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May 29, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Your Annual Reminder: Don't Pay for Saves

by Jason Collette

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“Don’t pay for saves!” is an adage that ESPN’s Matthew Berry may have printed on his tombstone when he leaves this life. But while it has been uttered by many a pundit, from Berry to industry stalwart Lenny Melnick, we still see significant money spent on closers even in expert auctions each season. In the 2013 15-team mixed Tout Wars league, nine percent of the overall draft dollars went to players that have saved at least one game this season.

The current leader in saves in 2013, Jason Grilli, is a former fourth-overall pick in the 1997 amateur draft. In his career, he has been traded twice, released twice, purchased once, and granted free agency three different times before finding a home in Pittsburgh, where he has been nothing short of amazing since 2011. Last season, Grilli was drafted as a setup guy to Joel Hanrahan, and this season, the Mixed League Touts paid more for 12 other closers before setting on Grilli at $12. He is not the only story in the latest chapter of the unpredictability of saves in fantasy baseball.

Eighteen closers have already earned at least 10 saves this season (as of the start of play yesterday):

So far, only Mujica has been able to net double-digit saves while going unpurchased on draft day, but Heath Bell and Jim Henderson are both just one save away from joining that group. Three different closers have been able to join the double-digit saves club while going for fewer than $10 in the auction. That said, both Frieri and League have tenuous holds on their jobs, even though they are still compiling saves.

Chapman and Kimbrel were two of the most desirable closers on draft day because their saves also came with unusually high strikeout rates that could help offset certain types of starting pitchers. Both players came at premium costs even though they have produced far fewer saves than some of their more cost-effective contemporaries. The only other closer to go for at least $20 was Jonathan Papelbon, who just earned 10th save of the season for the struggling Phillies.

Papelbon has been hurt by a lack of opportunities, but several closers that went for double-digit dollars on draft day have yet to return double-digit save totals in 2013. The unmagnificent seven includes Papelbon, Fernando Rodney, J.J. Putz, Greg Holland, Chris Perez, Joel Hanrahan, and Steve Cishek. Putz, Perez, and Hanrahan are all on the disabled list, and Hanrahan will remain there all season. That group of seven closers cost $97 on draft day and has saved just 45 games as a whole.

In all, there had been 385 saves in baseball when play began on May 28. Eighty-six of the 385 saves, 22.3 percent, had come from 37 relievers that went unchosen on draft day. Only nine of the relievers have earned multiple saves; the aforementioned trio of Mujica, Bell, and Henderson, along with Andrew Bailey, J.J. Hoover, Matt Reynolds, Joaquin Benoit, and closer zombies Jose Valverde and Kevin Gregg.

As 2012 closed, fantasy owners could not wait to get Gregg and Valverde off their rosters, as both had disappointing-to-disastrous seasons. Valverde saved 35 games last season, but struggled to miss bats, showed velocity issues, and ended the season literally in tears. Gregg languished in a Baltimore bullpen performing mop-up duty when the Orioles needed him to do so and posted a second consecutive season with a WHIP above 1.60 and an ERA over 4.25. This season, both relievers have been rather untouchable, converting all of their saves and leaving pundits scratching their heads, while those who once again did not pay for saves point and laugh at those who did.

There are two true axioms when it comes to closers: They are all unpredictable, and not everyone is Mariano Rivera. Rivera blew his first save of the season last night, clearly because the Mets also had him throw out the first pitch in the game as part of his retirement tour. Last season, Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney looked unbeatable, and recently, both have been unwatchable for their fans. In short, saves are the same frustrating pursuit of points they have always been, and that’s never going to change.

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:  Saves,  Closers,  Jason Grilli

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