Paying for saves?

You’ve probably heard the poker maxim: “If you don’t know who the fool at the table is, then you are the fool.” Many of the most popular and advised fantasy strategies require “greater fools” in your league. Some of them may even need almost an entire league of fools. In this column, I will argue (without proof) that the “don’t pay for saves” (henceforth, DPFS) strategy is either for a league full of fools or for a fool.

DPFS comes in two flavors:

Weak form DPFS, which states that some of the most popular and successful closers, the Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbons, go for a little too much in auctions or a little too early in draft leagues and you’d be better off passing on the very best closers.

Strong form DPFS, which states that almost all brand name closers are overvalued and that you’d be better off drafting Tyler Walkers and Joey Devines in the last rounds.

Weak form DPFS implies a few overeager players. Strong form DPFS requires a league full of fools.

A strong form strategy means your saves will come from closers with little or no track records. These closers generally do not have secure roles; a slow start or an off-month could mean they are out of the job. To successfully operate the strong version, you’ll need to be able to pick up at least a few closers in the last rounds of your draft (or for a buck or two in an auction) and then be able to pick up in free agency their likely replacements when a couple of them inevitably falter. The problem is that even teams that are not playing DPFS strategies are likely to use a reserve roster spot or two for likely future closers.

Typical leagues have eight or nine pitchers that start and at least several reserve roster spots per team. Strategies vary, but the typical or average team should roster at least three closers or potential future closers. In a 12 team league, that means at least 36 relievers will be on a roster. So not only is every MLB team’s “designated closer” (if the team has one) rostered in the fantasy league, but some of the most prominent backups—the Manny Corpas and Fernando Rodneys (from the perspective of last Spring)—are already rostered too. Which means that if you need to go free agency/waivers to replace a “fallen” closer, you’re likely to be picking up a pitcher who’s not even immediately in-line for a save opportunity.

So the likely scenario is: draft some shaky closers and some potential back-up closers. At least one of your starting closers loses his job somehow and you have to drop him from your roster. In a weekly league, you may be stuck with him in your starting lineup for a few days. Suppose you have this closer’s back-up, so at least your back-up’s opportunity coincides with your fallen closer’s rejection (if not, then you may not have an imminent closer to put on your starting roster). Perhaps your back-up is Brad Ziegler, or perhaps instead he is Aaron Heilman (start looking for his replacement, do not pass go, do not collect $200).

I don’t have the stats to prove it, but my guess is that many, if not most, back-up closers fail or at least make poor fantasy candidates. Sometimes, the truly promising ones never or barely get a regular shot at closing during the season (see Marmol, Carlos). In any decent league, if you have to go to the waiver wire for many of your saves, you’re just as likely to waste roster spots on busts as on breakouts, while reserving promising arms that never get a predictable shot at closing. Take the Tampa Bay Rays last year. Even if you had Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler, and Grant Balfour on your team last year, if you were in a weekly league, you would have lost lots of time starting, say, Percival in weeks where he did not end up closing.

Closers come and closers go. My guess is that no fantasy position generates as much talk and gossip as closers. There are fantasy columns here at Fantasy Focus and everywhere else that are devoted to closer assessment and speculation. Most of the fantasy front-end websites that run your league for you also write constantly about closers. If you’re in a league of fools (or inattentive players) where you consistently have first dibs on promising closers, you’ll be fine if you play DPFS. Otherwise, I would say that there’s no free lunch and no free saves.

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Comments

  1. Jonathan said...

    The ideal data set for proving my theory requires data on Expectations.  I need more than just which relievers earned saves, I need when players in a league first roster the reliever in expectation that he’ll eventually get saves. 

    So I need data from a fantasy league, not just from baseball sources.  Unfortunately the fantasy league I play in uses Holds as a scoring stat, so the experiment wouldn’t be the same.

  2. Jonathan said...

    9 categories of beef is indeed the benefit of not paying saves.  But the “don’t pay for saves” strategy typically characterizes it is a win-win strategy where you not only get the beef, but you still get the same (or nearly the same) saves later in the draft or in free agency for nearly free.  This article is mostly about how that last part isn’t really free.

  3. Mike said...

    So you don’t play in a fantasy league that uses saves and don’t have any data to back your claim.  We’re supposed to just take your word for it even though you don’t play in a league that uses saves?  This isn’t what I come to THT to read.

