Blown Saves and Bad Outings: The “Death and Taxes” of Fantasy Baseball Pitching

Written by: Joseph Mangano

Those of us who watch sports are well-versed in the inevitability of injuries every year.  Football, in particular, is rife with minor to major ailments on a week to week basis with grown men running at full speed crashing into one another, such that teams must disclose injuries on a weekly basis in terms of a player’s likelihood for appearing in the next game.  As concerns fantasy baseball, if you’ve played at all over the years, you’re well acquainted with the disabled list and having to track the severity of a player’s injury as well his timetable for return.  This year in particular, if you happen to own one or more members of the Colorado Rockies or Texas Rangers, my condolences, for odds are you’ve run afoul of the disabled list often.

As inescapable as injuries are for our favorite baseball players, though, as concerns pitchers in particular, there is another kind of development which arises and forces us to assess and re-assess the value of our fantasy assets.  Much like with injuries, too, its onset is sudden, and by the end of it, it may prove devastating, at least from an emotional perspective.  I speak of bad results for pitchers, and not simply the kind in which a starter goes seven innings, gives up one run and gets hit with the loss, or a closer appears in a non-save situation, surrenders a long ball, and gets tagged with a loss of his own.  I’m talking about the instances in which a pitcher gets out-and-out blown up.  Something along the lines of a recent effort by increasingly embattled A’s reliever Jim Johnson, in which he recorded only one out (a sacrifice, no less), and ceded four hits for four earned runs—all in a mere 12 pitches thrown—the debacle of an appearance by Johnson brought his ERA up to a cringe-inducing 5.94 and his WHIP to an astonishingly bad 1.98.  You know, that kind of bad.

Even with pitchers of a superior skill level, these facepalm moments do happen. Let’s take Clayton Kershaw for example, and yes, the reigning NL Cy Young winner is capable of clunkers, I assure you.  One un-enchanted evening earlier this year in mid-May, Kershaw made a road start against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and got straight lit up by his team’s NL West opponent.  In less than 2 IP, Clayton gave up 6 H and 2 BB (for him, that’s a lot of walks), to the tune of 7 ER.  The summary of the second-inning plate appearances, for Clayton Kershaw’s sake, reads like a nightmare: Cody Ross walk, single, strikeout, triple, single, sacrifice by pitcher, triple, triple, double (runner goes to third on a balk), Cody Ross walk.  Three triples?  A balk?  Walking Cody Ross twice, a man who, as of the start of play July 4 through 144 official at-bats was hitting .229 with one home run and nine runs batted in?  Yes, yes and yes—this all actually happened in the span of one half of an inning, and technically less than that since Kershaw was pulled from the game before the third out was recorded to mercifully end the bottom of the 2nd.

As owners, how are we supposed to reckon with outings like these?  If you are as emotional a player as I am, you probably deal with it in a way similar to the stages of grief.  There is likely denial, which involves going into the box score to see that these runs did, in fact, score and it is not simply a glitch in the Web-based fantasy interface we are seeing.  There is anger, notably in instances in which a fielder misplays a ball or a manager leaves a pitcher in too long and the pitcher is the one to proverbially take it on the chin.  You might bargain with the fantasy gods to try to get your pitcher’s team to score a slew of runs and get him off the hook for the loss, and encounter depression when it doesn’t work out that way and you are faced with the stark reality of points and/or decisions lost with ERA/WHIP driven skyward.

As even those of us who are only nominally familiar with the Kübler-Ross model know, the final stage in this five-part scheme is acceptance, and this is the crux of the matter for your approach to your starting pitchers and relievers alike.  With respect to the two appearances outlined above, owner responses were fairly easy given where these players ranked at the time of their forgettable appearances.  Re Jim Johnson, it was probably mostly apathy, as the former Baltimore closer had long since been removed from the same role with Oakland, and had been commensurately dropped by most of the fantasy baseball universe.  For Clayton Kershaw owners, while the poor showing was indeed confounding, as he was not far removed from the DL at the time and has been one of the best if not the best pitchers in all of baseball, he was not about to be waived, assuming that could even happen; in many standard leagues, Kershaw is on the short list of “undroppable” players.

For our non-elite pitchers and more marginal players, however, a legitimate decision must be made with respect to how to proceed moving forward.  Do we do as we did with Clayton Kershaw and chalk it up to “one of those starts,” forgiving and forgetting?  Or do we do as many did with Jim Johnson and drop him like he’s hot?  It’s really a tough call, as evidenced by the real-world struggles managers often face when confronted with, say, questions about a reliever’s continued likelihood to remain as closer.  One, two and maybe even three blown saves in the first half of this season might not send up too many red flags, especially when there are mitigating circumstances (e.g. unearned runs) or on teams where there aren’t too many better options.

