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A Brief Follow-Up on Elite RP and @Ottoneu LWTS

The debate on relievers in fantasy baseball continues to rage in our Ottoneu league – and today, RotoGraphs’ Brad Johnson joined the fray with an article on the subject inspired by our intrepid commissioner @Fazeorange.  To be fair to Brad, he stated up front that his goal was not to resolve the argument, but rather to present a framework to answering the question.  Given my trademark immodesty, I’d like to offer a high-level (and what I consider rather obvious) answer to the question.

Beyond my endless rants on the subject, this question arises from a real-world situation: one of our best and most active owners (and a former champion) has, at least on the message boards, been championing a strategy whereby he stacks his bullpen with “elite” relievers, thereby projecting an enormous bullpen advantage that not only confers extra points, but added flexibility elsewhere (because elite RPs are cheaper than elite position players or starting pitchers).  His bullpen currently includes 3 of the top 5 RPs from last year, and were LWTS scoring retrospective (like a Strat-o-Matic league, perhaps), this makes sense.  However, the question is whether it is likely his bullpen is filled with elite 2014 RPs.  Unfortunately, that is unlikely the case.

To attempt to gather data that might answer the question (if you want the entire spreadsheet, please email me), I went back and gathered the list of Top 10 projected players at each position (25 for the OF) in March 2012 and March 2013 (i.e., immediately prior to the beginning of the season).   I used ESPN rankings, though I’m not sure that the lists matter, the variation at the top is minimal each year.  I then pulled each players Ottoneu LWTS point total for that season, and compared that number to the replacement level for his position in that year.  Brad’s replacement level for RPs was 72 (on the assumption that each team rostered about 5 RPs, and perhaps a bench player – in other words, sorting by RP scoring the 72nd-ranked player).  For my positions, I defined the “replacement” player as follows:

C 18
1B 24
2B 24
SS 24
3B 18
OF 72
SP 72
RP 72

[** Interestingly, the replacement 3B in each year, finishing 18th each year, was Alberto Callaspo – at the gut level, this gives me some confidence we are defining replacement level appropriately]

Next, I summed the PAR (or, in some cases, the points below replacement) for each position.  Broken down by position and year, the results are as follows:

2012 Total PAR PAR/Player 2013 Total PAR PAR/Player
C 2706 271 C 2018 202
1B 1118 112 1B 1978 198
2B 3301 330 2B 2457 246
SS 3295 330 SS 2476 248
3B 3091 309 3B 3126 313
OF 6805 272 OF 6924 277
SP 3431 343 SP 3537 354
RP 686 69 RP 528 53

What do we see?  Surprisingly, the level of production for the top 10 projected players across the positions versus our replacement level is remarkably constant – except for RP.  If you invest in Robinson Cano, or Adrian Beltre, or Clayton Kershaw, you can be expecting 300-350 Points Above Replacement.  The only outlier here is RP – if you invest in an elite RP, you can expect to receive and extra 50-60 points from that investment.  Why?  Well, because even amongst the top 10, the flame-out rate is significant.  In 2012, here is the projected top 10, along with their actual production and PAR:

Player Points PAR
Craig Kimbrel 747 377
Mariano Rivera 79 -291
Jonathan Papelbon 582 212
John Axford 480 110
Brian Wilson 7 -363
Rafael Betancourt 449 79
Joel Hanrahan 439 69
Jose Valverde 498 128
Jason Motte 620 250
J.J. Putz 485 115

Craig Kimbrel was the #1 ranked RP and performed like it.  Mariano Rivera blew out his knee shagging flies, while Brian Wilson wrecked his elbow as pitchers do, and both delivered far below replacement-level value.  Rafael Betancourt and Joel Hanrahan managed to deliver replacement-level to slightly above performance – but presumably at elite prices.

Was 2012 an outlier?  Here is the same table from 2013:

Player Points PAR
Craig Kimbrel 722 323
Aroldis Chapman 603 204
Jonathan Papelbon 449 50
Rafael Soriano 501 102
Fernando Rodney 553 154
Mariano Rivera 547 148
J.J. Putz 215 -184
Joe Nathan 649 250
Joel Hanrahan -11 -410
John Axford 290 -109

Is there a pattern?  Sort of.  Craig Kimbrel?  Monster – go get him if you can.  3 of the 10 posted wildly below replacement level.  A couple other big names Papelbon and Rodney) managed slightly above replacement, and a couple (Chapman and Nathan) were excellent.

Of course, this is a first-level review – as always in Ottoneu, price matters, so a $2 Brian Wilson headed to Tommy John doesn’t affect things very much.  However, the question we’re trying to answer here is whether or not investing in the best RPs pre-season makes sense.  Regardless of price, in my view it doesn’t because there is such little likelihood that we can identify them if they’re not wearing a Braves jersey and closing in Atlanta.  Why does this debate rage, at least in our league?  My suspicion is that, as we look back year over year, it can be difficult to remember which relievers were expected to be elite – those sitting on Koji Uehara now can scarcely remember a time when he wasn’t atop the RP leaderboards.  Nevertheless, if we look at the numbers, RP is the one position that investing in anyone not named Craig Kimbrel makes little sense from the perspective of Points Above Replacement.

Thoughts?  Issues?  Problems with my methodology?  General screeds?  All are welcome, either though the site or via email at bill dot porter at gmail dot com.

(Also posted on my blog: