Don’t pay for saves. That’s a refrain we’ve heard over and over. Once a preferred strategy of savvy owners, this mantra has penetrated the mainstream and even many novice participants in fantasy leagues now employ this directive. But, I’m beginning to think that some folks are starting to take this statement a bit too literally… or not literally enough, depending on how you look at it.
In a typical 5X5 league, saves are worth 10 Percent of the overall points available to each team, so the category certainly can’t be ignored. It’s also among the categories easiest to ensure high team performance if an owner prioritizes it. Instead of embracing the extreme philosophy of not paying for saves, perhaps it is better to look at some principles that will help you spend wisely.
Don’t pay for saves—pay for skills
When I think about not paying for saves, I think about the “don’t” in two ways. First, don’t consider saves as the inherent value of the player. Instead, pay for is the cross-category production a player will give you while occupying a closer role. The substantial value of elite closers is not rooted in their save total, but in their extremely valuable production on a per-inning basis.
Elite closers do wonders for a team’s ERA and WHIP while racking up Ks with outstanding efficiency. That is what is worth paying for. Because of the role the player occupies, he will accumulate needed saves in the process. In this respect, the idea of not paying for saves is less an absolute and guidance akin to “don’t chase wins” for starting pitchers.
The inverse way to interpret the idea of not paying for saves is equally valid. Don’t ascribe disproportionate value to a player simply because he can earn saves. I’ve written in the past about how it is a bad sign for a fantasy team if it must rely on too many “specialists”—players who contribute significantly in one category, but are a liability in several others. So, perhaps it is more accurate to say, don’t pay for only saves.
Don’t be fooled by past randomness
Several years ago, Derek Carty did some work to try to determine whether it was possible to predict which players would get the most save opportunities and the most saves. His conclusion backs what many savvy fantasy players have felt intuitively: Saves are not particularly predictable. Therefore, something else NOT to pay for is the perception that any specific player will have a significant advantage over his peers because his team will generate a uniquely high number of save opportunities. This is another nuance of the don’t pay for saves mantra: Base your investments on what is predictable.
What we do know is that saves are generated by pitchers with opportunity to fill the closer role and the skills to convert the opportunities received. This leads us to want to pay for pitchers with a firm hold on a job (either by skills advantage over the team’s other options, or by virtue of a large contract) and the underlying skills to be a highly effective pitcher. Don’t overthink this.
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Using what we know from the two points above, the best way to derive value from our closer spend is to use the tier system and let the value fall into your lap.
When it comes to closers there’s usually a small group of elite options, a handful of corrosive situations and liabilities, and then a large chunk of B and C students that fall in the middle. Often, these players are very similar and it pays to look at them interchangeably for purposes of team building.
Acquire the cheapest players within the tiers of your target and basically just hope that random variation goes your way. If you get health and stability, you should compete in the category without much collateral damage. And, if you get some good luck on the opportunity and performance variation sides, you’ll be set up for a great run.
Of course, all the other general rules on player selection apply as well. If you have what you feel is a valid reason to bump up or demote a specific player, do so. But, generally speaking, while it’s always good to have an opinion, closers represent an area where it can be good to let the market drive your decision more than it should when filling other positions.