Why a save is not a save

Earlier this winter, The Hardball Times offered prospective fantasy baseball writers the opportunity to compete in a Hardball Times fantasy league. Entrants wrote fantasy baseball articles, the best of which would be chosen as our winner. While we could only choose one winner to play in the league (congratulations, Dave Chenok), we had so many great articles that we have decided to publish some of the best. This is one of those submissions.

There are a few things I look forward to each year as we move from winter into spring. Longer days and warmer weather. Crocuses popping up through the snow. Grover Cleveland’s birthday (which happens to be the same day as my niece’s). And, especially, the inevitable article that appears on every Fantasy website imploring would-be league champions: “don’t pay for saves.”

The typical article explains why it is folly to waste money (or high draft picks) on closers. “Saves are unpredictable,” they tell us. “Closers can lose their job at any moment.” The article may tell us how Joe Borowski got more saves one year than Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and K-Rod combined, and you could have gotten Borowski 137 rounds later. The article asserts that saves are always out there on the waiver wire. “And after all,” they smugly conclude, “a save is a save, no matter who gets it.”

It all reminds me a little of Robin Williams whispering “carpe diem” to his minions in “Dead Poet’s Society”; the boys listen with bated breath and nod gravely.

I look forward to this annual article because, like lemmings, people follow the advice. And that clears the playing field, allowing me to do exactly what the experts advise against: take strong closers in earlier rounds.* The experts are missing something pretty fundamental: a save is not a save.

Why not? The key concept here is so simple that it amazes me it gets consistently ignored: Closers contribute to scoring categories besides saves. ERA. WHIP. Ks. Joe Borowski may well get as many saves as Mo one year, but Joe is probably going to hurt you, relative to Mo, in all the other scoring categories. “Oh,” I hear the experts saying, “but that is silly. Closers don’t pitch enough innings to impact those categories meaningfully. Solid starters will more than make up for any ERA or WHIP effect you get from having Joe versus Mo.”

The problem is: It isn’t true. It’s like saying that eating a chocolate bar each day won’t affect your weight, because you eat a lot of other food, and it’s only one little chocolate bar. Right.

Look, in a given week, three relief pitchers are probably the equivalent of one starter in terms of innings. Over the course of a full season, the difference in the non-save scoring categories between having, the equivalent of six innings a week of Josh Johnson (which three good relievers will give you) versus having the equivalent of six innings a week of Joe Blanton (which three weaker ones will give you) is nothing to sneeze at. You’ll do well enough in saves, and help your position in the other pitching scoring categories.

Best of all, you don’t have to sacrifice quality starters to assemble an elite relief corps; in most mixed leagues, starting pitching is so deep that—assuming you know what you are doing—you can find a starter in Round 17 who is statistically equal to one you could add in Round 12.

*The rest of this article is written from the perspective of a snake draft league, but the principles and analyses apply equally well to auction leagues

Let’s illustrate with an oversimplified example. Assume a league with none active pitchers, six of whom are starters and three of whom are relievers. I’ll use the full-season stats of six starting pitchers I actually had in one league to model that part of the equation:

Core starters	        INN     K      ERA      WHIP
Wainwright, Adam SP STL	230.1	213	2.423	1.051
Myers, Brett SP HOU	223.2	180	3.139	1.243
Wilson, CJ RP TEX	204.0	170	3.353	1.245
Scherzer, Max SP DET	195.2	184	3.496	1.247
Santana, Ervin SP ANA	222.2	169	3.921	1.320
Gallardo, Yovani SP MIL	185.0	200	3.843	1.368
SubTotal	       1261.1	1116	3.339	1.241

Now let’s look at the impact of adding three “early round” relievers per my strategy…
Scen 1: “Top-drawer closers”

      	                  INN   K	  ERA    WHIP
Wainwright, Adam SP STL	230.1	213	2.423	1.051
Myers, Brett SP HOU	223.2	180	3.139	1.243
Wilson, CJ RP TEX	204.0	170	3.353	1.245
Scherzer, Max SP DET	195.2	184	3.496	1.247
Santana, Ervin SP ANA	222.2	169	3.921	1.320
Gallardo, Yovani SP MIL	185.0	200	3.843	1.368
Bell, Heath RP SD	70.0	86	1.929	1.200
Wilson, Brian RP SF	74.2	93	1.808	1.179
Soria, Joakim RP KC	65.2	71	1.782	1.051
SubTotal	      1471.2  1366	3.125	1.227