  4. Fletcher said...

    Sorry, I started this article bashing, and I think it’s a bit much.  Anyone feel like using this space to talk about how we manage saves?  I play in two keeper leagues that score both saves and holds, and I have found the best value is talented set-up men behind bad closers. The only reliever from Tampa I’ll consider this year is Balfour, for example.  He should accumulate holds, which are much tougher to nail down, and has a shot at becoming closer by seasons end.  Figure he’ll be much easier to acquire than Percy or Wheeler, and it’s a no-brainer.  In leagues with weekly matchups you have to build for the playoffs, so it’s always better to draft on talent, rather than role.

  5. Mike said...

    It seems that the cat’s out of the bag about ugly saves.  In leagues full of moderately well-informed owners who understand that a saves is a saves is a save, top-tier closers may be undervalued, especially in larger leagues.  I’d rather pay $25 for a premier closer than $15 for two potential closers.

    After all, while saves from Mariano Rivera are worth as much as saves from George Sherrill, Mo provides a boost in WHIP and ERA that Sherrill doesn’t, and that has to be accounted for.

  6. Mark Morrow said...

    I’m gussing that in Fletchers case comprehension is the issue.  Read it again to understand the context of the quote.

    In our very deep AL only keeper league.  Not only are closers very highly sought after on draft day a number of them are the best keepers year to year.  Just the fact that so many closers fail creates keepers. 

    Mark

  7. Aaron Schell said...

    I play in an AL-only keeper league and these are the closers and there auction price from last season that were avalible in the auction.

    K-rod 31
    Rivera 30
    Jones 17
    Borowski 18
    Percival 18
    CJ Wilson 13
    Benoit 9

    I agree saves are saves but you just cant afford to gamble on guys that could end up loosing their job, and even paying extra for 2nd in lines end up being a waist most of the time.  Two years ago everyone was paying big bucks for Zumaya and where did that get them. Its often 3rd or 4th in line who ends up getting the saves.  How many guys did Cleveland trot out there in the 9th before giving the job to Lewis? I can go back year after year and this trend continues where midteen closer loose their job but the top guys turn out to be worth what they are paid minus inflation.

    Obviously this is from a league only point of veiw where there are only half the total closers avalible and almost never one to pick up during the season because guys already roster the Ziglers of the world before they get job.

    AA

  8. Simon van Leeuwen said...

    I feel that BPFS is too often over simplified.  high end high profile closers (Pap, Mo, K-rod) are often over values for a volatile position that dominates only one category and rests on 2 or 3 roster spots.  I want more dependability and impact from my 4th-6th round pick (or $30) then one of these guys can offer.  on the other hand, i cringe at adding untested potential ratio killers to my roster at the end of the draft. 

    If we are throwing out unsupported research, i feel that the value to cost graph tends to cross for at the mid-level closers with good peripherals (BB/K, K/9) on bad teams. Last year i looked for guys like Soria, Capps, or Fuentes in the middle rounds in snake or in the $15 range in auction.  even taking these guys in back to back rounds.  then towards the end of the draft i add a good peripheral setup guy that has a chance to close. last year Bell in SD or Soriano in Cleveland (that didn’t work out so well for me).  at the very least these guys help my ratios and Ks and i finish in the middle of the saves categories.  I feel that this is a beneficial tradeoffs for the improvements i receive on Batting categories and Starting pitching.

  9. Aaron Schell said...

    Even though it was only 70 innings, Mo probably had more inpact with a 1.40ERA and 0.67Whip then any starting pitcher in those catagories.  So dont think you are just buying saves with a top closer.

    As far as loading up in the other 9 catagories?  I don’t know how u load up in Era Whip and even wins, you could grap two of the top 5 starters but the guy who grabbed Lee or Danks or Duchscherer or slowey etc would be just as good or better for only $4.

    I think the upper tier closers (Mo, Nathan, K-Rod, Pap) are some of the safest investments of money in pitching.

  10. Petr said...

    I’d have to make an exception for Papelbon in keeper leagues. He is a converted starter who is still relatively young. He should maintain a productive role for the next 10 years or so and you can’t count out the possibility that he will once again be a starter. Either way, he will be worth a keeper slot for a long time.

  11. Mark Morrow said...

    If you are going to spend money on a closer then you have to go all the way.  Spending money on middle of the pack or tier two or three guys is a road to fantasy ruin.  The top guys perform year in and year out and help in the cats already listed.  The weaker options are what drive fantasy owners to drink.  “If only they could turn out I will have a great keeper”.  I agree that the lesser lightsfail to impress as a whole whereas the top tier are almost undervalued year to year.

    Mark

    P.S. Hey Fletcher … I don’t get the punctuation comprehension joke…can you clarify…?

