to your team's save tally, pitchers such as Wade Davis are worth owning for their low ERAs and high strikeout rates.

Targeting setup men can be one of the great low-risk, high-reward strategies in fantasy baseball.

Even if you don’t hit the jackpot and have your late-round middle reliever elevated to a closer’s role midseason, having a dominant setup man in your lineup can improve rate stats while padding counting ones.

If you had Wade Davis last season, for example, you would have gotten 72 innings of a 1.00 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 109 total strikeouts. While Davis is an extreme example and still would not single-handedly lead you to a title, similar pitchers can provide value at a low cost.

We project only two other relievers to have more strikeouts than Davis this season, and Davis joins Darren O’Day, Tyler Clippard (who is expected to start the season as Oakland’s closer), and Tony Watson among setup men projected both to record more strikeouts and have a lower ERA than closers Glen Perkins, Luke Gregerson, Santiago Casilla, and Joe Nathan.

So if you choose to roll with a lower end closer over a strong setup man, while you will gain saves, you could be doing so at the expense of strikeouts and ERA.

With that in mind, here are five setup men worth considering in fantasy this season, especially if you are in a deeper league.

We project the pitchers below to have the five best ERAs among non-closers, and they are ranked by descending numberFire scores. nF score ranks all players based on projected performance and adjusts for positional scarcity.

Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals

2014 season7291092331.000.85N/A
2015 nF projection77.16852902.511.101.31

The crazy thing about Davis’ 2014 season is the 1.00 ERA and 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings might be underselling how dominant it was.

Adjust that ERA for era and ballpark, and it ties for the 12th best mark a reliever has posted in a single season, to go along with the fourth best FIP- ever recorded by a reliever.

With performances this extreme, we should expect some regression, especially for a reliever, the most statistically volatile position in the game.

Still, Davis certainly seems to have found a home in the bullpen, as in 513.2 career innings as a starter, he posted a 4.57 ERA, compared to his 1.65 ERA in 152.1 innings as a reliever (in addition to last year, he made 54 appearances out the bullpen in 2012 and had seven relief outings in 2013).

So while we should certainly not expect the same historically good numbers in 2015, it is a good bet Davis will still be among the top relievers in baseball this year.

Tyler Clippard, Oakland Athletics

2015 nF projection67.15692492.671.020.71

The newly acquired Athletic is expected to start the season as Oakland’s closer, so you should probably open a new tab and go pick up Clippard if he’s still available in your league (20% of such leagues still exist on Yahoo). Not only should he give you quality innings throughout the year, but also, in April at least, he will be getting you saves as well.

Sean Doolittle is slated to miss the first month of the season, and it is not inconceivable to think a strong performance from Clippard could make the job his. Even if Doolittle goes back to closing though, Clippard still has value.

His projected WHIP ranks 15th among relievers, his ERA ranks 16th and his strikeout total ranks 20th. Guaranteed save opportunities early in the year, a non-zero chance he wins the closer job himself, and solid ERA, WHIP, and strikeout numbers mean he will probably be an especially good value relative to his cost.

Tony Watson, Pittsburgh Pirates

2015 nF projection72.26671822.731.060.03

There is a lot to like about Watson, the Pittsburgh lefty who will be setting up Mark Melancon. In addition to a 26.6% strikeout rate last year, he continued to display excellent control, posting a walk rate below 5.0% and a strike rate above 67.0% for the second straight season, according to Baseball-Reference (his 67.1% strike rate last season would have been seventh in the National League if he threw enough innings to qualify).

He also missed bats -- his 21.1% swinging strike rate would have been fourth in the league -- and had a 47.7% ground ball rate.

While he almost surely won’t strand 88.5% of all base runners again, and thus probably also won’t post a 46 ERA-, his peripherals (a 74 FIP-, 77 xFIP-, 2.39 SIERA) should still give you confidence.

Darren O’Day, Baltimore Orioles

2015 nF projection67.14662122.540.98-0.07

As he seemingly does every year, O’Day combined a good walk rate and low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) to produce one of the lowest WHIPs in the Majors last year. We expect this to continue in 2015, as only six relievers are projected to record a lower WHIP.

Yes, O’Day may have been fortunate to record a super-low BABIP of .218, but in 378.1 career innings pitched, the righty sidearmer has yielded a .250 BABIP. We can partly explain this by the fact that O’Day has allowed a 13.6% infield fly rate for his career (and a 14.3% rate last year), while the league average rate has been between 9.7% and 10.9% during his career, according to FanGraphs.

Plus, O’Day’s low WHIP totals are not only the result of an extreme BABIP but also an excellent 6.4% career walk rate. Couple that with a 22.9% strikeout rate (which jumped to 26.9% last season), and O’Day has a career FIP- of 85. Our algorithm forecasts more of the same in 2015.

Joe Smith, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

2015 nF projection70.15572122.571.01-0.09

Smith is another righty sidearmer who has consistently allowed a low BABIP, but don’t confuse him for a clone of O’Day.

Smith’s 9.2% career walk rate is much higher than O’Day’s 6.4%, and while O’Day allows a 44.6% grounder rate, Smith’s career ground ball rate is 57.5%. This extreme rate helps explain how he has allowed only 0.58 home runs per nine innings in his career.

Line drive rates are prone to variance, but Smith has allowed an 18.0% line drive rate for his career, so this, in turn, could help explain the .263 career batting average on balls in play.

In 2014, the ground ball (59.1%), line drive (15.0%), and home run (0.48 per nine innings) rates were all there, and Smith was able to combine them with a career-best 23.9% strikeout rate and 5.3% walk rate. The end product was a 50 ERA- and 75 FIP-, which were also career bests.

We project the walk and strikeout rates to regress towards his career averages but also forecast another strong year in terms of ERA and WHIP.