Project GOAT Update: The greatest reliever season in fantasy history


“I still feel like there has to be a winning path using that crazy 14-win, 10-save Mark Eichhorn season.”

Those were the words Andy Behrens had for the rest of the members of the inaugural Project GOAT cohort when his entry, which was one of two that blew off saves, ultimately won.

Since then, AJ Mass moved ahead after being given the opportunity to go worst-to-first with access to the standings — the first contest was blind — and then Andrew DeStefano took over the top spot from AJ, replacing The Athletic’s Eno Sarris. Mass also eschewed saves, meaning that Project GOAT now had four teams atop the standings with a total of zero saves, each receiving 2.5 points, a quarter share of the 10 total points allocated to the final four spots in the saves standings. That means one save earned by a new team would immediately be worth 5 points in the standings, providing an immediate 2.5-point advantage over DeStefano’s first-place squad.

Could that be enough? Enter Mark Eichhorn.

There are many ways to earn saves, but Project GOAT sets a pretty high bar for pitchers to be selected to one of the nine available pitching slots. Pedro Martinez in 2000. Doc Gooden in ’85. A number of Randy Johnson campaigns. As for relievers, the GOAT universe features Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez’s 62 saves in 2008. Zack Britton’s minuscule 0.54 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 2016. Eric Gagne’s 55-save, 137-K tour de force in 2003. There have been plenty of closers who have racked up saves, significant strikeouts and minuscule ratios. But in 40 years of fantasy baseball, very few pitchers have the numbers on the backs of their baseball card quite like Mark Eichhorn’s 1986 campaign.

It starts with the 14 wins and 10 saves; there have been exactly three 14-game winners who have also achieved double-digit saves. Mark Clear had 14 of each in 1982. Roger McDowell, also in 1986, had 14 wins and 22 saves. That’s it.

OK, but there are plenty of relievers who have achieved 10 wins and 10 saves, so while up to four additional wins isn’t enough to justify Eichhorn on a GOAT squad, let’s add 166 strikeouts to his ledger. It’s the most any pitcher has gathered without the benefit of a single start in the fantasy era and the second most all time, sandwiched by Dick Radatz of the 1964 (181 K) and 1963 (162 K) Boston Red Sox. Brad Lidge got close in 2004 with 157 in only 94 innings, which is impressive, but there’s a reason Eichhorn’s 157 innings of relief make him more valuable. ERA and WHIP.

Eichhorn’s ratios in 1986: 1.72 ERA and a 0.955 WHIP. And it bears repeating, this was in 157 innings. The weight of those ratios is starter-like and sets Eichhorn apart from what you get from a 60-to-70-inning closer. Here’s a list of the top 10 relievers by strikeout totals with a sub-2.00 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP in the past 40 years, and the impact their ratios would have were they to be added as the ninth pitcher to a squad that already featured an average of 170 IP per slot with an ERA of 4.00 and a WHIP of 1.30.

Because Eichhorn’s innings are starter-like, so too is the effect his ratios have. In the context of Project GOAT, where a 2.26 ERA and 0.9799 WHIP were both good for last place in those categories in the April standings, “good” isn’t good enough. You need excellence to the level brought by Eichhorn in order to justify a roster spot. Add up all of these advantages and Eichhorn was a rare 5-category pitcher, holding his own versus the starters by bringing wins and strikeouts, while providing almost twice the advantage at ERA and WHIP as his contemporaries.

With Eichhorn’s advantages over his reliever brethren established, let’s deal with the starters. There is no rule requiring a reliever in Project GOAT, and there is a select group of starting pitchers who have picked up saves while being full-time starters. Fun fact: Only 9 of them also have more strikeouts than Eichhorn. Not all of them have more wins. And all but one fall short of Eichhorn’s effect on ratios.

We can safely postulate, then, that only Orel Hershiser’s 1988 season stands over Eichhorn’s if you needed a save while maximizing ERA and WHIP over wins and strikeouts without punting on either. Of course, under the rules of Project GOAT, rostering Hershiser costs you the use of every other Dodger and the 1988 season. Eichhorn costs you 1986 and the Blue Jays. That matters. But by now we’ve established everything that Andy Behrens was referencing when he said: “I still feel like there has to be a winning path using that crazy 14-win, 10-save Mark Eichhorn season.”

The Winning Path Using That Crazy Season

Meet Gonzalo Valdivieso, who put together the SLASHERS BBC squad, which now sits atop the Project GOAT standings. Gonzalo, 34, originally from Venezuela but currently residing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, found that Eichhorn was a key to his roster, which, replacing Eric Karabell’s entry, garnered 89 points while reducing last month leader Andrew DeStefano’s total to 85 and sending every other entry to below 80 points. Behren’s entry, which originally scored 94 points, is now worth 78 without having made a single move. You have to love roto.

“I thought it was really important to take advantage of the four teams that had zero saves, so I needed at least one,” Valdivieso said, explaining his process. “I tried many combinations with Eichhorn and Fernando Rodney’s 2012 season — I couldn’t use, for example, Betances from 2014 because I had A-Rod — and I got 87 points using Rodney and Bret Saberhagen’s 1989 season. But I knew I had margin to improve some points, so I kept insisting with Eichhorn and when I switched out Rodney for Blake Snell it was magic — I had 89 points and a team I knew was going to be amongst the best.”

Valdivieso’s targeted saves strategy also worked when applied to steals in building his offense, which earned him 45 of his 89 points. “It was clear to me that I needed a lot of firepower to have the most possible points, but each time I looked for stolen bases I had to sacrifice too much of the other stats,” said Valdivieso. “So I forgot about the SB and I tried to assemble the best possible offense. However, having 1 point in the SB category didn’t make it, so at the end, the Eric Davis season was the key. He allowed me to squeeze out an extra point without worsening the rest.”

Here are the updated Project GOAT standings for May. Want to take a shot at the top of the standings in June? Download the new worksheet and submit your best team. This month, it’s Paul Sporer’s squad that gets dropped. For all the rules of the game, please see the Project GOAT challenge page, but make sure you are using the June worksheet. All worksheets need to be sent to by Friday, June 5, at 11:59 PM ET (time has been extended this month) to be considered, with the subject line of “Project GOAT June: X Points” with X being the total of points your squad earned. Date and time of submission is the tiebreaker, so don’t delay.

May 22 Project GOAT PDF Update: teams, standings and legacy squads.

Special honorary mentions this month go to Ethan Curtis and Tom Payer, who also found their way to 89 points but were beaten to the punch by Valdivieso. None of the three rosters was the same, proving once more that there’s more than one way to win; it’s all about finding your strategy and then picking the right players for the task. Good luck!