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February 25, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Closer Strategies for Draft Day

by Jason Collette

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New Year’s Resolutions, diet plans, and closers all share one thing in common–a significant fail rate. Research by Ron Shandler of BasebalHQ.com shows that over the past twelve seasons, the lowest fail rate of closers in a fantasy baseball season happened in 1999 when just 22 percent of drafted closers lost their job in a season. Since 1999, that rate has been anywhere from 22 percent to 59 percent as closers tease fantasy owners more than the cute girl in middle school passing love notes requesting a check box to be filled in.

If you have been playing this game long enough, you have invariably heard every fantasy tip known to mankind when it comes to closers. Some of my favorites:

  • Saves are from the devil, Bobby Boucher!
  • Punt saves, they’re a sucker bet and you do not need them to win
  • Saves are one-tenth of your scoring–they’re equally as important as any other category and you should not slight them
  • Just draft three stiffs in the final three rounds or spend $1 on three different relievers. Saves come from everywhere

The good news for the role is that it had a 75 percent success rate last season as most of the failures were limited to the Chad Qualls meltdown in Arizona, Trevor Hoffman aging ten years before our eyes in Milwaukee, and Mike Gonzalez breaking down quickly in Baltimore. For the most part, closers did their job well and piled up saves but some closers such as Francisco Cordero, David Aardsma, and Octavio Dotel did so while dragging down owners’ ratios. Coming off a year in which closers finally had a low fail rate, fantasy owners may be a little less weary about treading back into the dangerous waters where high picks and high dollars are spent on closers.

In a current “expert” mock draft that I am in that includes names like Cory Schwartz and Mike Siano of MLB.com as well as the esteemed Joe Sheehan, the first closer went off the board early in the sixth round in the form of Carlos Marmol. Five more went before the end of the seventh round. For comparison’s sake, my first closer pick was the first pick of the twelfth round when I selected Francisco Rodriguez 133rd overall. I have had a mixed history with closers as I have both won leagues running away with saves and also won a 10 team AL league with just 13 saves on the entire season as early injuries led me to stocking up on starting pitching rather than be bent over a barrel by trade partners trading from a position of strength.   

No matter which path you decide to take with closers, you must have a plan of attack for them on draft day. My personal preference is to find the closers that safely meet the skill set of what I consider a desirable closer. I want closers that keep people off the bases by striking them out and limiting free passes and that throw a lot of strikes.  I also want closers that keep the ball on the ground and limit their home runs which are the quickest way to blow a save. Lastly, I want guys who do not have a demonstrable weakness against righties or lefties as those types of pitchers tend to get put back into limited roles when they struggle.  Each draft season, I put together a list of the top relievers available in the draft pool and put their statistics into a matrix that contains the following categories:

  1. K/9
  2. K/BB
  3. GB%
  4. HR/9
  5. Difference between their best and worst split in batting average against righties and lefties
  6. STR% - the percentage of pitches they throw for strikes
  7. K% - the percentage of the plate appearances the opposing batter strikes out in

The table below contains those metrics of the 40 different potential closers that Mike Petriello ranked earlier this week.  The first four categories are the projected totals from our own Player Forecast Manager while the final three are the career average for each pitcher. While it is easy to just work down Mike’s rankings one at a time, sometimes rankings do not tell the full story. The matrix below has been color-coded for both strong indicators as well as cautionary indicators for each one of the seven specified skills mentioned above--green is good, red is bad, and those left blank are somewhere in between.


You can also access the spreadsheet through this link.

Brian Wilson gets top billing in the rankings and it is for more than just his awesome facial hair. The chart shows that 25 percent of the batters he has faced in his career have walked back to the dugout mumbling something under their breath but what it does not show is that his K rate has risen each of the past five seasons: from 16 percent back in 2006 up to 30 percent in 2010. Even with that strong performance, there is an argument for passing on Wilson and taking Joakim Soria, as he performs extremely well in nearly every one of the categories. Note how arguably the best closer in baseball is ranked just fifth for fantasy purposes but shows no areas of concern in his career rankings. However, Rivera’s K rate is down three straight seasons and it dropped a full eight percentage points from 2009 to 2010. That is not something that only older pitchers go through, as Jonathan Papelbon has seen his K rate drop for four consecutive seasons from an unworldly 38 percent down to just a strong 27 percent.

I prefer to use this matrix style of analysis with color coding because it quickly allows me to review the strengths and weaknesses of a reliever as I evaluate him mid-draft. If I am late in a draft and looking for another closer, I am more likely to jump in on Leo Nunez because he shows one of the stronger skill sets of the lower ranked closers over someone like Brandon Lyon or Ryan Franklin who are ranked higher but present several areas of caution.  I also know that Nunez’s K rate has increased each of the past three seasons.  Additionally, the picture helps you make up your mind when staring down two veteran closers such as Brad Lidge and Jose Valverde who are closely ranked but one comes with a lot more statistical risk than the other one does.

This type of matrix also helps when you are considering two different relievers from the same team. Find David Aardsma and Brandon League on the matrix above–does either one stand out above the other one? That is a situation that could go either way once (or if) Aardsma is fully recovered from his injury or Eric Wedge can simply let Aardsma keep his job since League is not demonstrably better statistically than Aardsma. However, compare the data for Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel with the caveat that Kimbrel’s data was pulled from his minor league work (courtesy of statcorner.com).  Note the large difference in dominance that the PFM projects for the two relievers as well as the difference in K/BB ratio. Kimbrel has the risk of large splits between righties and lefties, but the quick skills picture shows him as the projected better pitcher.

Auction bids happen quickly and closer runs can be over before you even realize they started. Having a quick and dirty way of scanning the available talent pool before making a decision on whether to jump in or sit back allows you take the time you would have spent comparing lines on a spreadsheet and focus on your next two or three roster moves in the draft as savvy chess players do in a match. I strongly suggest you print out this color grid and use the white area out to the side to include your own player notes that I mentioned earlier with regards to Wilson, Rivera, and Papelbon. Or, you can add that Joe Nathan’s K rate was in a three year rise before his injury, that Matt Thornton’s K rate has also increased each of the past five seasons, or that Jose Valverde’s has declined each of the past five seasons. Closers are a risky business and the more information you have at your side on draft day regarding their past performance, the better off you are with the standard caveat that past performance does not guarantee future returns.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Closers,  Draft Rankings,  The Who

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