Jason Grilli leads the league in saves. Across the state, Jonathan Papelbon has only 10. Few could have foreseen these, and other early closer outcomes, on draft day.
“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.
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If you thought Jerome Williams' save was ugly, you should have seen Dave Goltz's back in 1973.
On July 30, Jerome Williams became the first person in more than a quarter of a century to get credit for a save while allowing at least five runs. When he recorded the final 12 outs of the Angels' 15-8 victory over Texas in the opener of a four-game showdown between the two teams, Williams joined a short list of men so credited since the save was introduced as an official statistic in 1969:
Are teams asking the right questions about pitcher injury prevention, or are they just guessing along with the rest of us?
Thanks to Jerome Holtzman, inventor of the save, and Bruce Sutter, the first fireman used like a 21st-century closer, Chicago is quite literally the birthplace of the modern reliever. So it seems almost tiresome that in the Windy City, baseball news over the last week has been dominated by the vagaries of relief pitching.
Before last Friday's game against the Dodgers, Carlos Marmol sat hunched over in the folding chair in front of his locker, all by himself. No one was talking to the normally happy-go-lucky reliever, or even sitting nearby. We soon learned that Marmol was processing some bad news.
Is Kenley Jansen ready to close? Sam analyzes his incipient save celebration's suitability for the ninth inning.
Kenley Jansen pitched his first game on July 30, 2009. He worked a scoreless fourth inning for Inland Empire, struck out one batter, and that was it. Kenley Jansen, whom we had described as “the system’s best hope at catcher” just six months earlier, was a pitcher. Three days later, he allowed two runs in his second outing. Three days after that, he allowed three runs in his third outing, and his ERA was 22.50. Pitching is not supposed to be a simple thing. Experience matters. Making adjustments matters. Kenley Jansen has made a lot of adjustments, and he is a thrilling pitcher, and after I watch him I want to hop in a car and drive really fast and make sharp turns. But closing games isn't just about throwing strikes and getting outs and converting saves. There's the matter of the post-save ritual.
There are all sorts of post-save rituals, and not every closer dodges Matrix bullets like Jose Valverde. Last summer, Jeff Sullivan classified all 30 major-league closers' victory celebrations and grouped them into seven categories: the indifferent; the acknowledgers; the glove punchers; the fist pumpers; the adorable tiny hoppers; the showstoppers; and the other, which included only one closer, whom we might say is in a League of his own. Because he's Brandon League. That's why we capitalized League and said it like that.
Events that have happened already this season after not happening for all of 2011 help explain why we're still hooked on baseball.
There were 2429 major-league games played last season.* Most of the things that can happen in a baseball game happened in one of those. With a few exceptions, teams and players will do all of the same things in 2012 that they did in 2011—they’ll just do them in a difference sequence and more, or less, frequently than they did before. When and how often they do those nearly identical things will determine which teams win divisions and which players win awards. We’re suckers for those things, so another season of the same, reshuffled, is enough to suck us in. But we're not completely content with repetition. We also watch in hopes of seeing something we didn’t see the season before.
*There would have been 2430, but no one felt like seeing another Dodgers-Nationals game in September. That missed game may have deprived us of history: Matt Kemp finished the season one home run away from 40 home runs, and Dee Gordon finished the season one home run away from one home run. For the alternate-history buffs: the man who would have started that game against the Dodgers, had it been played, was Tom Milone. Milone had the fifth-lowest home run rate among Triple-A starters last season, so that extra game might not have made Matt Kemp baseball’s fifth 40-40 man. Then again, that home run rate might not have meant much, since there weren’t many Matt Kemps in the International League. More on Milone a little later.
While you may be looking for fantasy sleepers for closers, don't let yourself be swayed by this side-armer...
Guys, it’s inevitable. Vinnie Pestano is going to be a trendy late-round draft pick this year as a potential saves sleeper. On the surface, it seems obvious why he would be. Cleveland’s closer entering 2012 will be Chris Perez, whose numbers were bad by middle-relief standards last season, much less by those of a closer:
Is Goose Gossage right to say that Mariano Rivera has it "easy?"
Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Kevin Baker is a novelist and historian who is currently at work on a social history of New York City baseball, to be published by Pantheon.
In his fifth Asian Equation column, Michael looks at the relievers who have enjoyed modest success--and failure--making the move from Japan to America.
The last group in my analysis of the player’s who have migrated to MLB from Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) are the relievers, the least appreciated members of a successful baseball team. Yet, of all NPB imports, they have been the most numerous (explaining the length of this article, for which I apologize in advance) and the cheapest. Diminished quality is the most obvious reason for these extremes, since starters who don’t meet MLB standards get shifted to the bullpen, and lesser talents also keep salaries down. Additionally, the typical NPB pitcher’s arsenal matches well with an MLB reliever’s skillset.
As I discussed in my last Asian Equation article, NPB is a breaking ball league, which translates better to relief than starting. A good breaking ball might fool major league hitters the first or second time they see it in a game, but it probably won’t the third or fourth time. As an illustration, here’s how batter OPS rises against two of the biggest NPB starting-pitcher busts as compared with three current MLB pitchers: the best, the most mediocre, and an old junkballer. While MLB batters’ performance improves against each pitcher the more times they see him in a game, the change is far more dramatic with Matsuzaka and Kawakami.
Choosing whom to pitch when isn't just a matter of good sense, but dollars and cents.
On Sunday afternoon, I took part in my first fantasy draft of the spring. It’s a keeper league with an auction selection process featuring some fellow Baseball Prospectus contributors, including Marc Normandin, Tommy Bennett, Mike Petriello, and former intern Chase Garrity. At some point during the proceedings, Jake McGee went up on the bidding block. When the dust settled, McGee was acquired at a price similar to the ones paid for some of the game’s better closers. This was obviously a risky move, since McGee is not guaranteed to make the Opening Day roster and forget any thoughts about being named the team’s closer.
By now, the Rays’ economic limitations are common knowledge. With the exception of Rafael Soriano, the Rays have proven unlikely to pay for a fancy name-brand reliever. Troy Percival signed a two-year deal back in the winter of 2007, and he made roughly $8 million over two seasons. Otherwise, the team has either gone to arbitration with their relievers, or locked them up to deals voidable by a plethora of club options. In short, they want all of the leverage and none of the risk.
Closers, closers everywhere, on your teams and in your hair!
Part of my recent conversation with Yahoo's Scott Pianowski centered on closers, and in particular on how, prior to the last week or two, there's seemingly been relatively little closer attrition this season. Usually we can count on 12 to 15 teams changing their closers in a given season, either due to injury or poor performance, and for many of those changes to become permanent. It's one of the ways we can justify discounting their price in our preseason dollar valuations, and at the draft table. If saves are a category that you can capture in part by being active on the waiver wire, then by all means, don't overpay for these one-trick ponies.
Given the attendant advantages, try it, you might like it.
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: