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.