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Don’t Get a Headache Projecting Saves, Closers

Here at Fantasy Assembly, we’ve been in dynasty mode for two months, looking at rankings and analysis that focuses on the next five years. Keeper leagues will eat this up, and there’s a lot of important information to dissect for hitters and starting pitchers. However, when it comes to relievers, the best advice I can give you is to not bother.

The Arguments Against

Most hitters worth keeping are going to play full-time. Solid SP keepers are usually good until they hit a major injury; sometimes they fall apart but then find themselves in a bullpen. But when it comes to RP keepers, what do you have to go on? Saves are the biggest value. Yes, other factors matter, such as elite ratios to help your team, and I argue that point when looking at a third-tier closer and an elite setup guy. But for keeper purposes in 5×5 leagues, you’re looking for saves and that’s it. You want someone to give you a leg up on a category. Otherwise, why bother with a pitcher as a keeper?

And how can we predict saves? We can’t, really. Elite closers sometimes net fewer than 35 saves, whereas second-tier names may have worse ERA and WHIP but manage 40+ saves. In any given season, you don’t know how many chances a team will give your reliever. Plus, there’s the issue of the revolving door in some bullpens, where closers who aren’t top-tier guys end up with short hooks from their managers. I’ve never liked picking up the #30 closer simply because he should start the season with some save chances. Usually guys on awful teams with no solid hold on the closer role are going to be yanked before the end of May, or even April. When it comes to the Giants, they just swapped every few years. First it was Casilla, then it was Romo, then it was back to Casilla.

Then are also midseason trades to lay waste to the best-laid plans. That second-tier closer looks like a solid option for you — until he’s traded to a playoff contender who has the #1 closer in the game. Now your decent saves source is just a setup guy because a real-life team wants bullpen depth. And if you aren’t on the waiver wire twenty-four seven, you’ll miss out on the setup guy who has just been promoted to closer, filling the gap from the trade.

Another reason you should worrying about closers is due to their potentially short shelf life. Go back just three or four years, and what kind of names do you find at the top of the SP rankings? Kershaw, Bumgarner, Darvish, Sale, Strasburg, Felix, Price, Scherzer. I could go on quite easily, and even though a few names change (Cliff Lee is gone, Syndergaard is new), the core starters, like hitters, are pretty steady from year to year.

What about relievers? I’ll grant you that the top-3 names have been steady: Chapman, Jansen, Kimbrel. But even Kimbrel has started to worry some fantasy managers. Some of the second-tier names are still out there, but they’re no better off now than they were back then: barring trade or injury, they have a decent chance of retaining their roles. The important factor to highlight is the failure rate from year to year. Who remembers spending double-digit cash on Jim Johnson, Jim Henderson, Ernesto Frieri, Daniel Farquhar, Rex Brothers, Edward Mujica, Casey Janssen, and Bobby Parnell? How many even played in 2016? Johnson had 64 IP and is the only one who had saves. Then there’s 35 IP for Farquhar and Henderson, 6 IP for Parnell, and zero innings for Brothers, Janssen, Mujica, and Frieri. These guys were considered at least top-15 RP just three years ago, and now you’d only consider rostering one of them, simply because he still finds some saves. The turnover at any other position is nowhere near this high.




What about Middle Relief?

That leaves us chasing skills and hoping for good results. Picking up setup guys as endgame picks is a fine strategy, and I do it myself. But the fact remains that in today’s game, we have an overabundance of dominant relievers with high strikeout rates. In the past, guys like Tyler Clippard, who netted a lot of innings for a reliever and produced good ratios, were rarer and therefore valuable. But in 2016 there were 40 relievers with a K/9 of 10.0 or better, and 20 of them had fewer than 5 saves. Of those 40 RP, 20 had an ERA under 3.00 to really help out your ratios, and if you raise the bar to a 3.60 ERA (which would’ve put you 3rd out of 15 teams in my 5×5 league), then it jumps to 32 relievers, or 80%.

In a pitching-rich fantasy environment, the middle man isn’t as helpful as he used to be. In 2008 the average pitcher ERA was 4.30, and the average K/9 was lower (6.8). Utilizing two fireballers for ERA and WHIP boosts (as well as a nice amount of K) made sense back then. Now, however, the league average K/9 is 8.0, and even if the MLB-wide ERA didn’t come down a ton (4.19 in 2016, though it was 3.96 in 2015), the pool of fantasy pitching talent has increased so that it’s easier to put together strong ERA rotations.

Is There a New Approach?

What does this all boil down to? Well, keeper leagues really shouldn’t target any RP out of the top-5 (or even top-3) closers — and that’s only if the number of keepers (or teams) is quite deep. There’s simply no point in taking on any kind of risk when it comes to relievers. Unless your guy is a near certainty to close on any team in the majors, then he’s not worth investing in for saves. Even 2016 made it hard for us, with the Yankees bullpen of Chapman, Miller, and Betances. Those three could close for 25 other teams, but all together they were squandering their save opportunities until the Yanks made trades.

When you get to the draft, it’s still a fine idea to pick up a non-closer for help. However, because there are simply so many usable arms out there, I don’t feel there’s a point in picking up someone buried behind “sure thing” closers. Yes, the Yanks did trade away two of their arms in 2016, providing a chance for Betances to close (but Miller didn’t get to). But when the Giants hand Melancon the (current) biggest reliever contract, what’s the point in picking up Will Smith or Hunter Strickland just because their K/BB is pretty good? When every team has guys like them, then you’re better off targeting teams that give a non-closer an outside chance of vulturing some saves. Target teams with no clear designated closer, or with an injury-risk closer.

But most important, don’t lose a lot of sleep over it. Saves come and go all season long. One year I picked up three setup guys, certain that one of them would become a closer. They got me a total of 8 saves despite pitching well all year. The chances may not come for setup men, and it’s impossible to predict most relievers’ roles beyond a year. Roll with the punches and keep your focus where it can do the most good. If someone wants to overpay for Chapman after he lands his record-breaking deal, trade him away and know that you’ll find saves elsewhere, like teams do every single season.

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.

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