Has not paying for saves gone too far?

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.

Pay the cover, but skip the VIP access

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.

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  1. Brad Johnson said...

    I’ve been pondering the same question this draft season. Over the last two years in auction leagues, I’ve been seeing the good-not-great class of closer going for $4-8, which is certainly a discount. I keep planning to spend $10 on the category and end up drafting 5-6 closers due to the sheer value.

  2. John said...

    I play in both a h2h league as well as a daily roto league. 

    My thoughts are that for the roto league, I’m willing to wait longer or take chances on the fact that a closer will not be there for my next turn, knowing that I could use the WW to get more saves. 

    My h2h league is entirely different.  In this league every state gets magnified due to the weekly scoring aspect.  I have no problem paying more for saves in this league because it helps me take a category or two every single week.  As mentioned above, without holds in this format, MRs are essentially worthless so if you can start 5-6 SPs and 3-4 CLs, you’re set.

  3. johnnycuff said...

    I would have to disagree with you, John.  Because in H2H the stats aren’t cumulative, it’s much easier to skip saves in the draft and acquire them as the season goes on.  If you are confident you’ll make the playoffs regardless, then those early season saves don’t matter as long as you’re bringing them in the playoffs.

    In roto, it’s the opposite.  Skipping saves in the draft puts you behind from day 1 and almost guarantees you won’t win the category.

  4. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I don’t think there is any one formula that is set in stone.  I won my fantasy league championship one year after taking 2 closers fairly early in my draft.  I won my league last year while essentially punting Saves as a category.

  5. AJ said...

    A lot more leagues nowadays are incorporating holds into their scoring, including my two favorite keeper leagues. I like this aspect much better, as it gives value to some very good baseball players who are normally ignored in the fantasy world. It also allows owners to predict which guys might climb the reliever ranks. Drafting guys like Kenley Jansen and David Robertson becomes an instantly gratifying as a handcuff for closer.

  6. Jeffrey Gross said...


    You forgot to mention the part where you then try to hold those closers hostage because it’s prudent of you to continuously own 4-5 so you can win the category by 70 saves

  7. Chad said...

    Agree that it means less in H2H as you can much more easily punt categories as a valid strategy.  At the time when you’d be drafting closers you could be upgrading the bottom half of your SP rotation and pick up some cheap MR at the end to boost your K’s, ERA, and WHIP when your SP aren’t in the game. 

    In roto I’d definitely agree that it is difficult to punt the position and catch up without a little luck involved.  Two years ago I got caught at the end of a few runs and ended up with 3 guys that lost their jobs early and was never able to catch up, just missing every FA promoted to closer.  Then last year I caught lightening in a bottle after getting stuck with just Nathan and a shaky Valverde following the draft but beat others to the punch on Frieri, Holland, Balfour, Clippard, Perkins, Lopez and dug out of a deep hole and won the category running away with some pretty amazing ratio boosts from some of those guys as a bonus.

  8. Evan said...

    I play in a H2H keeper league where I have decided to completely punt saves.  We have several additional counting batting stats (2B, 3B in addition to your standard R, RBI, HR, S) and a low required minimum innings pitched.  I’ve realized that I can consistently split the pitching categories with a couple of starters and then generate additional at bats each week by rostering batters instead of relief pitchers.  The additional at bats give me a leg up in winning the majority of the batting categories and therefore winning the week as a whole.

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