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There’s an old adage in fantasy baseball to “draft skills, not roles.”  The reasoning behind this is that the cream will rise to the top, that the better player will eventually take on the more prominent role.  This advice is often given in regard to closers, but it’s advice which I’ve expressed my disagreement with on multiple occasions.  While “draft skills, not roles” is a romantic notion, studies I’ve run in the past have shown that role is far more important than skill when it comes to saves and that closers in waiting are generally poor investments.

When Fernando Rodney received the first two save opportunities following Kyle Farnsworth’s injury, one site said that “while it would be nice to think that the 35-year-old will continue to close out games so effortlessly, his track record and bullpen competition probably make him one of the biggest sell-high candidates in baseball.”  Rodney proceeded to roll off seven more (consecutive) saves en route to becoming one of the most valuable closers in baseball over the first six weeks.  He had the role, which is more difficult to lose than most assume.

Or is it? After all, Rodney is one of the few closers who has managed to keep a grip on his ninth-inning gig this year.  In total, six Opening Day closers have lost their jobs (seven if Frank Francisco is removed today) and another nine have been placed on the disabled list, which seems to run contrary to my “draft roles, not skills” stance.

Closer

Status

Grant Balfour

Demoted

Heath Bell

Demoted

Frank Francisco

Demoted?

Javy Guerra

Demoted

Carlos Marmol

Demoted

Hector Santiago

Demoted

Jordan Walden

Demoted

Andrew Bailey

DL

Kyle Farnsworth

DL

Ryan Madson

DL

Mariano Rivera

DL

Sergio Santos

DL

Joakim Soria

DL

Drew Storen

DL

Huston Street

DL

Brian Wilson

DL

 

So what’s going on?  In short, something we haven’t seen in a very long time.  In the first six weeks of the 2012 season, if we combine demotions with injuries, we have seen 53 percent closer turnover.  In the past 11 years, we’ve seen greater than 53 percent turnover (demotions and injuries combined) just twice… over an entire season.

 

Year

Closer Turnover

2001

52%

2002

29%

2003

59%

2004

43%

2005

48%

2006

41%

2007

45%

2008

52%

2009

53%

2010

57%

2011

46%

Avg.

48%

 

From 2001 to 2011, 48 percent of Opening Day closers lost their jobs* before all was said and done.  That means that even with four and a half fewer months for injuries, implosions, trades, and manager whim-exercising, 2012 has already exceeded the norm.  Granted, some of these closers are likely to return this year (Bailey, Farnsworth, Santos, Storen, and Street), but what we’re seeing is still largely unprecedented, at least in recent history.

*I defined “lost their job” as saving fewer than 30 games, be it as a result of demotion or injury, which should serve as a good enough proxy.

To those of you who own one or two or eight (as I do, in one league or another) of this season’s displaced closers, you have my apologies.  While “don’t pay for saves” is common rhetoric that I am generally against, it’s a strategy that has surely worked out for many a fantasy player this year.  Closers are usually (read: always) a much safer investment than this.

So what is a fantasy owner to do going forward?  Well, just because we’ve seen this kind of ninth-inning demolition so far doesn’t mean it will continue.  Sure, there are still some closers who find themselves in precarious positions, but we shouldn’t be gun-shy about owning them just because so many others have flopped.  There is still a lot of history to suggest that closers are a solid investment.  If you happen to be in a league with an owner who is getting twitchy, it could be worthwhile looking into acquiring his closers.  Maybe he’s seen the carnage to this point and wants to shift his value into something other than saves, just to be safe, even if it means selling for 70 cents on the dollar.  If you find yourself faced with an owner like this, take advantage of it.  In fantasy we need to find value anywhere we can, and this may be one way to do so.

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Michael
5/14
Another reason that closers-in-waiting can be poor investments is that even when one can predict which closer will lose the role, there also is a risk that one predicts incorrectly who the manager will tab to be the new closer.
derekcarty
5/14
Yes, absolutely. Even when there appears to be a clear handcuff on draft day, that guy often isn't the one who takes over for a displaced closer. Melancon, Peralta, Romo, Wood, etc.
jrbdmb
5/14
"Don't pay for saves" is an adage typically used on Draft Day. And with an average turnover of around 50%, I think it is still a valid point that a dollar spent on an elite batter or starting pitcher is still safer than that dollar spent on a closer. I suspect that your chances of picking the 2011 version of Adam Dunn is lower than the chance of picking a closer who loses his gig.
derekcarty
5/14
Yes, you definitely would have a lower chance of hitting a 2011 Dunn. My stance isn't to grab closers no matter what, but once you build their inherent risk into their price, there's no reason to avoid them.
misterjohnny
5/14
But as any good gambler knows, you also want to reduce variance. If you have high variance, your risk of ruin is much greater. Unless you need variance to win (say if you are in an expert league and all players are properly priced, and no advantage can be gained through trades), then you are better off reducing your variance by investing in safer players.
derekcarty
5/14
Yeah, it kind of depends on your end goal and the context of your league. For me, I like to win, so increasing variance is a good thing. I'd rather finish 1, 12, 1, 12 than 6, 6, 6, 6 in the standings for four consecutive years. If all you care about is finishing in the money and a top-four finish is good enough for you, then maybe you don't want as much variance. Or if there isn't much as much parity in your league as there is in an expert league, then maybe you don't need to take on as much risk to have a chance to win.
leleutd
5/14
Regarding your advice on the rest of the season: I think the high number of closers gone for the year will mean the trade market for closers will be hot, which is another source of closer volatility you didn't mention in the article.