April is a rough time for baseball analysts, fantasy or otherwise. We’re so excited to finally write about real baseball games that many of us inevitably jump the gun and start trying to parse through miniscule amounts of data. My best advice during the first 2-3 weeks of the season is to watch as much baseball as you can while looking at as little data as possible. Yes, this includes looking at how your teams are doing in their fantasy leagues. This is particularly true if your team is off to a poor start. Spend enough time looking at poor results for a two-week period and you might find yourself believing that your team really is this bad.
However, while performances seldom impact a fantasy team’s overall fortunes, events frequently do. Injuries are the most dramatic performance-altering event, but lineup changes or mid-season minor-league promotions can have an impact as well, particularly in deeper leagues. But the in-season change I want to talk about today involves closers.
Fantasy managers are completely aware that nearly half of the closers in the player pool are going to lose their jobs, either for part of the season or for the duration. Yet we also know that trying to win a standard 5×5 league while casting aside one category is an uphill battle. However, it is possible. Today, I will walk through my thought process when a closer change impacts one of my teams.
Scenario 1: "Aw crap, I lost a closer"
We like to think it’s something that only happens to “someone else," but losing a closer due to ineffectiveness happens to the best of us. Ask fantasy managers who had Trevor Rosenthal and Ken Giles shares in 2016 how confident they were in their reliever’s success right after their drafts. It is a volatile role—and inevitable—that if you draft or purchase closers, you will experience the heartache of job loss.
In nearly every league type, my inclination is to grit my teeth and stand pat. In 12-team mixed leagues. I have always had a fair amount of luck speculating on relievers and finding at least one who eventually becomes the stopper. It is tougher in 15-team mixed, but even in this format it is likely that a few relievers who will get saves are free agents. Mono formats are where I am most likely to ditch the category if I lose a closer.
This decision comes down to several factors and varies on a case-by-case basis but the biggest factors are:
- Do I have any closers left? It’s not likely I am going to toss saves aside if I still have one or more closers. Losing a closer when you have one or two others already on your team could lose you as little as three or four points.
- If I trade a closer, what is my opportunity gain? It is highly likely that there is at least one other team in your league that has a suboptimal saves situation and is weighing the same cost/benefit ratios that you are. Alternately, you could be in a league where six or seven teams are tightly packed in projected saves and adding a closer could tip the balance considerably.
- Do(es) the closer(s) I have left contribute in other categories? Flipping A.J. Ramos for a mid-tier hitter might make sense for your team. Trading Kenley Jansen for that same mid-tier hitter might not. A good or great reliever can easily gain points in three categories.
These bullet points overlap and are not mutually exclusive. Much of your decision making often comes down to how many points you can gain or lose in the category if you decide to jettison it entirely. To reiterate, I’m against dumping categories as a rule, particularly in a mixed league. However, wasting resources—either in FAAB or trade—to ensure that you compete in one category can weaken your team and keep it out of contention.
Scenario 2: "Yay, a new closer!"
The other side of the closer coin is that you could be one of the lucky ones who finds yourself with a new closer early in the game. If you include the Athletics and Ryan Madson, there have already been three job switches. Add leagues that auctioned a week or more before the season (like Tout Wars) and a total of five bullpens have already seen a change in roles.
If you only had one closer in an only or two closers in a mixed league, this is the scenario where you are least likely to make a trade. Whether your new closer is grabbing the job temporarily or permanently, your new closer is delivering points in the bank that you only give up if you can get more points back via trade. For example, if you are projected to finish with five points in an NL-only and project to gain four points with your new closer, you won’t flip a closer unless you could gain five or more points via trade.
The obvious trade scenario comes into play when the switch in real life roles leaves you in one or two positions:
- More closers than anyone else: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins” looks great on a t-shirt but doesn’t apply to fantasy. You should try to trade your excess before everyone notices that you have nothing to lose by making a trade.
- Only one closer: If you dumped saves and one of your set-up relievers becomes the man, it is likely that your gain in the category will be marginal, since even in mono formats only one or two teams deliberately dump saves. In this scenario, I like to trade away my new closer as soon as he gets three or four saves and I have “secured” points in the category ahead of the other team or teams that dumped saves.
Nearly every one of these scenarios seems intuitive, and not something that even needs to be explained. Perhaps I am begging the question, but if this is so obvious, why am I even writing about it?
We’re conditioned not to trade early
We have heard so many times that we shouldn’t overreact to fast or slow starts that we instinctively don’t even look for opportunities to improve our teams in April. The assumption is that any trade we try to make in April is not for the good of our teams, but rather an overreaction to a series of small-sample events.
We’re afraid of making a bad deal
This is true at any point during the season, but it is especially true in April. Not much has changed in terms of Masahiro Tanaka’s true talent level, but if you are considering trading for him, the fear that he will not bounce back is frequently a “deal breaker"—both for the team that might acquire him (they might end up with a sunk cost), or the team trading him (if he not only bounces back, but also does even better than his career norms, you “sold low”).
We are looking at the wrong information
I find data on spin rates or batted balls interesting and fun. But often it isn’t actionable. More accurately, we do not know if it is actionable or not. The article that every analyst, fantasy or otherwise, should write in September is a look back at how often a change in April was a harbinger of something new for a player, vs. how often a change was a small-sample blip, or something that was a legitimate change in the moment but not a sustainable one.
We are all looking at the same information
Even if it does help me to know that Kendall Graveman is throwing with more velocity and that his spin rate has dramatically changed, everyone else has the same information. There was a time when I could glean inside information from a friend in a different part of the country and get the drop on someone else. That time has long passed.
But instead of looking at what we can’t do, we should be looking at what we can do.
Changes in the ninth inning are the most obvious examples of where you can adjust your team. But you should also be on the lookout for other changes in real-life circumstances that might alter your perception of your team and of the rest of your league. You don’t want to make a dozen trades in April for the sake of making trades. But you do want to be vigilant, and on the lookout for opportunities to improve your team early.