As always with the Process Review series (now that there are multiple editions), we start with a strategy or process employed this season. I know that no one likes hearing about other people’s fantasy teams, but the plan is to review decisions and strategies that we all face or will face at one time or another in hopes that we can all improve our processes.

So, back to me. In my 11-team, NL-only, keeper, rotisserie league (standard 5×5 categories), I had to decide if I should punt saves or not last offseason. To give a bit more background, I inherited a team in the 2014 offseason that I did not believe could win and thus went on attempting to build a contender for this season (2015). I did well adding talent to my team, entering the offseason with a lot of talent to both keep and trade. The flaw in my rebuild, though, was that I had acquired exactly zero closers. To make matters worse, all but two closers (Craig Kimbrel and Addison Reed) were being kept. With all owners aware of the scarcity of available closers, acquisition prices for closers on the trade market went through the roof. The same was probably going to happen in the auction. I was in a bind: I would either have to overpay for or punt saves. Below is a process review.

Not Righting Wrongs

The impulse was to trade one of my better keepers (I had what I thought was going to be a stacked outfield of Andrew McCutchen ($41), Bryce Harper ($20), Christian Yelich ($15), Billy Hamilton ($10), and Joc Pederson ($10)), for a closer in order to make up for my past mistake of failing to factor closers into my rebuild. The problem with this impulse is that it brings non-value related criteria into the decision. Righting my past wrong might feel good, but doing so might not make my team any better or, more importantly, it might not be the best way to make my team better. This is easy to say and harder to act on, but it is important to mention because this is one of those things that we allow to creep into our decision-making criteria when we are faced with a tough decision. It is one of those things we lazily or subconsciously use as a deciding factor when we do not know what to do.

However, even if I was properly removing my personal desire to make up for my past mistakes, overpaying for saves (or paying the current market price for saves) might still be the best strategy. It might still be the best strategy because the odds of winning while punting a category are very small. Analysis of strategy was thus needed.

Situational Strategy

When it comes to punting saves, the common commentary has become, “it is not preferable, try to avoid it if it all possible, but it can work if everything breaks right.” Every couple of years, an internet writer will declare that a particular season is ripe for punting saves or that a particular league type lends itself to punting saves or, more commonly, that “if you miss one [a certain set of players], then punting saves is my recommended strategy.”

None of the above is very helpful. It is unhelpful because these recommendations ignore that optimal choice (and therefore optimal strategy) in fantasy baseball depends on the choices of our opponents. Put into example and hyperbole form in order to illustrate the previous point, if all of our opponents in a particular league used two of their first five picks (or spent $50 of their $260 auction budget) on closers, then you would not need words on the internet to know that you should punt saves and take value elsewhere. Conversely, if all of our opponents in a particular league decided to punt saves, then it becomes obvious that we should happily cash in on some cheap saves.

The point of all this is that we should not head into a draft or auction or offseason thinking we should or should not punt saves; rather, we should be making the best decisions based on the decisions of our opponents (to put it less favorably, we take what is left for us (but that is how games work)). We should, as we have discussed many times before, be prepared to be agile when it comes to determining strategy, be it during a draft or auction or be it in-season or the offseason.

Consequently, I needed to add context to my analysis. This meant understanding that while punting saves does not work often, that it is more likely to work for a team that was stacked everywhere else (and my team, could have been viewed as “stacked” everywhere other than in the saves category). It also meant finding out just how expensive saves would need to get in order to make punting saves (being as prolific as possible in the other nine categories) optimal. Lastly, it meant factoring in the facts of the league’s landscape, such as the high price of closers and how closers were very evenly dispersed across teams. In other words, we have to account for actual conditions when employing strategy; otherwise, we are likely to overpay in order to try to employ a preferred or desired strategy.

Given the above, after doing the analysis, not trading for a closer, and watching Kimbrel and Reed go for above my price, I punted saves.

