Avoid closers at your own risk

Two full MLB seasons have now been played since Derek Carty laid out his strategy for drafting closers. At the conclusion of that article he states that “taking closers early in a mixed league or shallow AL- or NL-only league is simply a mistake” and instead suggests drafting closers later and having some reliance on the waiver wire for saves.

In general I would call that sound advice since saves are a relatively unpredictable commodity and more easily found on the wire than the other fantasy categories. Before we take a step forward let’s first take a look at the saves in 2009 that could have been acquired cheaply. We will show this first in a graph of each reliever’s ADP against his save total, for every reliever chosen within the first 210 picks of drafts:

As you can see toward the right side of the graph, quite a few closers drafted near the 200th pick still contributed 20-plus saves. The two dots farthest up and right are Ryan Franklin and Fernando Rodney, who had fantastic seasons that far exceeded anyone’s expectations.

As a side note, this graph does a good job of showing how the elite closers do not necessarily get you more saves than closers drafted later, but almost guarantee you will get a fair amount out of them. In 2009 at least, of the 14 closers drafted in the first 150 picks, 13 earned at least 20 saves. The one outlier was the injured and ineffective B.J. Ryan.

Do not be fooled in thinking the only cheap saves came from the players represented in the graph above. Plenty of closers—or perhaps relievers-turned-closers—went undrafted in most leagues but still earned saves through some means. In 2009 those players were:

Some of these closers took over for their injured peers and others simply pitched their way into the role. The common theme, though, is that in the preseason it was incredibly difficult to picture any of these players having the success they did, and all of these players made their way on fantasy teams via waivers or free agency.

With so many saves available late in drafts and for free on the waiver wire, you would think it would be easy to get saves without drafting a closer early. The truth is, however, that it is fairly easy to get squeezed out of the saves market.

There are two basic ways in which you can acquire saves and they are through drafting and through the waiver wire. Yes, trading for closers is an option, but you should not head into a season expecting to acquire saves through trades.

Focusing on just drafting and adding, ideally you would acquire all of your closers through free agency since there is no cost in doing so. Few things are ideal though, and it is important to estimate in the preseason how many saves you can expect to get from free agents. The way you make that estimation is by knowing what type of league settings lead to more competition in adding free agents and whether that competition will benefit or hurt you. This was discussed in my article a few weeks ago on the impact of 3G phones on fantasy sports, which I suggest reading.

The more you can lean on free agents, the less you have to invest on closers in the draft and vice versa.

Although this idea sounds simple enough, many fantasy owners fail to appropriately estimate how many saves they can squeeze out of free agency over the course of the season. They follow seemingly sound advice like Derek’s, pick a few closers late in the draft and leave a dependency on the wire to give them an extra boost in saves. As the graph of ADP vs save totals shows though, the owner gambling on closers late is doing just that—gambling.

If the closers this owner took a chance on fail—which is fairly likely—then this owner better be aggressive in finding saves in free agency lest he be forced to either punt the category or trade away talent on his team for closers. Through simple planning, it is easy to avoid having to go down either of those two undesirable routes.

While Derek’s advice from two years ago follows a good thought process, it assumes that you can have at least some dependency on waivers for saves to supplant the ones you draft. If, however, you appropriately estimate that your league-mates will simply beat you to the wire most of the time, then I suggest following the advice Derek Ambrosino gave in the comments section of my article linked to above. He said:

If you know you are traditionally slow to the wire, you may have to bump the top-tier, reliable closers up your sheet on draft day.

This is not to say that elite closers are 100 percent reliable and risk-free, but as the ADP vs Saves graph above shows, elite closers are substantially more dependable than their less-touted counterparts.

In many ways being a good fantasy baseball player is being a good estimator and it is extremely important to be able to accurately estimate how much production you can get out of free agents. Those who are disillusioned to their situation and think they can wait to draft closers on draft day will ultimately pay the price come the end of the season.

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  1. John K said...

    Interesting article, thanks.  I feel like with everyone not paying for saves, it might be time to cut against the grain a little.  Strategies work best when they work alone, right?

    I think it’s good advice to never draft with a strategy that involves having to make a trade. I’ll keep that in mind this year b/c I was stuck with two quality 2B I couldn’t quite get value for all season.

  2. Derek Carty said...

    Nice job, Paul.  I feel as though my original article may have been a little broad and sweeping.  *Everything* we do as fantasy players is dependent on context.  Wait on saves if your league settings and your personal skillset is conducive to identifying potential closers and quickly plucking them off the waiver wire.  If it’s not, then maybe saves should be treated no differently than any other category and closers should be considered in the early rounds.

    In FSIC, you and I took 2 closers in the top 10 rounds (granted, one was a computer glitch).  In LABR, I spent $27 on two closers.  But in KFFL, we didn’t take a closer until round 16.  All three leagues were top-3 finishes.  It’s all dependent on context and making sense of all the moving pieces.

  3. Paul Singman said...

    Thanks for taking my half-handed criticism in stride, Derek. As I say in the article I think your advice was solid, but there are always situations where even the best advice becomes no longer applicable and this type of situation with closers is one of them.

    First line of The Book says “Everything about baseball (for that matter everything about anything) is about context.” Fantasy baseball is no exception.

  4. Dave said...

    This is a nice article. I just won a pretty deep dynasty league (16 teams, 40 man roster, points) by acquiring closers in every possible way – draft, trade, waiver wire. I was able to run the maximum number of closers out every day, with each single inning + save/win generating the highest possible points/inning ratio. In a league where the innings cap is a real issue, this was critical. I ended up with over 180 saves. The second place team had 133 but a much better team overall.

    This was possible because my compatriots generally were undervaluing closers, thanks, I suspect, to articles like Derek’s. So I kept acquiring them for relatively little until suddenly I had a nice full bunch and could even withstand injuries/inconsistencies.

    As always, the moral is to read everything, then figure out where your league’s value level is set, and take advantage. Right now I think SP is a little undervalued. I’d say more, but some of them read this site …

  5. Paul Singman said...

    Thanks for the positive responses John and Dave. Regarding both of your statements that people are perhaps undervaluing saves, let me clarify something:

    Personally, I do not believe saves are undervalued in leagues today. If you can plan on being successful in the waiver wire, then I would, every time, opt try to get saves by drafting a few closers late and then having waiver pickups make up for any shortcomings. I am still against picking any of the elite closers in the early rounds they get drafted in since those picks can be more profitably used on hitting or starting pitching.

    The point I am trying to make in this article is that you cannot become disillusioned into thinking you will be able to add a few of the emergency-pickup closers over the course of the season, when you are in fact going to be outmatched by your league-mates in the race to get free-agents.

    If that is the case, then maybe instead of drafting a couple of closers in the very risky 200 ADP-area, you will make an effort to draft a more secure closer in the 150-175 range, which is still not making a large investment in closers but is a slightly larger one.

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