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June 20, 2008
The Case for Punting Saves
Strategy doesn't win fantasy baseball-picking the right players does. However, the landscape is populated with an increasingly knowledgeable breed of fantasy GMs. Most serious fantasy leaguers are evaluating and ranking players using basically the same metrics; stats like BABIP, G/F and LD% are now commonly known and dissected. With that much granular detail going into people's analysis, how can one separate themselves? By ignoring the saves category at the draft table, that's how. Here's the how and why of it:
Know Your League: The strategy of punting saves works better (or worse) on the specific league format. For instance, in a head-to-head league, it's a no-brainer to do it. As opposed to finishing with a "1" in a rotisserie league, you'd only be losing one category week to week, something that could happen anyway. It doesn't matter if you record a stellar 10 saves in a particular week if your opponent nets 11. Conversely, if your league has a maximum innings cap and uses daily transactions, ignoring saves becomes less desirable, because a relief pitcher's strikeout rate is actually a benefit. However, in the most common leagues, which are weekly transactions with nine pitcher slots, go ahead and punt saves.
Why, you ask? Not only do closers typically come at an exorbitant price tag, they're also negative producers in two of the five commonly-used pitching categories. Take strikeout totals, for example. It's irrelevant how impressive their strikeout rate is, because even Heath Bell, who led all relievers last season with 102 strikeouts, finished 86th among strikeout leaders. To put it another way, Bell had a 9.9 K/9 mark, while Matt Morris' was 4.6, yet they finished with the same amount of strikeouts. Bell is a poor example, though, since closers never throw the 93 2/3 innings that he did last year. Francisco Rodriguez led all closers with 90 strikeouts, which was only 105th among all pitchers. Matt Capps, an above-average closer with a strong strikeout rate, had 48 fewer strikeouts than Jeff Suppan.
That's not the only category you take a hit on, though. Closers also hurt you in the wins department. J.J. Putz had the most wins of any closer last season with six, tying him for 144th in baseball. The top 30 closers with the most saves last season averaged 2.9 wins. Overall, there were 303 pitchers with at least three wins in the 2007 season.
Now, on the flip side, the advantages that closers often offer are that they are better in ERA and WHIP than a starter with a similar Average Draft Position (ADP), which stands to reason, since they are able to give max effort for one inning at a time. However, as Nate Silver has pointed out, "over the past decade or so, ERAs of starting pitchers have run about only about seven percent higher than relief pitcher ERAs." Even with superior ratios, it cannot be underestimated the difference between throwing 70 innings versus 200 innings. If your fantasy team deployed six starters who all tossed 200 innings and two relievers who threw 70 frames, you'd be left with 1,340 innings. Let's give them a cumulative ERA of 4.00. If you then inserted a reliever with a 3.00 ERA for another 70 innings, you'd be left with a 3.95 ERA overall. If you instead inserted a starter who posted a 3.50 ERA over 200 innings, your overall ERA would then be 3.93. So although the reliever's ERA is a full half run lower than the starter's, the extra innings actually had more effect than the superior earned run average and lowered the team ERA.
Uncertainty: Just as the unpredictability of run support makes projecting wins for starting pitchers nearly useless, counting on high or low save totals based on the team the closer plays for is pointless. In 2008, Brian Wilson has more save opportunities than Mariano Rivera. George Sherill plays for a middling Orioles team, yet he's received the second most opportunities to close out games. Last season, Mariano Rivera had just the 18th most save chances in baseball, despite the Yankees finishing with the third in wins in baseball. Finishing 16 games under .500, the Nationals produced five more save opportunities than any other team in 2007.
No one has led major league baseball in the saves category in back-to-back seasons since Rollie Fingers did so in 1977 and 1978. In contrast, from just over the last 10 years, there's been a repeat leader in consecutive seasons in home runs (Alex Rodriguez, 2002/2003), runs scored (Albert Pujols, 2004/2005) and batting average (Larry Walker, 1998/1999). We can usually safely project what teams will be better at run production, but unfortunately, that has little to no bearing on the number of save chances.
