As the RotoGraphs fantasy awards trickle out, there are many interesting debates. Was Jake Peavy or Chris Sale the better bargain in the American League? Just who was the best buy-low in the National League? However, a couple votes needed far less deliberation — one of those was the National League’s Bull Cy; the relief pitcher for your fantasy squad who cost you the least but brought you most. As such, let’s jump right to the staff voting.
OK. Now Kimbrel is by no means a bad choice — after all, he did have one of the better seasons for a relief pitcher in recent memory, also surpassing Chapman by four saves while putting up slightly better rates. But you paid for Kimbrel, and given an award that rewards performance and value, Chapman stands out like a sore thumb (like, maybe a thumb that you have smashed repeatedly with a ball-peen hammer before slamming it in a car door a few times for good measure). Going by ESPN’s average draft position (likely tainted a bit by April drafters), Chapman was the 41st relief pitcher off the board, good for 219th overall. That’s last round/waiver wire territory in most fantasy leagues deeper than 10-team mixed ones and single dollars in almost all auction formats. To put that in perspective, he fell into the realm where people were beyond drafting one of the four Red Sox relievers (none of which provided tangible value) and into “well, might as well snag some setup men” territory. In fact, at the time when many were drafting, Chapman was still working out of the rotation during spring training, just before being moved back to the bullpen after multiple Reds relievers came down with derivatives of the dreaded injury bug.
Looking back, all of the pieces seemed to be there for Chapman coming into 2012: he owned a 30%+ K%, a 98+ mile per hour fastball, and one of the league’s premiere SwStr% which sat north of 14%. He finally was able to finish the puzzle this year by absolutely slashing his BB%, which dropped from 19.8% in 2011 (that’s bad) to 8.3% in 2012 (that’s good). Chapman upped the number of pitches that his opposing batters saw in strike zone by 5% (going from below- (41.2%) to above-average (46.2%)). Correspondingly, because hitters were seeing more unhittable stuff in the strike zone from the fireballing lefty, their Swing% were forced to go up and their Contact% went the opposite direction.
Perhaps one of the more noteworthy things about Chapman’s ascension to elite fantasy closer is that he essentially stole the job from someone (OK, that someone being Sean Marshall) who put the 3rd best NL WAR of any reliever who didn’t spend more than 80% of the season as the team’s closer. Lest we forget that the Marshall owners (who probably thought they were themselves buying low on a reliever with sparkling peripherals after Ryan Madsen’s elbow gave up in March) who didn’t hop on board the Chapman train as it was just starting to creak out of the station turned out to be the big losers in all of this.
Because of his delayed closer coronation, Chapman didn’t rack up his first save until May 20th, which makes his 38 saves all the more impressive (and, to some extent, more valuable, if fantasy owners had someone else filling the closer slot he would soon make his home on their rosters). His July was one of the most impressive months for a relief pitcher you’ll ever see — he essentially broke xFIP by registering a mind-boggling negative 0.19; putting up an almost unfathomable 15.5 K/BB rate in the process. About the only thing his owners could possibly complain about (besides the late start) was the fact that Chapman fatigued down the stretch (5.02 xFIP in September), only racking up five saves between September 1st and the end of the regular season. Roto owners had no choice but to take it in stride (and Chapman had probably helped many build up a nice cushion), but undoubtedly some head-to-head owners were left out in the cold come playoff time. Of course, the vast majority of them were carried on the back of the Cuban defector to the fantasy promised land to begin with so — well — hopefully Jonathan Broxton‘s saves helped.
There is no award that preaches “never pay for saves on draft day!” like an award that combines elite production and draft day value for the guys working out of the bullpen. Keeper leaguers who own Chapman at bargain basement rates (such as yours truly) are likely to become leery of the team moving him back into the rotation as the spring draws nearer — it’s almost certainly the optimal real-life move, but fantasy owners drool over his triple-digit heat and unbeatable peripherals. But no matter what happens in 2013, it’s tough to make an argument their was a better late-round steal (or waiver wire pickup) in fantasy circles in 2012.