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New Year’s Resolutions, diet plans, and closers all share one thing in common: a significant failure rate. Research by Ron Shandler of BasebalHQ.com shows that in recent history, the lowest failure 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. In other words, closers tease fantasy owners more than the cute girl in middle school who passes 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 man when it comes to closers. Some of my favorites:

  • Saves, schmaves. Closers are made to break your heart.
  • Punt saves, they’re a sucker bet and you do not need them to win
  • Saves are one-tenth of your scoring—they’re just 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, or as my friends at Razzball.com have coined, “Saves ain’t got no face!”

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, since those types of pitchers tend to get put back into more 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:

  • Groundballs: The more, the better for me
  • K/BB: It is somewhat misleading when a high walk guy also strikes out a lot, but I still like this metric.
  • HR/9: The quickest way to blow a save is to walk someone and then give up a home run.
  • AVG: This is reliant upon batting average on balls in play, but rarely does a guy go from being terribly hittable to unhittable in a season.
  • K%: The greater the percentage of plate appearances that end in strikeouts, the better.
  • BB%: The fewer free passes, the better.
  • SPLIT: Pitchers with big righty/lefty splits make better situational relieves than they do closers.

I took all relievers from the Player Forecast Manager that were projected for at least five saves and have listed their skills. The groundball rates, K/BB, HR/9, and average are all 2012 projected totals while K%, BB%, and splits are from the 2011 season. The color coding on the embedded worksheet is simple: green is good; red is worrisome. Sure, Jonathan Papelbon had a high flyball rate and drastic splits last season, but I would still draft him over Heath Bell, who had but one red flag last season.

You can also view the sheet here if the embedded worksheet format above is not your style. There are arrows to scroll over and see the other categories as well as brief comments on each reliever.

Looking at the pitchers from this view shows why it is so tempting to take J.J. Putz or Huston Street despite the health concerns. Skills-wise, there is nothing to worry about, but the health issues are tough to ignore.

A matrix like this can also help you make a skills-based call on whom to target in early drafts while managers try to figure out whom to hand the ball to for saves.

Oakland Athletics

PITCHER

GB%

K/BB

HR/9

AVG

K%

BB%

SPLIT

Grant Balfour

38%

2.53

0.7

.220

24%

8%

.016

Brian Fuentes

37%

2.4

0.8

.231

17%

8%

.027

Fautino De Los Santos

44%

2.1

0.9

.238

30%

12%

.080

The A’s have already said this is a two-horse race between Balfour and  Fuentes, and comparing De Los Santos to these two on a skills level shows how that decision may have been played out given his splits issue (albeit in a small sample) and the fact that he is both more wild and home run prone than the favorites.

Chicago White Sox

PITCHER

GB%

K/BB

HR/9

AVG

K%

BB%

SPLIT

Matt Thornton

47%

3.3

0.8

.232

24%

8%

.008

Addison Reed

41%

3.2

0.9

.229

36%

3%

.000

Jesse Crain

42%

2.1

1.0

.243

21%

10%

.004

Matt Thornton had a bad April last season, which dragged down his overall stats, and if not for the presence of Addison Reed and his small sample size of success, nobody would consider his job in danger. Yet, few expect Thornton to be with the White Sox all season, making him a risky investment for saves while potentially forcing you into drafting both players to cover one spot.

Cleveland Indians

PITCHER

GB%

K/BB

HR/9

AVG

K%

BB%

SPLIT

Chris Perez

38%

2.2

0.9

.218

16%

11%

.035

Vinnie Pestano

48%

2.8

0.9

.233

34%

10%

.164

Tony Sipp

37%

2.3

1.2

.230

35%

11%

.104

It would appear that a platoon situation could be the best fit in Cleveland rather than simply handing the ball to Perez once he returns from his injury.