Not just elite closers

It’s been well-documented that you should avoid drafting elite closers in drafts. Well, when you do not get the elite ones, you are left with drafting the even riskier closers and the cream of the set-up men to fill the relief pitcher spots. There is nothing wrong with that… it is the strategy I advocate. But how reliable are the elite set-up men? Is it worth even a 17th-round selection to draft one? These are some of the questions I explore in this article.

This year

The set-up men drafted the highest in 2008 drafts are as follows, with the average draft position (ADP) after the dash:
{exp:list_maker}Carlos Marmol—181
Rafael Betancourt—203
Jonathan Broxton—211
Hideki Okajima—212
Heath Bell—216
Bob Howry—219
Pat Neshek—226
Scot Shields—229 {/exp:list_maker}
Now let’s take a look at the top eight set-up men at season’s end, sorted by ERA:
{exp:list_maker}Joey Devine—.59(!)
Brad Ziegler>—1.06
Grant Balfour—1.54
Jose Arredondo—1.62
Hong-Chih Kuo—1.69
Scott Downs—1.78
Craig Breslow—1.91
Joe Nelson—2.00 {/exp:list_maker}
Not one name on the first list made it onto the second list. Very interesting. So, of the middle relievers we thought would have the best seasons, none ended up in the top eight in ERA. I’m not saying that ERA is the only or even the best way to judge performance>—certainly other factors like strikeouts and possibly holds should be considered>—but for fantasy purposes, ERA is basically what you’re going for. Let’s see what how the ERAs of the players from the first list ended up:
{exp:list_maker}Marmol—2.68
Betancourt—5.07
Broxton—3.13
Okajima—2.61
Bell—3.58
Howry—5.25
Neshek—4.73
Shields—2.70 {/exp:list_maker}
Six of the eight had solid seasons, with Betancourt and Howry posting ERAs above 5.00. The rest of the ERAs fell between the mid-2s and mid-3s, which puts them a whole point of ERA behind the league leaders.

Although I have the feeling that this trend will continue if we look at the numbers from past years, let’s examine them anyway and confirm my inclination. Problem is, I do not know where ADP numbers are for past seasons. (If anyone does, let me know!). I’ll probably download and save this year’s data, so I’ll have a solid collection of past ADPs in the future, but that doesn’t help me now. We will have to use a different “stat” to determine who the best middle relievers were in past seasons.

I know if I use ERA, I will get yelled at by many readers, so that won’t work. I’ll instead use FIP, which attempts to factor only the things a pitcher can control, like strikeouts and walks, and ignores things pitchers cannot control, like defense and luck. Many people consider it a great predictor of future ERA—better than ERA itself—so FIP it is!

Past years

We’ve already compared 2007 to 2008, so let’s compare relievers from two more sets of years: 2005 to 2006, and 2006 to 2007, using FIP as the perceived value and ERA for the actual results.

Here are the top middle relievers of 2005 in terms of FIP, the top ERA relievers of 2006, and finally what the original pitchers did in 2006:

Player As            05 FIP  Player Bs           06 ERA Player As           06 ERA
Rudy Seanez           2.15   Dennys Reyes         0.89  Rudy Seanez        4.92
Aaron Heilman         2.35   Cla Meridith         1.05  Aaron Heilman      3.62
Juan Rincon           2.46   Joel Zumaya          1.94  Juan Rincon        2.91
Arthur Rhodes         2.54   Pedro Feliciano      2.09  Arthur Rhodes      5.32
Joaquin Benoit        2.54   Rafael Soriano       2.25  Joaquin Benoit     4.86
Rafael Betancourt     2.58   Rheal Cormier        2.44  Rafael Betancou    3.81
Mike Timlin           2.70   Dan Wheeler          2.52  Mike Timlin        4.36
Jose Valverde         2.73   Scott Cassidy        2.53  Jose Valverde      5.84
Kyle Farnsworth       2.75   Brandon League       2.53  Kyle Farnsworth    4.36
Scott Linebrink       2.76   Jonathan Broxton     2.59  Scott Linebrink    3.57

Much of the same for 2005 and 2006. None of the players on list A found their way onto list B, with many if the players on list A imploding in 2006 with ERAs from the mid-4s and up. Middle relievers with ERAs above 4 will find themselves on the free agent wire pretty quickly, unless the general sentiment is they have been getting unlucky. And I guarantee no one thought Mike Timlin‘s 4.36 ERA was the result of bad luck.

