What is a Relief Pitcher? And What Value Do They Have in Fantasy Baseball?

What is a relief pitcher?

The short answer is that a relief pitcher is any pitcher who is not routinely the starting pitcher. For any given game, any pitcher (other than the starting pitcher) could be a relief pitcher, but generally baseball fans only think of the guys in the bullpen as relief pitchers.

Increasing Relief Pitcher Use

Relief pitching in the early (halcyon to some) days of baseball was not an official position. Players who started the baseball game were required to finish unless they became ill or injured. Starting pitchers who became fatigued or ineffective would have to switch positions with someone in the field.

With the creation of the relief pitcher position, questions come up regarding their use and the different roles they can take during a game.

How Many Innings Can a Relief Pitcher Pitch

There is no limit on how many innings a relief pitcher can pitch as long as the game does not end. That said, relief pitchers typically have an inning cap.

Relief pitchers typically have assigned roles that dictate how many innings they are expected to pitch. Some roles may require a pitcher to only get one out, whereas others may require them to pitch multiple innings (perhaps even 4-5 in an appearance).

Relief Pitcher Roles

Closing pitchers are relief pitchers who are responsible for getting the final outs of a game, but only when their team is winning the game. Closers are sometimes used in other situations (e.g., when the game is tied in the late or extra innings). Some managers have started to use their closers in high leverage situations even if it is not the ninth inning.

Setup Man

Setup pitchers generally appear in the 8th inning, and sometimes they appear earlier than that. The prominence of setup relievers coincides with the reduction in innings of closers. In other words, teams have begun relying on multiple pitchers to pitch the 8th and 9th innings rather than depending on a single player.

Setup relievers are often measured based on the number of holds they accumulate during a season. Players earn a hold by entering the game in a save situation, recording an out, and exiting the game while his team still has the lead.

Long Relief

Long relief pitchers serve two primary functions:

  • To relieve a starting pitcher who gets injured or pitches poorly in the early innings of a game
  • To serve as a spot starter (i.e., someone who does not routinely start) or pitch the front end of a bullpen game (i.e., a game that is planned to be only pitched by the bullpen)
Middle Relief

Middle relief pitchers are the lowest rung in the bullpen hierarchy. These pitchers are oftentimes fungible guys that are up-and-down during the season, switching their place in the majors with similar pitchers in the minors.

Typically middle relievers pitch the 5th through 7th innings, and sometimes later in games when one team has a large lead.

Lefty Specialist (LOOGY)

LOOGYs (lefty one out guy) are left-handed specialists who are generally expected to enter the game in later innings to face a left-handed batter (or more if multiple are hitting in a row). Typically LOOGYs have extreme splits: they are very strong against left-handed batters, but much weaker against right-handed hitters.

Opposing managers may recognize that a team depends on LOOGYs and decide to construct a lineup to combat this pitching strategy. Even something as simple as alternating left-handed and right-handed batters can force an opposing manager to truly make his specialist a one-out guy.

As a fan of the game, one thing to keep in mind is that not all hitters exhibit traditional splits; that is, the norm is for hitters to struggle against same-handedness pitchers (e.g., left-handed batters usually struggle against left-handed pitchers). Players who buck the trend are considered to have reverse splits.


Opening pitchers in baseball are pitchers who pitch one inning, sometimes more, at the beginning of a game. The 2019 baseball season is the first where one team (Tampa Bay Rays) employed the strategy at length.

Rule Change Designed to Combat Relief Specialists

Major League Baseball (MLB) plans to implement a new rule for the 2020 season that will force a pitcher to face a minimum of three batters. The controversial rule has not been approved by the MLB union, but the union has also indicated they will not challenge the new rule either.

Has a Relief Pitcher Ever Won the Cy Young?

Well, sort of like what I said about designated hitters, it depends on how you define a relief pitcher. Or, maybe it doesn’t. The real distinction is between modern day closers, who normally average around 1 inning pitched per appearance, and closers from the previous era when multiple innings were expected from the closer.

Here is a list of relief pitchers who have won the Cy Young, along with their earned run average (ERA), innings pitched (IP) and Strikeouts (K).

Player Team Year Won Games Played IP ERA K
Mike Marshall Dodgers 1974 106 208.1 2.42 143
Sparky Lyle Yankees 1977 72 137 2.17 68
Bruce Sutter Cubs 1979 62 101.1 2.22 110
Rollie Fingers Brewers 1981 (strike year) 47 78 1.04 61
Willie Hernandez Tigers 1984 80 140.1 1.92 112
Steve Bedrosian Phillies 1987 65 89 2.83 74
Mark Davis Padres 1989 70 92.2 1.85 92
Dennis Eckersley Athletics 1992 69 80 1.91 93
Eric Gagne Dodgers 2003 77 82.1 1.20 137
What are Saves and Holds?

The most common stats associated with relief pitchers are saves and holds, though quality relief pitchers generally have high strikeout ratios (strikeouts per 9 innings). One other common stat among a lot of relief pitchers is a high walk rate (i.e., walks per nine innings); bad control and/or command is often what leads to a pitcher being relegated to the bullpen.


In order for to qualify for a save, a pitcher must:

  • Finish a game that his team won
  • Not be the winning pitcher
  • Record at least one out
  • And do at least one of these three things:
    1. Enter the game when his team leads by no more than three runs, while also pitching for at least one inning
    2. Enter the game when the tying run is either at the plate, on base, or on deck waiting to bat
    3. Pitcher at least three innings

The career saves leader is Mariano Rivera who saved 652 games.


A relief pitcher can earn a hold by doing everything required for a save, except the pitcher does not need to finish the game.

The career holds leader is Tony Watson who has accumulated 217 holds so far in his 9-year MLB career.

What Value Do Relief Pitchers Have in Fantasy Baseball?

The actual value for a relief pitcher–or any player for that matter–entirely depends on your league’s settings. Also, you may prioritize rostering relief pitchers differently in Head-to-Head (H2H) and Rotisserie (Roto) leagues.

That said, here are some of the common instances when relief pitchers have value in fantasy baseball.


Standard 5×5 Roto leagues use saves as one of the 5 pitching categories; as a side note, the other four pitching categories are wins, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP.

In those leagues, having closers on your roster is clearly beneficial. If your league has deeper benches, stashing setup men or other pitchers who may ultimately close for a team can be a valuable strategy. If doing this, target setup men on teams where the current closer is struggling or is likely to be moved to another team at the trade deadline (i.e., the team will not be competing for a playoff spot).


Some leagues, like the dynasty league I play in with 7 pitching categories, include holds as a separate Roto category. In this league, setup relievers become more valuable. These leagues require monitoring bullpen usage, particularly during the early part of the season, to determine who will be entering games in hold situations.

Saves + Holds

Rather than have separate categories, or prioritize only saves, saves + holds leagues combine the two relief pitching statistics together. In these leagues, closing pitches should be devalued relative to common fantasy baseball rankings.

WHIP / ERA / Strikeouts

These three are combined because you generally will not target a non-closer (or non-setup reliever in holds league) unless they excel at all three of these categories. These players can be particularly effective in H2H leagues where you a few appearances by high quality relief pitchers can help stabilize multiple categories. Or in roto leagues where you are looking to boost your WHIP/ERA while still amassing strikeouts. In 2019, players like Ryan Pressly, Seth Lugo, and Nick Anderson would be good examples.