Volatility: It's been estimated that in a typical fantasy league, 40 to 50 percent of the saves recorded throughout the season will come from players picked up off of the waiver wire. This cannot be understated. Since a closer's fantasy value is almost entirely tied to his recording saves, there isn't a riskier position to draft. Injuries and change in play affect every position on the diamond, but closers fluctuate at a much higher level than the rest, with only a handful of reliable options who repeatedly deliver over what might constitute a strong sample size. If you were able to pick up Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes, Salomon Torres, and Ryan Franklin this season, you'd have 46 saves, a number likely to put you in the top three in that category in your league. Of course, I'm here to tell you to feel free to ignore saves altogether, but that is a good example of what's already become available in 2008.
Know Your Role: With closers, role is equally if not more important than a pitcher's skill set. With the committee approach deployed so infrequently, there are really only 30 of these jobs employed at any given time. Poor performance from your first baseman hurts your fantasy team and may even lead to less playing time. For relievers, it does the same while also often resulting in a role change; if they aren't contributing in the saves category, then they have lost most if not all value. That's not the only way save opportunities can cease, as George Sherill would quickly become nearly worthless if Baltimore traded him to a team that would use the left-hander as a setup man, which is a very real possibility.
The Todd Jones Factor: Out of pure principle, no one that has more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) should be valuable, but that's Todd Jones for you. Dating back to last season, Jones has a laughable 43:34 K:BB ratio and an embarrassing 4.2 K/9 mark over the past three years. Yet because he's almost exclusively pitching one inning, with the lead and entering with no runners on base, he's been able to maintain a respectable ERA and rack up saves. Not that ERA is all that important, since Joe Borowski led the American League with 45 saves last season despite a 5.07 ERA. In 2006, Jonathan Papelbon posted a 0.92 ERA and didn't finish in the top-10 in the saves category.
Beware The Small Sample Size: Let's use Manny Corpas as a specific example to highlight a broader point. Last year, Corpas took over the role of Rockies closer by posting a 2.08 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, making him one of the top 15 closers on the board during 2008 fantasy drafts. It took all of 78 innings to make him be a top 100 draft pick. However, digging deeper reveals that Corpas had a .260 BABIP and a .844 strand rate-two statistical anomalies that he was very unlikely to sustain, and two things directly related to his 2007 success. It took a larger sample size to reveal this, but for those who burnt a pick on him in the first 10 rounds in 2008, it's too late. It's certainly a lot easier to be lucky for a season when throwing 70 innings as opposed to throwing 200 innings or getting 550 at-bats.
Saves Are Overpriced: It's not that I'm personally against the statistic, no matter how ridiculous it may be. It's just that closers are often drafted much higher than I'm willing to take them, making my decision even easier. If you want a reliable, top-shelf closer, be prepared to spend a high draft pick (five closers were in the top 75 in terms of ADP). And if you wait for a "bargain," let me reiterate that 40 to 50 percent of the category will come off of the waiver wire, so there's big risk there. In a league with a cap of 1,500 innings, a closer who throws 70 innings is contributing just 4.6 percent of the workload of your pitching staff, where a 200-inning starter contributes 12.4 percent. Drafting a batter would contribute to 7.7 percent of your hitting stats, assuming that it's a 13-man starting roster. It's a simple matter of one-category players being disproportionately valued by nearly all fantasy leaguers.
Allocating Resources: Last but not least, the biggest advantage to punting saves is the inherent advantage it gives you to do well in the nine other categories. The extra starting pitchers deployed should at minimum gain you two to four more points in wins and strikeouts apiece. To get those four to eight points in the saves category, you'd need at least two closers at mid-round value. The main difference in the extra wins and strikeouts you gain picking the starters are close to guaranteed (performance matters much less), while the two closers contributing four to eight points are far from it. The ratios should be relatively equal, but even if you come up a starter or two short, you can always fill in with adequate middle relievers late in the draft or within the season.
Most of all, you should be able to gain a significant advantage on offense in terms of being able to spend extra money or invest higher draft picks. Your fourth and fifth starting pitchers are going to cost nowhere near as much as another team's first and second closers, so you will be able to address offense more than any other team in the league. Because you theoretically will be leaving the draft table with the strongest offense and starting pitching, you'll also have a distinct advantage with your FAAB, since you'll have fewer areas of need and won't be chasing every middling set-up guy who might close for a week, the way that everyone else has to. Just by executing this strategy, you should enter the year as the favorite to win strikeouts, wins, and all five hitting categories, since you spent more resources on them than any other team. Like most things in life, if you zig while the masses zag, it frequently works out.
Dalton Del Don is a contributor to Rotowire.com; he can be reached here.