The Results

Over the past month my team has fluctuated between being behind first place by a point-and-a-half to being in first place by six points. I currently stand in first, ahead by six points, but that understates the closeness of the race; I probably have a coin-flip chance of winning. The third- and fourth-place teams have inched closer to the top two teams at times, but it is primarily a two-team race. This is a result of my team being in either first, second, or third in every category except saves, in which it has been in last all season.

The process and strategy appeared to have worked, but this ignores an important factor—cost. In order for my team to be in this position I traded away 1 1/2 years of Christian Yelich, Chris Owings, and (maybe) Brett Anderson along with three-plus years of Joc Pederson, Lucas Giolito, Hector Olivera, and Hunter Renfroe, as well as my 2016 first-round minor-league pick. In doing so, I acquired Clayton Kershaw, Buster Posey, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gomez, John Lackey, Matt Carpenter, Marlon Byrd, Robert Stephenson, and a 2016 second-round minor-league pick. Only Kershaw and Lackey (if he signs in the NL) are keepers for next year (Kershaw then becomes a free agent after 2016).

The question then becomes, would “overpaying” for closers in the offseason or auction have reduced my costs in the regular season? A more useful question to those reading is whether punting saves is often an overly costly (and thus suboptimal) strategy?

This is tough to say. Not punting saves would have paid off if I acquired closers that hit (I had been in talks for Trevor Rosenthal as well as Francisco Rodriguez, I was also $1 short in bidding for Craig Kimbrel). However, if I acquired a closer that missed (I had been in talks for Joaquin Benoit and was one dollar short in bidding for Addison Reed), I would either (i) not have as good a chance of winning as I do now or (ii) have had to pay an even higher cost to have my current odds.

The last part we need to keep in mind is that we should not be doing this analysis based solely on how this season turned out because we when we were making the strategic decisions this offseason, they were based on probabilities. In other words, we need to factor in the ways this decision would have played out if the season unfolded differently. To use my league as an example, the second-, third-, and fourth-place teams are currently second, first, and third in saves respectively. If the teams that were most prolific in saves were not the most prolific elsewhere (an unobserved possible outcome), then either (i) my in-season cost would be lower or (ii) my chances of winning would be higher.

Going Forward

On the positive side, I believe I did well in not overreacting to my past mistakes and adjusting to specific league context. On the negative side, I made the mistake of not factoring in-season cost into my offseason strategy planning process. Things seemed to work out all right, but we are not that interested in results and we are particularly disinterested in a single result. Even if I had factored in-season costs into my process, I might have still punted saves, but not changing process because of this would be confusing good results for good process. So if you stuck with me and are still here, going forward we need to make sure we (i) factor in the cost of our strategies during our planning process and (ii) make sure to analyze our process, even when results are good.

I also probably just jinxed this poor team that has given it their all this season. Here’s to a lucky last bunch of weeks.

Thank you for reading

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Nice piece. I do believe that you have omitted a few important factors from your analysis, the most important of which are the free agent rules of the league and the expected trade market.

In regards to free agent rules, is it a free drop league? Is it an Ultra league where rosters are abnormally deep? Is it a salary cap league where expensive players can sometimes become available through trade or release under value? There were several undrafted players who ended up closers, such as Clippard and Axford in the NL, and Tolleson and Osuna in the AL to name a few. In some cases there are opportunities to go into the auction "punting" saves, only to acquire saves later through alternative means.

Which brings us to trades - is there a pretty liquid trade market in then league, or does your group of owners simply draft and watch? Are there things like draft picks and minor league players that can be offered in trade rather than rostered talent? If there is no trade market or if there are no alternative means of consideration to players you need to win now, then it may be worth overpaying for at least one closer that can get you to the middle of the pack - that could be 4-8 points depending on who you buy. That could be the difference between 1st and 4th. Saves is really the only category where the player translates so obviously to the rotisserie points in the standings, particularly if you play in a 4x4.

I realize that making the analysis overly complex can make for an article too long or too boring. However, I do believe there additional critical factors that were not considered that probably should be for an optimal analysis. Perhaps a Part II would have served the topic well.