When Should You Pay for Elite Relievers?

As you might have noticed, we are a few days into our offseason analysis of relievers. We’ve mostly discussed the best of the best thus far, and we’ve been sure to warn everybody that waiver wire hawks may want to allocate the $20 it takes to win a Craig Kimbrel to another position. If you’re the kind of guy who finds a Koji Uehara or Mark Melancon for free year after year, why should you pay $20 for a closer? You’ll eventually get your saves – even if you’re at the bottom of the pile in April – and the extra $20 could go into hiring 20 more home runs and RBI in the outfield or a catcher that contributes in more than one category.

Like every other position, closers also get hurt. Unlike most other positions, the guy who steps in as the next closer is sometimes as good or better than the first guy. Again, see Uehara and Melancon. So that’s the common line of thinking on elite relievers, that an active owner can find underpriced saves without taking on the injury risk of a $20 relief asset. However, there are definitely circumstances where it makes all the sense in the world to pay for 40 saves, massive strikeout totals, and drool worthy ratios.

On Monday, Brett Talley discussed the first use case as part of his analysis on Kimbrel.┬áSome owners aren’t micro-managers. Some owners don’t even check their rosters every day, let alone monitor every closer situation by setting up Google alerts and scouring twitter. These owners aren’t going to be the first to pick up Melancon, Uehara, or Danny Farquhar. They might be the first to get Kevin Gregg, but that’s probably because 11 other owners decided that his saves weren’t worth his ratios.

In this circumstance, paying for an elite closer serves a dual purpose. One, it’s the best way to guarantee saves in a scenario where they can’t be freely acquired. Even if such owners actively participate in trade talks (and usually, these are the same owners who ignore all offers), closers can be notoriously hard to acquire without gutting another position. The other purpose is that the strikeouts and ratios of an elite closer help to mitigate under-management of the starting rotation. For example, last year you drafted Cole Hamels to be very good, and he was only kind of good. But Kimbrel helped cancel out Hamels’ disappointing season.

Now it’s time for a show of hands, how many of you out in readerland are that owner?

I’d be surprised if any of you volunteered. You’re reading an article on RotoGraphs in the middle of January. You’re probably sitting in an office or cube, supposedly hard at work on your TPS reports but actually tinkering with keeper decisions that can’t be finalized for another six weeks. So, let’s rephrase things, when should a typical RotoGraphs reader pay for elite saves?

As I outlined last Tuesday in my article about Aroldis Chapman, the best time is probably when you have missed out on all the elite starting pitchers – maybe your rivals paid way too much for them so you abstained – and you don’t want to rely on pure luck to keep you in the race for pitching categories. You can combine a guy like Chapman with a mid-tier starter – say Doug Fister – and get as much or more bang for your buck as an elite starter. According to Fantasy Pros, Felix Hernandez cost an average of $28, while Fister cost $11 and Chapman cost $17. Let’s see how King Felix compares to our Fister/Chapman duo and for the sake of example, let’s throw in a duo of Fister and Sean Doolittle to represent a fantasy replacement level reliever. That pairing would cost just $12.

Hernandez 204.1 14 0 216 3.04 1.13
Fister and Chapman 272.1 18 38 271 3.11 1.24
Fister and Doolittle 277.2 19 2 219 3.53 1.22

Team Chapped Fist presented a similar strikeout rate and ERA to Hernandez. The combined WHIP was mediocre, but the 38 saves could be more valuable (that depends on many factors). Meanwhile, our low cost alternative performed like a low cost alternative. The WHIP was similarly poor but without the redeeming saves. The strikeout rate and ERA were also much poorer. Sure, the latter scenario is $16 cheaper, but that’s a much bigger hole out of which to climb. Chapman and Fister aren’t even cherry picked examples. If I wanted to blow Hernandez out of the water, I could have combined $11 Max Scherzer with Kenley Jansen or Greg Holland.

Despite listing all values in auction dollars, this strategy is easiest to execute in snake drafts. That’s because the top tier of starters is drafted before most of the top tier of closers. So you know for certain if you missed out on those starters. In an auction, you might find that Kimbrel, Jansen, and Chapman are nominated in the first 20 picks while Cliff Lee and David Price are still on the table 100 picks later.

The third scenario where it makes sense to pay for elite relievers is in auction keeper leagues. Sometimes you get lucky and build the mother lode of keeper rosters. You have Mike Trout for $10, Josh Donaldson for $3, Sonny Gray for $3, and Stephen Strasburg for $12. I’ll say this as scientifically as possible, that hypothetical keeper roster has a buttload* of surplus value. Compared to your rivals, you have more flexibility in the draft. You can combine your elite starters with elite relievers to put all five pitching categories in the bag.

*A buttload is the industry term for over $50 of surplus value. It’s possible that I should have used metric buttload since that refers to over $75 of surplus value.

That’s really all there is to that last strategy. When you are oozing in surplus value, you can go to the market and buy the king crab legs, filet mignon, and a fancy plate on which to serve them. When you have the resources to buy luxury goods, do so. Trust me, it feels really nice to build demoralizing leads in the pitching categories by mid-May.

Of course, there are the usual myriad of niche strategies that don’t fall into any of these buckets but are otherwise too rare to cover. I trust that any owner who intentionally employs an unusual strategy can fend for themselves. That leaves the three scenarios above as the best cases for drafting an elite reliever. Tomorrow, by reader request, I’ll look into the value of elite relievers in Ottoneu Points leagues.

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Brad, how did you get a camera into my office cube?