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November 6, 2008

Fantasy Beat

To Save or Not to Save

by Marc Normandin

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The last time we ran this column, I discussed writing a few pieces over the offseason to examine different strategies and approaches for getting the most out of relief pitchers for your fantasy team. Today we'll take a look at how valuable non-closer relievers can be, as they are often neglected in leagues without statistical categories specific to them, such as holds.

To do this, we will use the rankings from Yahoo! Sports fantasy baseball, since that is the service I used for my leagues this season. Here are the top ten relievers who were not closers, and their respective rankings among all relief pitchers in a standard 5x5 scoring system, along with their WXRL rank:

Y!Rnk Pitcher          IP     K   SV   ERA  WHIP   WXRL  WXRL Rnk
 8.   Grant Balfour   58.1   82   4   1.54  0.89  3.431   #14
10.   Carlos Marmol   87.1  114   7   2.68  0.93  5.152   # 5
11.   Joey Devine     45.2   49   1   0.59  0.83  2.301   #32
12.   Hong-Chih Kuo   80.0   96   1   2.14  1.01  2.714   #29
13.   Jose Arredondo  61.0   55   0   1.62  1.05  2.741   #28
16.   J.P. Howell     89.1   92   3   2.22  1.13  4.643   # 7
17.   Taylor Buchholz 66.1   56   1   2.17  0.95  2.528   #30
20.   Jesse Carlson   60.0   55   2   2.25  1.03  2.247   #35
22.   Matt Thornton   67.1   77   1   2.67  1.00  1.303   #81
27.   Cory Wade       71.1   51   0   2.27  0.93  2.841   #27

Chad Qualls (25th in Y!) would have been ranked 10th on our list, but is disqualified for taking over the closer's role at year's end for the Diamondbacks. Without Qualls' nine saves as a stopper, Wade would have easily surpassed him in value; Qualls was 49th in WXRL, a shade under two wins over replacement.

What does this list teach us? First of all, that there are plenty of relievers of value in the top 30 that do not hold a closer's job. Most fantasy leagues have fewer than 30 teams, and most of them end up drafting more than one closer, causing a shortage and forcing teams to use players who are actually detrimental to stat categories other than saves. This is not a phenomenon dealing only with relievers though, as the shortage of starting pitchers-especially in an AL or NL only league-causes many fantasy owners to pick up fourth and fifth starters from middling clubs. Nobody wants to have a Jeff Suppan type on their fantasy team, but thanks to inning requirements and the like, it can happen.

That line of thinking-the need to keep up with your opponents through the use of starters-is one reason why taking a look at this list is important. Considering that drafting closers is necessary to be competitive in the saves category, it's interesting that their are other pitchers who lack saves but are in the same talent class. So it does make sense to draft a pair of relievers and think of them as a starter. It's no different than drafting Randy Johnson and Rich Harden because you think that their combined numbers will equal one great starting pitcher over the course of the year. If you had both Marmol and Howell on your club, for example, you would have had an extra 176 2/3 innings pitched with 206 strikeouts, which is much better than a Suppan (177 2/3, 90).

That's an extreme combination, and not everyone in the league can pull that off at draft time; there are only so many relievers who strike out over one per inning, and they are hard to miss. Still, even the combination of Buchholz and Carlson (126 1/3, 111) isn't too shabby, considering the alternatives you would normally pick up during the more desperate late hours of free-agent perusal. It's a strategy to keep in mind towards the back end of your draft, when others are grabbing players that they likely will not use, or players that they will drop, or washed-up hitters they've decided to take a chance on.

Picking a few of the great non-closer relievers for your team rather than questionable starters sounds good in theory, but this plan is not without its flaws. Depending on the kind of league you are in, it can be well worth your while to use two roster spots for a solid combination rather than one for a less productive player. If you have larger rosters, it's without question a great strategy, especially since your league will already be thin on talent. If you are in an AL or NL only setup, then this is something for you to consider. In head-to-head leagues, you may encounter problems if innings pitched are a category; using two roster spots to accumulate four or five innings of excellent work per week may not beat out 10-12 innings of average work from a less talented starting pitcher.

It's a bit tougher to figure out which relievers will excel. The WXRL of the player, which is a better indicator of how successful they were, does not always match up with their fantasy ranking. As an example, Matt Thornton was rated much more highly than he should have been because he had five wins, a high total for a reliever. Joey Devine is another, as he pitched in just 42 games but came away with six wins. Granted, he also posted an ERA of 0.59 and a FIP of 1.97, but that's quite a few wins for a reliever in half a season of work, and not likely to be repeated. Another problem with relief pitchers is their general lack of consistency; here are the 2007 WXRL figures for the list above:

Pitcher              WXRL
Grant Balfour      -0.996
Carlos Marmol       3.694
Joey Devine         0.233
Hong-Chih Kuo      -0.269
Taylor Buchholz     0.828
Matt Thornton       0.027

Arredondo, Carlson, and Wade were all pitching in the minors in 2007, and Howell was still a starting pitcher. As for the rest of the relievers, only Carlos Marmol put up a season anywhere near his 2008 production, and even that was a win-and-a-half behind. Finding consistently dominant relievers is difficult, especially if you are fighting other owners in your league for the small group of them that exists. In addition to whatever research you might do, it takes a great deal of luck to run into this year's thing, or this year's "it" guy. In a way, it almost makes sense to avoid taking a stab at getting it right on draft day, and instead taking the time to improve your pitching as the season develops, when you have a better idea of who is doing what out of the bullpen.

If your league uses the holds category, you are drafting this kind of pitcher anyway, but many leagues do not; they avoid selecting non-closer relief pitchers on draft day and during the year. As the rankings show, however, that is not the best idea for many leagues, as their is plenty of value in their excellent strikeout rates and impressive ERA and WHIP numbers; enough that they are on par with many of the closers, often surpassing them in all categories except saves. The problem lies in identifying which pitchers are going to excel in their relief role-a troublesome exercise thanks to the volatile nature of relief performance on a year-to-year basis. The key, as it is with emerging starting pitchers, is to dig deeper and find out why they have begun to excel, and who is for real. That is something we will focus on during the 2009 season, when new pitchers in new roles emerge to give you more options as a fantasy owner. For now, keep in mind that two relievers may very well be more valuable to your team than that one lousy starting pitcher you'll feel guilty about drafting or scooping off of waivers in July.

Related Content:  Relievers,  Joey Devine,  Drafting

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