…versus the impact of waiting and taking less attractive closers per “conventional wisdom.”
Scen 2: “Don’t pay for saves”

                         INN	  K      ERA    WHIP
Wainwright, Adam SP STL	230.1	213	2.423	1.051
Myers, Brett SP HOU	223.2	180	3.139	1.243
Wilson, CJ RP TEX	204.0	170	3.353	1.245
Scherzer, Max SP DET	195.2	184	3.496	1.247
Santana, Ervin SP ANA	222.2	169	3.921	1.320
Gallardo, Yovani SP MIL	185.0	200	3.843	1.368
Jenks, Bobby RP CHW	52.2	61	4.443	1.367
Gregg, Kevin RP TOR	59.0	58	3.509	1.390
Capps, Matt RP MIN	73.0	59	2.466	1.260
SubTotal	      1446.0  1294	3.342	1.252

Whoa. The difference is fairly significant in all three of the non-save categories modeled. Think you won’t score more points with a 3.125 ERA than a 3.342 ERA? Yeah, you will. In my main league last year, a 0.217 ERA differential was worth up to six points.

“But wait,” I can hear the experts protesting. “You picked three guys you knew had great stats for Scenario 1, and three guys with lousy stats for Scenario 2. You cherry picked.” Well, not really. I saw these exact combinations (or their equivalents) in several leagues I participated in last year. Maybe the difference wouldn’t be as dramatic if I’d used Jon Papelbon instead of Joakim Soria, but it’d be even greater if I’d used Matt Lindstrom instead of Matt Capps. Frankly, guys who follow the “don’t pay for saves” mantra don’t wind up with relievers as good as Bobby Jenks, Kevin Gregg and Capps.

“But wait,” I can hear the experts chortling. “What if you’d picked Joe Nathan or Jonathan Broxton—you’d have been hosed with this strategy.” Well, that’s true, but anyone can get injured, as the folks who used an early pick on Chase Utley well know. Besides, you have to be a little bit smart in executing any strategy—Nathan has had arm trouble in the past. And Broxton was outstanding in 2009, but it was his first full year as a closer—you don’t want any early-round strategy focused on guys without a multiyear record (see also Pablo Sandoval).

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“But wait,” I can hear the experts spluttering. “If you wasted early round picks on Heath Bell, Brfian Wilson and Soria, you would never have had the six starting pitchers you did. Your Scenario 1 starters would not be as strong as your Scenario 2 starters to start with, and that would wash out the impact of the closers.” Again, not true—I did take Adam Wainwright early in this league, but I picked up four of the other six guys after Round 15 or off waivers, and my core starting pitching was statistically superior to most teams in my leagues. You need to do your homework, but you can assemble a statistically equivalent set of starters waiting several rounds to take your last three or four. Your straters may not be as good as someone else’s, but if you play your cards right there’s an equal chance they’ll better.

“But wait,” I can hear the experts croaking. “If you used early round picks for closers, you can’t possibly have had enough hitting—you must have sacrificed points there.” Well it’s hard to model what I didn’t do, but… assuming you use the first four rounds of your draft on strong hitters at weaker positions, there are generally enough corner infielders and outfielders left in rounds 8-12 to build a very solid overall hitting lineup. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Look, there are no guarantees in any of this. I am not saying that prioritizing closers guarantees you’ll win your league. What I am saying is that the non-save scoring statistics of closers have more impact on your team’s overall pitching performance than conventional wisdom would have you believe. So when this year’s draft rolls around, think twice before you congratulate yourself for your fantasy acumen in picking up Fernando Rodney in Round 17. You may think you didn’t “pay for saves,” but actually you just did pay—the opportunity cost of the money you could have won, which is now flying into the stands along with the last home run Rodney gave up. But—oh yeah—he still got the save. Trust me, a save is not a save.


