For Whom the Bell Tolls; Or Why I Hate Closers

I hate closers. Despise them. Maybe this is a result of being an Indians fan. Jose Mesa tricked me into thinking he was lights out, then imploded at the worst possible time (although we all know Tony Fernandez deserves more of the blame). Maybe it is the endless stream of closing mediocrity I have had to watch since then. But since you are reading this on Rotographs and not an Indians blog, you have probably guessed that this really stems from fantasy baseball.

Before I dive too deep, let me begin by saying that if you are playing in a traditional 5×5 league, you can probably ignore this. If your league counts Saves but not Holds, you probably should not hate closers. I finished 4th from the bottom in saves in the lone 5×5 I played last year, and that is not where you want to be. However, if you are not playing in a league that places an extraordinary value on saves, this may be for you. It is mostly written from the perspective of the ottoneu FanGraphs Points scoring, but applies to any league where holds and saves are relatively equal (or both worth nothing).

Having said that, I want to start by looking at one closer in particular – Heath Bell. Bell has been a mainstay on my original ottoneu team since April 2007, when I won him at auction for $2. I traded him away before the 2010 season, and got him back for the stretch run that same year, and still own him today, now at $12.

But, as you are about to learn, I regret keeping Bell for 2011 and fully plan to let him go before 2012.

The problem isn’t Bell himself, it’s his title: Closer. Let’s do a quick comparison:

Player IP K/9 BB/9 SV+HLD
Heath Bell 70.0 11.06 3.60 47
Sean Marshall 74.2 10.85 3.01 23
Tyler Clippard 91.0 11.08 4.05 24
Daniel Bard 74.2 9.16 3.62 35

These are 2010 stats for four relief pitchers, including Bell. Assuming a FanGraphs points league or another league where Saves have no great value over holds, which of these guys would you want most on your team in 2011? Bell might get the nod, but it certainly isn’t a slam dunk, and it seems to me that Clippard is the guy, thanks in no small part to all those extra IP.

Instead, in the average points league, Bell went for $12. Clippard was $2; Bard was $7; Marshall was $2. For $1 less than you likely paid Bell, you could have had all three of the other guys. And in 2011, Clippard and Marshall far outperformed Bell (581 and 627 Fantasy Points respectively, compared to 515 for Bell). Bard was just behind Bell with 511.

And it isn’t just Bell. Looking at the top 15 closers (defined as the top 15 point scorers with 20+ saves) vs. the top 15 non-closers (only one of whom broke 10 saves), you get pretty staggering results:

Role Avg. Salary Avg. Points
Closer $6.36 560.4
Non-Closer $2.58 547.6

So for a nearly 150% increase in spending, you could get a just over 2% increase in production. And this is being extremely generous to the closer group. If we only take the top 15 pre-season closers, taking away the high value provided by guys like Sergio Santos and Fernando Salas, who were not paid like closers during pre-season auctions, the numbers get worse – the price goes up to $6.61 per closer and the production drops to 554.7.

As noted at the top, all of this changes if you are in a traditional 5×5 that counts saves but not holds. On the other hand, if you don’t count saves at all (as in the ottoneu 4×4 leagues) the pendulum swings even further towards the non-closers.

Does this mean you should avoid closers like the plague? Not at all. Of the top 30 relievers, 18 had at least 20 saves, and most of those were guys who were named closers in Spring Training (or earlier). But just be sure you are paying for production, not a title.




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10 Responses to “For Whom the Bell Tolls; Or Why I Hate Closers”

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  1. Brad Johnson says:

    You miss a small point that I think has a lot to do with the discrepancy – the closer label works as a signalling device.

    You or I might know to target say Addison Reed, but even above average fantasy owners don’t have in depth information on 200+ relievers, they mostly fall back on the list of 50 or so guys who MLB teams have deemed good enough to close out a game in the recent past. That’s why you saw owners picking a guy like Takashi Saito over Jordan Walden or Kenley Jansen in drafts last year and it’s why closers cost so much more than non-closers.

    A closer has been vetted by an MLB team, it’s a badge of approval.

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    • B N says:

      With that said, it can be a pretty lossy signal sometimes. For those in the know, Fuentes and Gregg didn’t become great pitchers when they got signed to be closers. They became quasi-cringe-worthy pitchers who were going to get a good bucket of saves.

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      • B N says:

        Though in full disclosure, playing in standard 5×5 leagues, I took on both Fuentes and Gregg at various times with no regrets to their near 4 ERAs…

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        I spent a good part of the season making fun of a rival who didn’t need saves but was letting Kevin Gregg screw with his ratios anyway.

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    • Chad Young says:

      I think this is the point I was getting at, and B N hits the nail on the head – it’s a lossy signal. Being named a closer close to guarantees you will be a top 60 or so reliever in a fantasy league that isn’t saves-heavy. But when only 60 or so relievers are OWNED in a league (often times less), being named a closer doesn’t even guarantee you are worth owning (see: Gregg, Kevin). And yet people pay a premium because these guys are the name brands among RPs. You should just avoid paying that premium.

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  2. adohaj says:

    Stop telling people these things. You are making it harder for me to win every year :(

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  3. clave says:

    *nods head*

    Our league counts holds and I get flack about it every season. Much of it is laziness. It’s so easy to pick up a magazine with 5×5 advice, but if you include holds there is more research involved and several of the guys are just lazy, failing to recognize the benefits.

    It’s why we can’t have nice things in our league.

    Anyway, good post.

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  4. dudley says:

    points leagues are boring.

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  5. Zach says:

    I humbly suggest that the Rotographs folks start giving their articles more straightforward names. This one displayed as “For whom the bell tolls”, so I initially assumed it was a poem.

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  6. Geoff Buchan says:

    In terms of results, closers are important, especially in 4×4 leagues where saves are one of only 4 categories. *Good* closers are also a significant plus in ERA and WHIP, even when only pitching 70 innings or so, because their percentage numbers can be so much better than even front-line starters.

    The problem with closers is unpredictability: whoever gets the saves, even if he’s not a great pitcher, still has value in leagues that count saves. But for some teams who that person is can change, often quite abruptly, and with it the value of the closer.

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