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April 21, 2009
Building a bullpen in real life is difficult, but so is trying to put together a reliable one for fantasy purposes. Not only do you have to deal with guessing which relievers are going to be able to replicate or sustain their performances going forward, but unlike actual major league clubs, you need to make educated guesses about usage patterns and the overall quality of the teams in order to make better informed decisions.
Anyway, that's the idea that most people seem to have. In reality, however, wins and save opportunities are nowhere nearly as closely related as many think they are. Saves are one of those stats that are considered somewhat irrelevant to sabermetrics and performance analysts, but there has still been some heavy lifting done in their service, mostly by fantasy-oriented analysts.
Prior to the 2008 season, Derek Carty ran a number of tests to find out if saves and save opportunities could be predicted, based on a variety of factors (including, but not limited to, team wins, runs scored, and runs allowed). What he found was intriguing, as none of those factors correlated with save opportunities in any significant way. It seems counterintuitive to say that the things that win ballgames-namely, preventing and scoring runs-and the wins themselves, have little to no bearing on the number of times that a team will find itself in a save situation, but the numbers don't lie. Saves may weigh heavily in the minds of many teams, as well as in fantasy baseball, but it's an arbitrary statistic that means far less in the grand scheme of things than runs scored or prevented-factors which actively contribute to winning or losing ballgames. It would be a different story if we had a team losing 120-130 games per season, since save opportunities only come when your team is ahead; if a team is in a position to win a game just 45 times all year, then you'd probably want to avoid that team's closer, but that's rarely the case.
Carty's study came out before 2008, but the lesson holds true. Even though the Angels were the outlier who won 100 games and had 90 save opportunities (opportunities for middle relievers are also counted; just because the last pitcher gets credit doesn't mean that the opportunity didn't exist beforehand), the rankings fit together snugly:
Rank Team W-L SaveOpps 1. Angels 100-62 90 2. Mets 89-73 75 3. Cardinals 86-76 74 4. Brewers 90-72 71 5. Red Sox 95-67 70 6. Cubs 97-64 69 T7. Rays 97-65 68 T7. Mariners 61-101 68 T9. Twins 88-75 66 T9. Rangers 79-83 66
The first few teams on the list make it look as if I'm ignoring the data, as it's made up exclusively of quality teams. But once you get down to Seattle, who had the same number of save opportunities as the American League's World Series representative, things begin to look a little strange. Texas is another head scratcher, and the order from there seems completely arbitrary:
Rank Team W-L SaveOpps T11. Astros 86-75 65 T11. Phillies 92-70 65 13. Tigers 74-88 64 T14. D'backs 82-80 62 T14. Orioles 68-93 62 T16. Marlins 84-77 61 T16. Rockies 74-88 61 T18. Royals 75-87 60 T18. Giants 72-90 60 T18. Nationals 59-102 60 21. Padres 63-99 59 T22. Blue Jays 86-76 58 T22. Dodgers 84-78 58 24. Pirates 67-95 57 25. Yankees 89-73 56 26. Reds 74-88 55 27. A's 75-86 53 T28. White Sox 89-74 52 T28. Indians 81-81 52 30. Braves 72-90 49
Yes, there are more bad teams at the bottom end of this list than at the top, but what are clubs like the Yankees, Blue Jays, White Sox, Indians, and Dodgers doing in the bottom 10? There is some correlation between wins and save opportunities, but it's very slight, and the season isn't long enough for the teams on the list to end up being ranked in any relevant order.
While you can't pick which teams are going to finish where in the save opportunity rankings, is it possible to determine which relievers are going to end up with the most opportunities? The short answer is again "no," as the number of opportunities that a given team had did not necessarily affect their closer's output. Jose Valverde was second in save opportunities with 51, but his team tied for 11th in overall opportunities. Brian Wilson was third with 47, but the Giants were tied for 18th. Francisco Cordero had 40 save opportunities (ninth) pitching for the team ranked 26th in that statistic. There are plenty of other examples floating around that show that your team's save opportunities don't necessarily translate to more saves or opportunities, and since the standings don't affect save opportunities as much as we wish they would, predicting them becomes nearly impossible.
The best strategy is to focus on the best pitchers at the position, rather than trying to use their team's projected standings or ability as a benchmark. With few exceptions, the pitchers with the most opportunities to close last year were the ones that consistently excel at what they do: Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria, Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera... pitchers like this should be your targets, regardless of how their team is performing. If you can't predict saves or save opportunities, you still have a leg up on all of your league mates who will continue to do so, and that counts for something.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .