One for you, two for me

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.

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  1. Brad Johnson said...

    The last time I played H2H which was in 2009, I used a similar strategy. I built lineups that would come close to sweeping R, RBI, HR, and AVG/OPS (depending on the league). I find SB to be a pretty unpredictable stat in H2H, kind of like Wins, so I’d aim to get a couple here and there and try to win 1/3 of the weeks. Then I’d load up on relievers in order to dominate SV, ERA, and WHIP. I’d try to find the Colby Lewis’ of the league to give myself a shot at the occasion W or K win (some weeks I would stream a little to chase those stats if an opponent fell flat early on or my relievers bombed out).

    I ended up placing 3rd but winning the playoffs. It’s a solid strategy for winning most weeks, but not effective at blowing out teams often enough to win the regular season.

  2. ichirosan said...

    I think you forgot an integral part of this strategy: since you’re shrinking the market by adding an extra closer (or if draft/WW permits, a second extra closer), teams will start to scramble to get saves. If you’re hurting at any other category and are well ahead in saves, you can easily deal one of your extra closers without losing almost any ground.

    Saves are the only cat that gives value to a player just by the spot he’s in, and while people always say you never pay for them, they usually tend to forget about that by June.

  3. Dylan B said...

    This is probably less useful in head-2-head leagues. Avg saves per week is like 1.5 but I would imagine the strandard devation is pretty close to the same number. To get the same effect you would probably have to go one more above.

    Also means that droping below the avg is less likely to affect you as well. You probably have a good chance at winning/tieing 25-30% of your matchs with just 1 closer vs the avg team with 2.

    I’ve actually used both methods in my h2h leagues, basically letting the draft dictate with one I go with; but I roto I try to stockpile at least if not 2 above the avg distro.

  4. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Re: H2H leagues, I agree with Brad, and with Dylan too.

    By adding one extra closer, you don’t guarantee yourself as much because you deal with the same problem you deal with regarding all other categories in H2H – sample size. Random variation within the distribution of your saves and your opponents’ can influence your weekly wins of SVs in a H2H league (for better or worse).

    But, the flip side of this is that H2H leagues open up punting as a realistic strategy. So, in an H2H league, you can double down on this strategy and load yourself up with closers and elite middle relievers and punt wins.

    So, yes, I’d say this strategy works in H2H too, but it’s a bit of a different play.

    If in H2H, you draft one or two high level SPs, and a couple of higher level closers, you can forego most of your middle rotation starters in favor of more closers and dirt cheap elite middle relievers. You’ll sweep SV, ERA and WHIP nearly every week (this strategy is even better if you have a K/IP or K/9 category). And, on the weeks your aces SPs get 2 starts, you will usually have a real good shot at Ks and sometimes at Ws. As Brad mentioned, when appropriate, you can chase Ws a bit by streaming if you need to. Keep an eye of innings caps and minimums when implementing this strategy, it will guide you.

  5. Dylan B said...

    Re: Derek

    Yes, in the H2H leagues you deffinetly open up the possibility of punting, which can really mess your standard distribution, as now 1-2 teams in a 14 team league will have none, so the other 12 teams on avg would have 2.5 closers vs 2. But then again in a 12 team league, it changes it from 2.5 to 3, where the startagey makes sense again.

    I don’t think this is really a strategy you can bank on doing in each league, but one you have to notice and react to during the draft. Taking notice of which teams seem to be avoiding closers and if any are trying to stockpile and make an on the fly decision.

  6. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Last night, I had a 12-team mixed league snake draft. In this league it seems my co-manager and I are constantly beat to the wire for newly annointed closers.

    We wound up drafting 4 current closers. Closers are always sucked up quickly in this draft, and we knew we’d be overpaying, but from experience we knew we just had to take the hit because we can’t count on adding closers during the season.

    But, when you do this, you have to sacrifice somewhere, and we made a sacrifice I’m not sure if I’ve ever tried before. We drafted our entire starting middle infield in rounds 20 and beyond. Didn’t plan it that way, but that’s often what happens when you think that most of the mid tier options are overrated. All things considered, I think we still did okay.

  7. Joe said...

    Is this article mainly about rotisserie or does it apply to H2H also?  In my 10-team H2H (5×5) league that I play in, I typically have a fairly strong offense and at least 4 to 5 closers.  My goal each week is to win in at least three of the hitting categories and SV, ERA, and WHIP.  I don’t use a lot of SP, but I typically have players who are somewhat elite as to lower my ERA/WHIP enough that even if one of my closers fails, it’s not the end of the world.

    Thoughts about this strategy?

  8. Derek Ambrosino said...


    You’re right. And, don’t worry about nit-picking. I can be as pedantic as the next guy.

    It’s funny, I was exactly thinking about the term in its technical economic sense. In an economic sense, indeed I should have used “absolute advantage.” And, I guess when talking about the rationale for picking the extra closer, I probably should have referred to that benefit as a “relative advantage.”

    This is actually an example of just picking up bad habits. In my day job, I’ve actually been dealing with an organization that uses the term comparative advantage a lot in their positioning, but not really in the economic sense because that’s not the gist of their argument – they’re basically just using comparative as an adjective and advantage as a noun, and not the two words together as a “term.” I guess it sort of desensitized me to the actual, technical definition of the term, though I didn’t really think of this article as being written from a strict economic perspective either.

  9. Joe said...

    I hate to nit-pick what I think is an otherwise well-reasoned article, but you misuse the term “comparative advantage” a bunch of times.  It is a technical term with a very specific meaning.  What you mean here is “absolute advantage.”

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