Strategy Session – Don’t Overpay for Saves

By definition, saves are incredibly scarce. There are only 30 teams in baseball, and there are only going to be so many save opportunities for each team. Furthermore, in order to be credited with a save, a pitcher must be used in a save situation. “Closers” are more a product of their usage and environment than any other player in baseball.

As such, it may be tempting to draft sure-thing closers like Jonathan Papelbon or Mariano Rivera with a high pick. These guys are almost certainly going to get their share of saves, and they should help in other categories too. Therefore, they have tremendous value.

Don’t fall victim for this line of thinking. While everything I wrote above is true, it also is misleading. Yes, closers are volatile from year to year and save totals fluctuate; however, if you know where (and how) to look, you should be able to take advantage of undervalued closers.

The key to accumulating saves is a) pitching in save situations and b) pitching decently. This may seem obvious, but remember that (a) is far more important than (b). Yes, some pitchers will lose their job as closer, but this happens more rarely than you may think. To get saves, a pitcher must be used in save situations. To maximize the value of closers in your league, you first need to identify which pitchers are most likely going to be used in save situations.

Then you should attempt to assess how likely they are to be removed from their closer’s role if they perform poorly. For example, Kerry Wood is probably not going to be demoted to mop-up duties if he blows two saves in a row. Neither is Bobby Jenks. However, someone like George Sherrill could lose his closer’s role if he struggles, simply because he doesn’t have the same established track record as the other pitchers. If a pitcher is likely to get the majority of save opportunities and is unlikely to be demoted if he struggles a little bit, then he has a lot of value in a fantasy league. Any pitcher who meets those criteria is valuable; how good a pitcher he is is FAR less important. In other words, the difference between Jonathan Papelbon and someone like Bobby Jenks – who meets the two criteria but is much worse than Papelbon – is far less than the difference in their draft position.

Therefore, it makes the most sense to draft guys who meet those two criteria but aren’t necessarily the best of the bunch. Closers exist to get you one thing and one thing only: saves. Yes, sometimes they can help in ERA, WHIP, or even strikeouts, but their help in these categories is usually minimal, due to the fact that most closers don’t pitch more than 60-70 innings per season. Simply put, an ERA of 2.00 over 60 innings doesn’t influence your team’s overall ERA that much. Sure, it helps, but it’s not worth drafting (for example) Papelbon in the 4th round when Jenks can be had in the 13th.

Bottom line: the difference between the best “closer” and the worst “closer” is far less than the difference in their value on draft day. Therefore, you should identify all players who fall onto the list of “closer” – remember, that means guys who are likely going to be used in save situations and probably aren’t going to be removed if they blow back to back outings – and aim to acquire a few of the lesser pitchers on the list. Your team will be better off for it.




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5 Responses to “Strategy Session – Don’t Overpay for Saves”

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  1. Darren says:

    In points leagues, where saves are often similar in value to wins, closers become extremely valuable. Drafting them in the early rounds makes a lot of sense.

    I would argue that the same is true in 5 x 5 type leagues as well, simply because of replacement level (as defined by a league’s universe). There are only about 20 guys or less who are likely keep that closer role each year. Once you get past them, the drop off is huge–much larger than the dropoff in SS’s or OF’s at the same point in the draft. And you shouldn’t be thinking about getting Papelbon in the 4th instead of Jenks in the 13th, you should be trying to get them both in those spots. You probably have 3-5 reliever spots on your team, so you need to fill them up.

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  2. D Wrek says:

    Darren, I dont disagree with you thought process. But closers are so risky. Think how many lost their jobs last season or got hurt. If you draft some of these scrubs, it wont hurt as bad if they go down b/c you have probably made up for it in other categories. Thus you will be able to trade some of this surplus to a guy that took 3 closers in the first 10 rounds and now needs help every where except saves.

    I agree that having one of these studs is a huge advatage to have, it just seems so risky.

    Please note the small sample size. In my 11 team NL only league, 2 teams took 3 closers in the first 11 rounds. Most people had 1 at that point. The 2 teams that took 3 both finished in the bottom half. They were stuck trading these studs for lesser value just to compete. Sure they won saves, but struggled every where else. Its a small sample and a little extreme, but may not be that uncommon.

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  3. Peter Bendix says:

    D Wrek, I think you hit the nail on the head. Darren’s thought process is correct, but closers – even top-tier closers – are incredibly risky.

    15 guys accumulated at least 30 saves last year.

    Of those 15 guys, 8 accumulated at least 30 saves in 2007 as well.

    Of those 8, 6 had 30+ saves in 2006 also.

    Of those 6, 3 had 30+ saves in 2005.

    Saves are so volatile – even among the very best closers – that it’s not usually worth it to use a high pick on a closer.

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  4. Darren says:

    How does that compare to, say, guys who have had 15+ wins each year over that period? And even at 20 saves, the replacement level is a huge dropoff.

    Plus, you can lower your risk by picking up the backups to some of these guys.

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  5. Conballs says:

    Sorry I’m a little late to the party but I agree that paying early for saves is bad. However, I believe there is a time to take a Papelbon, Nathan, Rivera early. Let’s say you got the last pick in the draft, the swing pick, and you think that multiple GMs will take closers too early and start a run. If you are in a 12-14 team league, and the fifth round ends at you and no closers have been picked, it my behoove you to pick Papelbon.

    Now, this is not a disagreement that you are overdrafting a closer, but the strategy would be to start the closer trend. Most likely this trend will get started in the 6th round and get back to you at the end of the 7th with many top-tier closers taken – even potentially a Bobby Jenks. If you preempt this by starting the trend, then people will start picking up closers and even reaching. By the time your picks come back around to end the 7th and start the 8th, many other quality players will remain on the board for you to scoop up, while also having the best closer in the league.

    This mostly works in keeper/dynasty leagues (especially with a salary cap), where you know the draft tendencies of other players in the league. Most SPs are not as coveted b/c of injury-risk over the next 3 years. So I’m not as high on Sabathia after he threw 4,000 pitches in a dynasty league, as I would be in a re-draft fantasy league.

    If you are in an unknown league, re-draft league, or one with smart/savvy fantasy players, then this method doesn’t work as well.

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