Mythbusting – closer edition

Much has been made of seemingly excessive amount of hot potato-ing of closer roles throughout the first month-plus of the 2012 season. Some are convinced that these developments are clear evidence supporting the “don’t pay for saves” philosophy of roster construction and resource allotment. While in some respects, this is a reasonable conclusion, I’m not sure it’s that simple.

To begin with, not all those who lost their jobs or suffered injury did so under similar circumstances. Also, not all of those who lost their jobs were particularly costly acquisitions to their owners in the first place. Actually, there are a lot of factors mitigating the simplicity of the “I told you so” message from the “don’t pay for closers” camp.

Let’s first think about the context behind some of the losses of jobs by closers.

Mariano Rivera’s situation is fittingly unique, as his career and stability from a fantasy perspective has been unique as well. Even the most staunch advocate of not paying for saves would grant that Mo was as sure a thing as any player on the board. (Ironically, his offensive counterpart in this realm may have been the previously unflappable Albert Pujols.)

I think we can all agree that Rivera’s injury falls into the category of freak injury to star player with no pre-draft red flags, health-wise. What happened to Rivera could have just as easily happened to a position player; his position has no relevance so his case should not enter this discussion. This general situation applies to others as well, but I’ve separated Rivera because of his singular record of consistently other-worldly performance

On the flip side of Rivera’s rock solid elite stature, we’ve seen many closers with shaky or unestablished records lose their jobs, somewhat predictably. Most likely, few of these players cost their owners considerably in the first place. Players who fall into this camp include Javy Guerra, Grant Balfour, Hector Santiago, and (perhaps soon to come) Frank Francisco.

For these players, the considerable chance of not keeping the job all season was factored into their preseason prices. One can’t exactly feel shocked, awed, and cheated out of their investment in these scenarios.

The next group of players includes those with red flaga who suffered injuries. Brad Lidge, Andrew Bailey and Huston Street miss time due to injury almost every season. There were known concerns about Brian Wilson’s health before most drafts. For these players too, the risks based on their histories were reflected in their prices.

Moving on, we come to players who got injured more unexpectedly. This group includes Sergio Santos, Kyle Farnsworth, Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria (if your draft occurred before those injuries), and Carlos Marmol.

Some of these players will return and may also reclaim their jobs and put together decent seasons. It’s too early to tell. But, the point here is that unless one can establish that closers are more prone to injury than other players, these players were priced fairly and if they disappoint, it will be due to forces beyond their control. Injury is a possibility for all players, and the fact that it may seem injuries occurred to closers at a greater rate than to other players isn’t relevant unless you can establish that this isn’t random.

When you account for all the prior groups of players, you are left with only a few who have lost their jobs despite preseason expectation that they will be healthy and productive. The players who fall into this group are Jordan Walden and Heath Bell. Perhaps Carlos Marmol was on this path too, but if his performance was related to his subsequent DL stint his case is inconclusive at best.

So, when thinking about the volatility of the position, excluding injury, we see that there hasn’t been the string of “busts” that this dominant narrative of a nonstop closing carousel might lead us to believe. But, wait, there’s more.

Many of the players who lost their jobs, either due to performance or injury, still have reasonable likelihoods of regaining the closer role and ultimately earning their draft price or close to it. Included among these players are all the legitimate “busts” thus far, including Marmol.

Also countering the conclusion of the “don’t pay for saves” choir is the fact that—just like every year—many of the cheap preseason options are turning in perfectly serviceable to even star-caliber seasons. Jim Johnson, Brett Myers, Jonathan Broxton and Brandon League have been great. Matt Capps has been serviceable. Joe Nathan is looking something like his former self. If you spent $2 on Grant Balfour, you’re upset now. But, if you spent those same $2 on Jim Johnson, you are loving life.

Meanwhile, many of the heirs to these vacated closing positions don’t appear to have either long-term windows of opportunity or the skill set to prove valuable commodities for the rest of the season. In order for the “don’t pay for saves” argument to hold, not only does there need to be considerable turnover in the position, but that turnover needs to produce valuable players free for the taking. Even if the first half of this equation has been achieved, I don’t think Rafael Dolis, Scott Downs and Steve Cishek qualify as the latter.

Of course none of this means that paying for saves has proven to be a particularly sound investment this year, but the way the season has played out thus far points to this being the case because of circumstantial occurrences and not inherently flawed strategy.

Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps
Three smart players devoted their lives to baseball.

I also have somewhat distinct opinions on “paying for saves” in auction leagues as opposed to draft leagues, but that’s an issue I’ll touch on in its own column in the future.

Rounding up, the question we’re left with now is whether there is actionable information to be gained from this argument. Along those lines, I’d say that the developments in the closer position this year may affect different GMs differently. Some may fear the perceived instability and question the value of their own closers, leading to opportunities for acquisition. Others may see the instability as a reason to double down on their higher end assets, resulting in increased perceived value of the Jonathan Papelbons and Craig Kimbrels of the position. So, depending on the owner, the overall dynamic at the position may either open or close the market.

The bigger takeaway, however, is that many of the displaced closers are still better investments than their replacements. I’d rather own Marmol, Walden or Bell than any of their bullpen counterparts—though I do love Ernesto Frieri, who probably could run away with the job if given the chance.

Many closers who get displaced will get another shot; they weren’t installed as their teams’ closers accidentally. When the next great thing often actually only proves to be the next mediocre thing, the value of the last mediocre thing is often totally ignored. It’s easier and a lot cheaper to speculate on those who have lost their jobs but haven’t seen it get far away from them than it is to chase the hype of the next-in-line closer—the major league equivalent of the fan-favorite back-up quarterback. If you have room on your roster, scoop up recently displaced closers when they are dropped; many of these relationships are of the on-again, off-again variety.

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well done and insightful, great job.