I was prepared to pen one of my patented musings on the sociology of fantasy baseball this week—you know, one of my columns that reek of pretension and fail to offer any useful advice to our readership. Then, lo and behold, in the comments section of Paul Singman’s post running down his and Derek Carty’s teams in the Yahoo Friends and Family league, I made a point that I realized could actually be valuable for those of you getting in your last minute drafts and auctions.
Here’s the general axiom I’m going to preach:
In relation to the other teams in your league, one of the greatest comparative advantages you can give yourself with a single draft pick or auction purchase is the acquisition of a closer that puts you one closer above your league’s “fair share.”
For this article and for illustrative purposes, I’m going to make some overarching generalizations that assuredly are not always true. The first and probably most important one of these assumptions is that teams will draft or buy closers in a way that distributes them relatively evenly throughout the league. If you’re in a 10-team league, each team’s fair share of closers is 3, a 12-team league, 2.5, etc.
The other assumption that I’m going to make is that the closers I’m speaking of have some level of job security. They don’t have to be elite pitchers, but there’s reason for you to hold a strong expectation that they will acquire a typical closer’s bounty of save opportunities over the course of the season. This is certainly not the case with every closer, but it’s a useful assumption to simplify the discussion of the axiom.
Moving on, let me just briefly state the obvious. The value of a closer is tightly attached to the limited supply of saves. The capability of accruing a save is a rare human resource among the fantasy baseball player pool. At any given time, 30 guys are accruing well upwards of 90 percent of the saves being produced throughout the sport. Therefore, simply having one more player on your team with the ability to produce saves than most of your competitors is a huge advantage; it’s relatively easy to swing the balance of power in the category by merely stockpiling bodies.
Now, let’s get back to the idea of your league’s fair share of closers. Depending on the number of teams in your league, that number will obviously change. In some situations, the comparative advantage of owning more than your fair share of closers is actually more profound than others.
Paul and Derek are competing in a 14-team league. If all closers were distributed evenly, 12 teams would have two closers and two teams would have three closers. This means that if you already have two closers, and you see a third on the board, by adding a third closer, you’d immediately solidify a strong comparative advantage over almost your entire competition. That third closer gives you a 50 percent greater human resource capability of generating stats in a category than 92 percent of your competition (A three closers to two advantage over 12 of 13 competing teams). Again, were assuming an even distribution of closers here, which will likely be untrue, but even with a bit of variation, your comparative advantage stays strong.
Hypothetically, say you take closers in rounds nine and 11. If there’s another closer on the board in round 12, 13, 14, wouldn’t it seem that the comparative advantage of picking that third closer would be greater than the relative value gain you’d get from picking any other position in that round versus whoever is left to replace that player as the next best pick in the following round, especially if you are not in one of the bookend positions of a snake draft? In a roto league, that single pick would probably increase you categorical point projection by four-to-six points. Could any other pick at that point have a similarly profound influence on your team’s overall projected performance?
This dynamic varies with league size though. Now, let’s think about a 12-team league. The fair share for this league would dictate that 6 teams wind up with three closers and six teams wind up with two closers. By exercising the same strategy, you still give yourself a meaningful comparative advantage, but it’s not a profound as in the 14-team league, because now you have now you have the same 50 percent advantage in capacity, but it’s now only over 55 percent of the rest of the league six of 11 competing teams).
In a 10-team league, if you take a fourth closer you’d force on team to wind up with only two closers, giving yourself a 33 percent advantage over eight teams, and 50 percent advantage over the last team.
Another salient variable relating to the dynamics of this strategy is how close a team’s fair share of closers is to one. The raw expected share is what drives the degree of advantage you gain by being on the “over” side of the fair share number.
The fewer closers to go around per team, the greater the likelihood that your supply side advantage plays out in the standings. In a 14-team league, you could have three closers, none of whom are spectacular, and then fail to compile more saves than another team who has two closers who post expectedly or unexpectedly high saves totals. However, in AL- or NL-only league, or a 20-team mixed league, where the likely outcomes are winding up with one or two closers, the second closer is a 100 percent advantage over all teams with a single closer.
As a parallel, if you’re of the philosophy that in an AL-only league, reaching for Joe Mauer is strategically imperative, then reaching for Joakim Soria or Mariano Rivera and pairing that player with an entrenched but unspectacular Jose Valverde type should also be high on your list of strategic priorities.
Before wrapping up, let me make one further disclaimer and one recommendation. First, not all closers are equal. Some will have more saves than others. However, predicting saves totals is an inexact science, much like predicting wins for starting pitchers.
Every year, some random middle to low tier closer will place among the league leaders in save totals, perhaps without even pitching particularly well. One of my most vivid memories of this phenomenon was Danny Graves in 2004. So, I understand it is a bit of a reduction to just talk about how many closers each team has as the definitive barometer of their save potential, but at the same time it means that you don’t guarantee yourself more saves by selecting Joakim Soria as opposed to Chris Perez; the most reliable way to increase your team’s saves expectation is, wait for it, to add more closers to your roster!
Finally, I’d like to offer one recommendation that relates to the second of the assumptions I laid out at the top of this piece. A question that sounds simple, but isn’t so, is that of how we count our closers. Since not all closers can be expected to have job security and sometimes closer roles aren’t even fully defined heading into the season, we can’t—for the purposes of this strategy—simply count every player you draft with an opening day closing gig as a closer. In contrast, we can’t count every player without a closing job as having no saves potential. So, here are two ways you can think about counting your closers.
The first way is to think about each team having one closer job over the course of the season and think about your relievers in terms of the percentage of expected save situations your player will be given the opportunity to convert. If your player is the clear-cut best option, but is starting the season on the DL, maybe you consider him .8 of a closer. If you think you have a live underdog—a set-up man likely to inherit a job due to either trade or teammate implosion, then you could try to express those expectations as a portion of a singular whole.
A second way of thinking about this count is to consider that on any given day, there are basically 30 closers in baseball and that over the course of the season you want to average having a specific number of them per day. So, if you want to have three closers to get your comparative advantage, you may draft two healthy closers, one closer who begins the season on the DL and ends up closing for half a season, and one player who inherits a job midway and also compiles a half season’s worth of save chances. You might wind up owning two closers for half of the season and four closers for the other half, but that would mean that you are averaging three closers on your roster.