You Should Pay for Some Saves

Every year fantasy websites are crawling with articles urging owners to be smart in the draft room and don’t pay for saves.  The rationales are generally along the following lines:

  1. Save opportunities are random
  2. Closers are volatile
  3. If you want an elite closer you will have to overpay
  4. You can always find saves during the season

Let me dive into these reasons and try to convince you that paying a bit for saves is a much safer strategy for 2014.

You can always find saves during the season
Certainly there is a grain of truth to this sentiment; in fact, there may be a whole lot of truth to this.  However, this strategy requires diligence on the part of the owner, and as we all know, there are often owners who are not committed to the daily routine of a baseball league.  According to MLB statistics, there were 1266 saves recorded in the majors in 2013.  These saves were compiled by 130 pitchers, many of who simply recorded one save, and many of those single save pitchers likely got saves due to a day when the closer was unavailable, a 3-inning save or unforeseen extra inning games where all logic is often thrown out the window.  Hey, even utility infielder John McDonald got a chance to pitch during an 18-inning affair in 2013, and he struck out a batter, but don’t add him as a RP just yet.

Yet, if you simply look at the top 15 saves leaders, you will see that there were several pitchers who were not closers on Opening Day.  Diving down a little deeper in the ranks you find unlikely closers Koji Uehara, Danny Farquhar and Jim Henderson.  Owners who were quick to the waiver wire would have been able to pick up 65 saves with these 3 in-season closers.

If you want an elite closer you will have to overpay
There is also truth in this, but that truth is routed in what you consider overpaying.  Let’s take Craig Kimbrel as the example.  Kimbrel is certainly an elite closer, perhaps the elite closer in fantasy baseball.  In 2013 Kimbrel’s ADP was 39 (the guys at Fantasy Pros do a great job of tracking the ADP) and he returned a value of 14th overall in the end of season rankings on ESPN.com.  Even without his 50 saves, Kimbrel is still worth an early pick (maybe not a 4th round pick) for his high strikeout numbers (98 in 67 innings), low ERA (1.21) and WHIP (0.88).

However, you could have gotten almost identical production from Greg Holland, who was selected at pick 145, about 100 picks (or 8-10 rounds) after Kimbrel.  A hitter in the 4th round (Jay Bruce, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Holliday) may have brought you more value than Kimbrel if you had the foresight to target Holland later in the draft.

Closers are volatile
This has been highlighted earlier in the fact that there are so many situations where a team’s saves leader was not the closer on opening day.  Sometimes it is an injury that causes the manager to make this change and sometimes it is ineffectiveness.  You should target a pitcher with a solid skill set as they are more likely to remain a closer, baring an injury, and possibly get the job back when they return from the injury.

Take Cardinals closer Jason Motte.  He began the season on the DL due to elbow pain.  The Cardinals were hoping he would be able to return at some point early in the season, and so did fantasy owners, selecting him on average with the 97th pick.  Motte was shutdown for the season and underwent Tommy John surgery in early May.  In his absence, the Cardinals had originally turned to Mitchell Boggs before switching to Edward Mujica.  Mujica ended 2013 with 37 saves, turning out to be one of the best waiver wire pickups for RP.

But it doesn’t have to be an injury that causes fantasy owners despair.  Jonathan Papelbon was the 2nd closer on average selected in 2013.  He ended the season the 27th rated RP on ESPN.com’s Player Rater.  He compiled 29 saves, but his peripherals suffered.  His K/9 decreased by nearly 3.5 from 2012, while his ERA was a half of a run higher and his WHIP went from 1.06 in 2012 to 1.14 in 2013.  Papelbon is an example of a closer losing his skill set.  His 57 strikeouts are the lowest total of his career (since being made a closer) and certainly not what owners were looking for.  The poor season basically came out of nowhere, as Papelbon still appeared to have good stuff in his first season in Philadelphia in 2012.  John Axford is another closer who was replaced due to his ineffectiveness in 2013.

Save opportunities are random
My question is, are save opportunities any more random than wins?  I mean we know that wins will happen in every game.  And while a save does not have to happen, it is the case about 49% of the time that a game ends with a save.  Since wins are also a 50-50 proposition (your starter can either win or he cannot win), it would seem that saves are as random as wins.  Now, many fantasy pundits also preach the gospel of not chasing wins.  Yet, the savvy owner is more likely to draft a skilled #4 starter on a good team than a less skilled #2 starter on a worse team, in a sense chasing wins but doing it with logic.
I propose a similar logic be placed on saves.  Looking back over the past 5 seasons, the median number of save opportunities across the majors was 59.8.  With that number in mind, there were on average 15 teams that saw 60 save opportunities in each season, with a high of 17 teams (2013) and a low of 11 (2010).

Taking a look at the teams that populate these lists, no team appears on the list each of the past 5 seasons.  The San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees appear on the list for 4 seasons.  If recent history is an indicator, the Baltimore Orioles are a closer situation to monitor.  The Orioles have finished in the top 2 for save opportunities the past 2 seasons, with 84 in 2013 and 73 in 2012.  Jim Johnson has saved at least 50 games in each of those seasons.  With Johnson just traded to Oakland, the closer situation in Baltimore just became much more interesting for fantasy owners this offseason.  The Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals and Washington Nationals are teams to watch for saves in 2014.  The Nationals have been in the top 5 for save opportunities the past 3 seasons, while the Braves and Royals have both been consistently on the lists.  The Royals were 6th in 2012 with 64 opportunities before jumping to second in 2013 with 73 opportunities.  Both have closers ready to go for 2014 in Kimbrel and Holland, however both will likely be costly on draft day.  The Nationals have Rafael Soriano ready to close games in 2014, but setup arms Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen are interesting RP to target for owners looking to scoop up saves during the year.

In Closing
As with every other category, how you decide to manage saves on your roster is completely up to you and will be based on your league settings as well as your personal preferences.  I recommend paying a bit more for RP who will not only deliver saves, but will help you score in other ways as well, such as grabbing one of the 4 elite strikeout closers (Chapman, Jansen, Kimbrel and Holland) who will also get you plenty of save opportunities.  With a late pick or 2 also consider grabbing a setup man with a good skill set who is currently blocked by a closer with a declining skill set (Papelbon, Romo and Rodney are 3 closers who always seem to be on the edge).  And during the season be sure to pay attention to closer situations across the league (and Fantasy Assembly will help you do that).  If you see a setup man who constantly has 1-2-3 innings while the closer struggles with command, consider an early waiver wire grab.  Saves can be found during the season, but the savvy owner also knows where to look in the draft room.