Draft Strategy: Closers are overrated

With a few caveats, closers are—plain and simple—highly overrated on draft day.

To quickly address the caveats: in very deep mixed leagues or fairly deep AL and NL-only leagues, this logic does not apply as much. For every other type of league, though, it does. And those who understand that this is the case have a vastly greater chance of winning their fantasy baseball league.

Closer fluidity

Every year, roughly a dozen pitchers who, on Opening Day, occupy their team’s “Closer” slot on the depth chart end up being removed from that spot at some point during the season. Following that logic, when a closer loses his job, another reliever is going to take his place. Take 2007, for example. Last year, the following players all started the year as their team’s closer and, for one reason or another, lost the job at some point and gave way to another individual.

And that’s ignoring players like Al Reyes, Kevin Gregg, and David Weathers who didn’t assume the role until after many leagues had already drafted. Even Jonathan Papelbon wasn’t named closer until the end of spring training.

Freely available saves

The following players picked up at least 10 saves filling in for the guys above:

Furthermore, a savvy owner could have swiftly filtered through his closers and gotten five to 10 saves out of the following pitchers. Might not sound like a lot, but if you got six or seven saves out of three or four of these guys, it adds up.
Even here, we’re ignoring non-closers like Hideki Okajima and Chad Qualls who picked up a few saves simply because of the situations they were in.

You can go through this process for any year in recent memory and come to nearly identical conclusions.

Saves themselves are not overrated

Let me take a step back, though, and clarify something. I am not saying that saves, in and of themselves, are overrated. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Saves are actually quite valuable. They are a category, the same as wins or strikeouts or runs or RBIs. A point gained in saves is just as valuable as one gained in home runs. What I am saying is that saves are overrated on draft day.

Using the Standings Gain Points valuation method described in my previous article, the THT projections from the Season Preview Book, and assuming a traditional 12-team mixed league, the top-rated starting pitcher, Johan Santana, is worth a little over 10 position-adjusted SGPs. The top-rated closer, J.J. Putz, is worth a little under seven position-adjusted SGPs, including 43 projected saves.

When you eliminate the value Putz derives from saves, though, his value drops to a little over one position-adjusted SGP! To put that into perspective, Bronson Arroyo and his 4.45 ERA is projected to be worth more than that. Would you ever consider drafting Bronson Arroyo in the fourth round, where Putz is regularly being taken?

If you look at a lower quality closer, the drop-off is even more apparent. Chad Cordero, the 11th ranked closer, is worth a little under five position-adjusted SGPs. Without the saves, his value drops into the negatives … roughly equal to Braden Looper! Braden Looper isn’t even getting drafted in most leagues with this setup!

This proves that saves are indeed very important … so much so, that a very large portion of a closer’s draft day value is comprised of his projected saves total.

Unpredictability of saves

On Saturday, I took a quick look at the unpredictability of save totals. Because they are unpredictable, the only difference in the projected save total of a pitcher should come from his job security. J.J. Putz has a much greater chance of reaching 40 saves than Joe Borowski simply because there is little-to-no chance he gets overtaken, while Borowski has several guys breathing down his neck. Using the probabilistic concept of value, we should project Putz for more saves than Borowski.

This becomes irrelevant, though, when we consider the first point made in this article: that saves are replaceable. When we consider that saves can be easily attained throughout the season via the waiver wire, we can ultimately ignore the value guys like Putz and Borowski derive from their saves. It doesn’t matter, because we will be able to get those saves anyway; they are largely replaceable.

It’s much easier to get 40 saves off the waiver wire than 40 home runs. So in the fifth round of a draft, which of these players would make more sense to take: a guy like Carlos Pena who can hit the homers, or a guy like Joe Nathan who can get the saves? After reading this article, the choice should be clear.

Resource allocation

Some people will call this strategy “punting saves,” but that’s not really an accurate depiction of what we’re doing. We’re better allocating our scarce resources—our draft selections—to get the best value possible on draft day. After draft day, we can acquire the “punted saves” on the waiver wire, where they come much, much cheaper. We aren’t forgoing saves (aka ‘”punting them”); we’re accumulating them more efficiently!

Waiver Wire conundrum

I got e-mail just today from a reader about how he doesn’t buy into this strategy because grabbing closers off the waiver wire is simply the “luck of the draw.” I don’t believe that this is true.

If you are in a league that has rules that reset waivers every few days or a league that uses FAAB bidding, it isn’t a matter of luck at all. It becomes a matter of who will pay the most for the saves. Even if you spend a quarter to a half of your FAAB budget on closers, if you are able to get second or third place closer points, than I believe it is worth it.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

In a twelve team league, that’s 10 or 11 points gained in the standings. That’s roughly equivalent to the points you would gain from drafting Johan Santana (or another guy of first round value)! If you could get Johan Santana off the waiver wire for less than half of your FAAB budget, would you do it? I would hope so. Less than half of your budget for the benefit of nearly winning an entire category! Points are points, no matter how you get them.

Daily leagues are a little different. In daily leagues where you can pick players up at will, instantaneously, you need to be on top of the news. You need to be the first one to the waiver wire, which is what the reader considered “luck of the draw.” In order to win a competitive fantasy league, though, you have to realize that you need to put some time in. That means you need to constantly monitor what’s going on. Have player news sent to your phone and be able to access your team from it to make quick moves, if necessary. Check Rotoworld constantly.

If you are in a daily league and aren’t able to check news more than once or twice a day, than this is not a strategy you should use. But if you’re truly dedicated to winning the league, avoiding high-priced closers will allow you to better allocate your resources on draft day and still get saves throughout the season. The cost is having to put extra time in during the season, but those who do have a huge advantage. And that’s how you win in fantasy, gaining advantages.

Taking closers late

To limit your reliance on the waiver wire, it can also be a good strategy taking underrated closers in the last few rounds of a draft. The small investment you make in a closer like this is much smarter than an investment made on a fifth round closer. If they lose their job, no big deal; it didn’t cost you much. Pick up their replacement. If they keep their job, you’ve got nearly identical saves production as you would get out of a Joe Nathan, fifth-round type. Guys primed to take over as their team’s closer also make good choices in the end-game.

Guys that you may see available in the late rounds of a 2008 draft include the following pitchers:

Concluding thoughts

The thought process in this article has led me to believe that taking closers early in a mixed league or shallow AL or NL-only league is simply a mistake.

If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me.

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