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Ben Pritchett
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Ben Pritchett

@Dave Chenok- I see your point. When I draft I always pay a little not alot. I usually shoot in the middle. “Not paying for saves” really never works. I usually pick two or three guys I like that fit this profile, usually undervalued. Last year it was Billy Wagner and Andrew Bailey. Then I like to get a reach for my third closer.

Great read, Mr. Chenok. We, “experts”,  are stupid sometimes. Winners don’t overthink the room.

Chris
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Chris
I dunno, I won my league last season while completely punting saves all together. It was a 20 team keeper and by the end of it I was using Clay Hensley as my sole RP and several SP’s with RP eligibility. In fact, if I remember right, the only other true RP that I had was Rafael Betancourt, though Medlen was a reliever early on before going to the rotation. I ended up with one of the better pitching staffs in the league and the best overall offense (lead in every cat other than SB). I’m not sure how well… Read more »
Mark
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Mark
Markets are always evolving, even in fantasy baseball.  When I first started playing a few years ago, I remember the popular trend (and a major topic of discussion in snake draft analyses) was the concept of a “closer run”.  Closers were overvalued, and it manifested in often in an early-middle round that would get dedicated by as much as 60-70% closer selections (it would often happen another time or two later in the draft as well), because as the top guys would go off the board, owners later in the round would panic and feel they needed a secure closer. … Read more »
Will
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Will
While I’m a bit envious that I missed a chance to step up to a high level of competition, I’m glad such a contrarian piece won the contest. You really give food for thought… I tend to play this in another way, taking the cheapest closers who are pretty sure to keep their role, but also use my reserve spots to build a composite-ace in the way you describe by paying just a few bucks for three elite setup guys. That way, I’ll get saves, as well as respectable ratios while also having cash left over to pad my other… Read more »
Edwin
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Edwin
Dave, thanks for a good read. This point has been made before, however. I recall writing an article about it back in the days of Seamless Baseball on MVN. Obviously the Eric Karabell’s of the world are not math whizzes. Joe Borowski kills you every time. The value of the “never pay for saves” adage lies not in blindly waiting for garbage Fernando Rodneys at the end of the draft, but in the awareness of the volatility of saves in general and the ability to acquire quality relievers who acquire the role midseason (Axford). In short, pay for some saves… Read more »
Sal
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Sal

All well and good, but you’re severely impacting hitting and two other counting categories (Ks, somewhat predictable, and Wins, are they as unpredictable as saves?).

Although I partially disagree with your strategy, I do think that the pendulum has swung so far that savvy owners should be on the lookout for that top tier reliever that does fall far enough on draft day that you can snap up at a great value.

Regardless, great article. It’s tough to write about RPs and saves. Nice work.