Now let’s look at the same type of table for the 2006 and 2007 seasons:

Player As           06 FIP      Player Bs      07 ERA Player As                07 ERA
Chad Bradford        2.53   Carlos Marmol       1.43  Chad Bradford          3.34
Justin Duchscherer   2.79   Rafael Betancourt   1.47  Justin Duchscherer     4.96
Juan Rincon          2.84   Rafael Perez        1.73  Juan Rincon            5.13
Dennys Reyes         2.87   Peter Moylan        1.80  Dennys Reyes           3.99
Cla Merideth         2.93   J.C. Romero         1.92  Cla Merideth           3.50
Jason Davis          2.97   Lee Gardner         1.94  Jason Davis            5.84
Kiko Calero          2.97   Heath Bell          2.02  Kiko Calero            5.75
Alan Embree          2.97   Manny Delcarmen     2.05  Alan Embree            3.97
Manny Delcarmen      3.02   Manny Corpas        2.08  Manny Delcarmen        2.05
Jonathan Broxton     3.13   Scott Downs         2.17  Jonathan Broxton       2.85

Finally! A player on the first list made his way onto the second. That player is Manny Delcarmen, who finished 2006 with a 5.06 ERA, and yet a 3.02 FIP. Why such a discrepancy? Delcarmen had an incredibly unlucky 2006 season, registering a .385 BABIP and 65 percent left-on-base percentage. In reality, Delcarmen had the skills of a 3.00 ERA pitcher, not a 5.00 ERA pitcher, evidenced mostly by his solid strikeout and walk ratios.

Now, a 3.00 ERA is very different from the 2.05 ERA he boasted in 2007. Just chalk that up to over-regression; one unlucky season followed a lucky one. Besides Delcarmen, it was much of the same, with a couple of last year’s best relievers posting solid ERAs while most of the others saw their ERAs skyrocket upwards.

I should point out that FIP is not the best statistic for determining perceived value, especially for fantasy baseball purposes. A big reason a person would draft a middle reliever is because the reliever is behind a shaky closer on a short leash, and that is not considered in the FIP formula. Regardless, we can conclude that best set-up men of one year often are not the best the next year. So this brings me back to my original question: Is it worth drafting elite set-up men?

My advice

The biggest reason to continue drafting them is that it costs, what, a 17th-round pick? And that’s for the most expensive ones. Most players you would draft otherwise in these rounds are either low-upside role players or high-risk, high-reward types who often don’t pan out. Plus, the low WHIP and ERA of a top middle reliever can be surprisingly valuable in roto leagues where these are often the categories with the least diversion. With an elite set-up man, you’ll get consistent production with the chance of getting a save or win here and there.

Or will you?

I’m pretty sure we just established that drafting set-up men can be somewhat of a crap shoot. So ignore my sarcasm in the last paragraph. Here is the plan I advise you to follow: If you are going to select a set-up man, weigh more heavily his chance of becoming the closer than his actual pitching abilities. This does not mean that pitching ability should not enter into the equation. If the incumbent closer does get dethroned, then the low-ability reliever probably won’t be selected as the next closer anyway. And even if he is, chances are he will not last long.

The most valuable set-up men are those like Joey Devine, Manny Corpas and Carlos Marmol, all of whom have both the skills to be a closer and a solid chance of becoming one as well. A guy like Hideki Okajima, who did own a 2.61 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 62 innings, is not as valuable pitching before one of the most entrenched closers, Jonathan Papelbon.

I’ve ended an article with it before and I’ll say it again: Drafting in the late rounds is all about upside. Nothing else, just upside.

If you feel like using your 17th or 18th or whatever round pick on a set-up guy with little upside above being a solid ERA, WHIP and strikeout guy, go ahead. But just be aware that players like Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa were drafted on average in the 17th round of drafts this year. Although picks like that do not usually prove rewarding, those rare times they do make up for all the failures in between. And if that means avoiding elite setup men along with the elite closers you originally are avoiding, know that surprise relievers like Grant Balfour appear every year and can be picked up for nothing. There is just as good a chance Troy Percival will get injured as any other closer.

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