In instances where blown saves start to equal four and numbers upwards of that, though, a closer’s “job security,” so to speak, might no longer be so secure after all.  Just recently, Sergio Romo was removed from the role of San Francisco Giants closer indefinitely by manager Bruce Bochy.  Earlier on in the season, I thought Romo would be a shoo-in as an All-Star reliever, as even early last month, though he indeed had two blown saves, as of the end of play June 8, he had also managed 20 saves, an impressive mark, to be sure.  Unfortunately for the Giants right-hander, the trouble would start soon thereafter.  In back-to-back appearances against the Colorado Rockies, Sergio blew the save and was hit with a loss, giving up 6 H and 7 ER in just 1.1 IP. In his defense, the Rockies are as stout as they come offensively, so there is definitely a high degree of difficulty to consider in any postgame assessments made.  Still, we would expect better of Sergio Romo, and after a fifth blown save on the campaign, this time against Cincinnati—his third in five tries, no less—the decision was made to go to the most dreadfully nebulous of closer situations: the closer-by-committee approach.

Even with all the blown saves, I was still a little surprised by the move to effectively demote Romo, and while I do not own him in any leagues this year, I don’t know that I would have forsaken him either prior to that.  You, on the other hand, might not have such a high tolerance for failure, and may have pulled the plug on him long before Bochy did.  In faith, when and when not to give up on a scuffling player is an inexact science, and it therefore depends to a large degree on human subjectivity.  And yes, there are times when it’s more of an art, when strokes of genius and gut calls fly in the face of predictions and computer models.  All the same, I think it’s important to consider a more statistics-oriented approach to roster modification, even if you don’t always use it and even if you don’t feel a strong desire to delve into more obscure metrics.

For one, you can simply compare a pitcher’s averages to those of his contemporaries.  Should you play in a points league, you can use the average fantasy points per game scored by the pitcher as a threshold for retention vs. deletion.  In one 10-team standard points league of which I’m a part that uses ESPN’s fantasy baseball interface, I use 10.0 points per game as a rough litmus test for gauging SPs (usually puts them no worse than 80th to 90th in rank) and 5.0 PPG for pure relievers (closers, usually, if available), taking into account lower innings pitched totals that might distort this average somewhat. For category-based formats like rotisserie, certainly, ERA and WHIP will be predominant concerns, as are wins and saves.  For these major averages, you’d best be served by checking a site devoted to baseball stats and seeing where your pitchers rank in relation to the rest of the league; again, my rule of thumb is arbitrary and not ironclad, but for starters, in particular, I begin taking a more critical eye when a given pitcher’s ERA approaches/exceeds 4.00 or his WHIP nears/goes over 1.33.  Let me stress that going over these bounds might make them only a candidate to be released, and that the next start or starts could tip the scale for or against.

This leads to discussion of a complimentary research-based strategy: assessing a pitcher’s value by his most recent appearances.  While averages are frequently useful tools in evaluating players, this usefulness is limited by the idea that averages give equal weight to a player’s oldest efforts and his newest, such that a player might have had a phenomenal start to his year, but is currently scuffling, and you’d have no idea about this from looking at the averages themselves.  Granted, you can easily draw conclusions of a positive or negative nature from trends just by looking at the numbers and ignoring the context of favorable/unfavorable match-ups or tough losses. Still, in parsing out a pitcher’s good starts/appearances from the more mediocre and horrendous outings, this kind of analysis lends itself to scrutiny of other statistics which can serve as warning signs to fantasy owners.  For SPs, it could be the lengths of starts and bases on balls, for walks tend to lead to longer innings and more pitches thrown, hence less innings pitched.  For RPs, notably closers, it’s blown saves, and usually, you won’t be the only one with concerns about keeping them in their present role, as their real managers are probably thinking the same thing.

This brings us back to the stages of grief and the concept of acceptance.  Often, it can be quite difficult to come to terms with a player’s shortcomings.  One idea which helps is that good players routinely bounce back from their lowest of lows. In the case of Clayton Kershaw, he followed up his worst start of 2014 with a six-inning, nine-strikeout scoreless win over the Phillies, and overall, he has won eight of nine starts since the D-backs beat him like a rented mule (poor metaphorical mule!).  Moreover, as of the start of play on July 4, Kershaw owns an ERA of 2.04 and a WHIP of 0.92.   See?  That was just one subpar start!  In addition, these failures happen to all pitchers.  As of the same point in the season, 38 different relievers have blown three or more saves. 38!  And these aren’t just run-of-the-mill relievers either.  Joe Nathan and Sergio Romo (no longer closer) both have five blown saves on the year. Jason Grilli (no longer a closer or a Pirate), Addison Reed and even the great Craig Kimbrel have four.  I’m no expert, but even I can tell that pitching against finely tuned athletes is hard, and the pervasiveness of multiple blown saves just goes to show it.

With this in mind, try to keep things in perspective when one of your pitchers has a bad day, or even consecutive bad days.  We all have them, and so do these professionals, many of whom we know only as names on a fantasy box score and whom we will never meet.  Besides, the MLB season is a long one.  A looooooooong one. 162 games, to be precise, and within, there are umpteen chances for a pitcher or other player to redeem himself after a down period.  Both for him and for you, the fantasy owner, the key is bouncing back, and usually, I’ve found going about these matters in a measured way can help you make better decisions, i.e. not make poor, rash decisions whereby you drop or trade valuable assets. Especially with regard to head-to-head leagues, indeed, the emphasis is on the here and now, but you also don’t want to make too many sacrifices that will cripple your team for the stretch run later in the year. Patience, young Padawan. Patience.