Dave Chenok
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Dave Chenok
@Chris: it is certainly possible to punt a category—saves or otherwise—and still win your league, but I don’t recommend it as a strategy.  Too many things must go right in all the other categories.  I also note your league format, and that is an important consideration in any strategy one puts together—the first question I always ask about a league is, “how does the scoring work, and how many teams.” @Will: I like your strategy.  Again, its applicability depends a little on league format, including how many Ps you can roster at any one time.  The more Ps you can… Read more »
Bryce
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Bryce
It is a delicate balance for sure, but like all snake drafts you are at the mercy of that one guy that takes the first SP and then the one guy that takes the first RP. As soon as Halladay goes, Felix and company are usually right behind him regardless of what hitting studs are on the board. Likewise when Mo goes, Marmol and the crew start flying off the board. You’re that guy that I cannot stand!  Seriously though, ADP has Mo going #61 (earliest #54) and Mamol #71 (earliest #57) right now. Where would you usually take… Read more »
Mark
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Mark
Just to expand on my point above about how shallow RP is at the top, here are a few specific examples: -Mariano Rivera (61 ADP):  Despite another apparently dominant season, the 41 year old actually showed a few signs of chinks in the armor last year.  Career or near-career lows in xFIP (3.65) and K/9 (6.75) along with a BABIP (.222) nearly .040 below his career average and a HR/FB (3.6%) nearly 3% below his career average show he may not be quite the same uber-closer he’s been through his career, and yet he’s still the first guy off the… Read more »
Mark
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Mark
Dave, Thank you for the response (my last post was in the works before I saw it).  Here’s why I disagree:  There are too many situations where there are teams deep in quality RP without a settled closer, or with a high risk but huge upside guy, too much upside in the back half of the draft, and too little security at the top.  The back end of the closer ranks actually seem pretty deep, much deeper than the top end.  Most of my reasoning is in the post above, but just wanted to respond directly as well.  How different… Read more »
Samuel Lingle
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Samuel Lingle
The flip side of this coin is that you can still get closers who post good stats in the late rounds. Maybe you won’t get guys who are at a 1 ERA, but its quite possible Jake McGee has an ERA in the low 2’s with 70 strikeouts and 35 saves, or something like that. Relievers are very volatile so even when you spend to get that closer with good job security and great ratios its still hard to really tell what will come of it. Marmol, for example, is the 2nd closer on many lists but its always possible… Read more »
Red Sox Talk
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Red Sox Talk
Dave, kudos for standing against “established wisdom” and giving some evidence with your argument. I have been saying for years that elite relievers are worth high draft picks. I have drafted the likes of Papelbon and Rivera in the 3-5 rounds for years, and enjoyed the strikeouts, ERA and WHIP benefits of doing so. As some of the other commenters note, fantasy has rapidly evolved and people are out there trying different strategies more and more. So it’s hard to say what the value of elite closers is for your particular league. You could punt saves in a league where… Read more »
Paul
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Paul
Nice post Dave & it mostly squares with the team you drafted in the mock (good MI early and a few good closers). The point is that closers used to be overvalued in drafts and the smart play was to wait, now it’s common to do this, so the ‘zig’ in an expert league is to get a soria type early – because you have 11+ other wire hawks to compete with for the Axfords of the year + you are less likely able to absorb the rate stats of a JoeBor in a good league. In a less competitive… Read more »
kevin
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kevin

It seems like you’re banking on a lot going right elsewhere with this strategy. You say use the first four rounds on strong hitters at weaker positions and you can have your cake and eat it too, but what if one of the said hitters is the same chase utley you mentioned?

Mark
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Mark

Dave,

Fair enough, can’t disagree with you there.  And great post and congrats on winning the contest as well!

Dave Chenok
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Dave Chenok

@Kevin: if you drafted Utley as your first pick, you probably lost regardless of what you did with closers in later rounds.

Jeffrey Gross
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Jeffrey Gross

Dave,

Again, great article. This was one of my favorites to read given the fresh, contrarian prospective.

I’d love, in light of this article, for you to give me your perspective in light of the following (a very old article of mine):
http://gameofinches.blogspot.com/2009/03/saves_17.html

jeffreygross
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jeffreygross

(oh, and it should be apparent that I often play in deeper pitching leagues, so the numbers may not translate as well to shallow leagues)

Dave Chenok
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Dave Chenok
@Bryce: It’s not that I’d take them much earlier, but I would probably take 2 top drawer closers in successive rounds at about 6 or 7, and then pick up another at round 9 or 10 (depending on what mischief my first few picks cause).  When our mock draft commentary comes out over the next few weeks you will see that there is also a relationship between my closers strategy and draft position. @Mark-I’m certainly not saying you are wrong.  There are a lot of ways to win a fantasy league.  But at least you’re THINKING about this.  A lot… Read more »
Dave Chenok
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Dave Chenok
@Jeff: we’re kind of like Obama and the Tea Party here I guess…in principle I agree with the point that a 4 category player is worth more than a 1 category player.  I probably value the 210 innings of peripherals put up by 3 good RPs more than you do; while RPs only DIRECTLY influence one category, they INDIRECTLY influence 4 others in a 5×5 scoring format, and the instinct of small effect size is wrong—the difference can be worth a LOT of points. There is admittedly a certain arrogance to my strategy.  It relies on my ability to “outpick”… Read more »
Jeffrey Gross
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Jeffrey Gross

I think its all quite interesting. I focus on the fact that bad RP dont hurt you, but agree a good one can certainly help

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