  12. Troy Patterson said...

    I really don’t understand why you would pay for any of the early closers and before you start saying the elite closers add so much to ERA and WHIP I did a study and the difference in IP leagues from Papelbon to Brian Wilson last year was 0.10 ERA and 0.019 WHIP.  They both had 41 saves so the guy who drafted a better player in round 5 and took Wilson in the late teens wins that debate. http://www.rotosavants.com/2008/12/how-much-is-your-5th-round-closer-worth.html

    Even if one of your closers loses his job it only slows you in one category if you can’t replace him.  Missing out on an elite starter or hitter in round 5 hurts you in quite a few more categories than that.

  13. Craig Birkemeier said...

    Troy, you make it sound like 0.10 ERA and 0.019 WHIP is nothing. That’s a point in the standings in ERA and a point and a half in WHIP.

  14. Craig Birkemeier said...

    Oh yeah, I guess I’ll address the other part you’re ignoring. Your study is based on getting Brian Wilson late. What if you ended up with C.J. Wilson instead? Just because you found one guy doesn’t prove anything. That’s like saying I got Cliff Lee off free agency last year, so there’s no reason to draft a starter.

  15. Fletcher said...

    “I don’t have the stats to prove it…”

    Nice.  Are you sure you didn’t mean to post this on ESPN?  You really shouldn’t call others fools, especially if you don’t even have a valid argument.

    I’ve do just fine not drafting top closers, and I use dem daggone algebras and numerals to set my draft boards.

  16. Aaron Schell said...

    …….I think we all have different opinions based mostly on the fact we all play with different rules.

    It seems that deeper league only leagues value the top closer more when there would be no closers to pick up if your midtier closer bombs out.

    While in shallower mixed leagues closers are avalible during the season and can easily be replaced if yours fails.  Furthermore I would assume in mixed leagues u would have more innings from better starting pitchers racked up because there is just more elite pitching options, making the inpact in ERA and WHIP minimal, where in league only leagues a top closer can jump you multiple points in each catagory.

  17. Troy Patterson said...

    Well the point was to show first that there is little help in ERA and WHIP first.  Is that ERA and WHIP change worth a point?  Maybe, but I would argue I could improve that same value by taking a better SP in the 5th round instead of the closer.

    Plus I know in almost all 12 team leagues there are always closers available throughout the year.  Depending on waiver rules you just need to make timely claims.

    For the record I am more of a weak DPFS guy.  I usually take 3 closers between rounds 11-15 and be done with it.  Taking a closer in round 5-6 is like taking Willy Tavaras in round 5.

  18. Craig Birkemeier said...

    I should have pointed out that my value system is based on a Yahoo-style league. In a 14-player offense league setup, the replacement levels at the offensive positions would drop and result in the closers falling in the rankings (probably 7th, 8th, or even 9th rounders).

    One other thing to take into account is how active you are relative to your league. If you are more active than the rest of your league, you can wait longer for a closer. If you are less active, you’ll have to be more willing to pay for a top guy.

  19. Max Power said...

    1.  As Aaron says, context is critical here.  Size of league, number of roster spots, daily vs. weekly, mins v. max on IP, and other scoring rules should change the way you approach this debate.  Strong DPFS certainly succeeds in certain contexts but is foolhardy in other contexts.  If there’s a low cap on innings, the difference in ratios between a Papplebon and a Joe Borowski is huge.  If there is a min IP but no max, you can easily balance that out with another starter.

    2.  I end up as a weak DPFS guy, given my leagues.  I put closers into tiers, and never take the first one, but make sure to get someone out of each tier once guys start coming off the board.  The better bat / SP i get by waiting a round usually is worth it.

    3. All pitchers are risky, and DPFS is another way to mitigate risk.  While a Nathan pays if drafted well, being the guy who took BJ Ryan as your #1 closer two years ago was killer.  He was a consensus top guy, going in rounds 5-7, and gave nothing.  Similar with Putz last year.  This can be devastating.  Given that hitters are, on average, somewhat more reliable than pitchers, DPFS is a solid way to mitigate risk.

  20. Chad Burke said...

    Took Putz last year and followed that up with Saito and then at the end of the draft ended up with some top set-up men as I missed out on the last of my targeted closers in a run late in the draft.  Out of Shields, Okejima, and another guy I ended up with no closers out of the deal and they didn’t even help me much in the ratios or K’s.  Eventually did acquire a couple of closers but Rauch’s value plummeted when he got traded and Hanrahan barely got an opportunity for a save per week.  I won’t be paying as high this year as I did for Putz but I will be making sure I get some solid middle guys that have pretty solid job security without some young gun pushing them for a spot.  When a closer got down or promoted last year it was a mad scramble to end up with his replacement and that was with only 11 people.  This year we have 14 so I’ll be certain I have 3 closers to try to make sure I’m not behind the 8 ball from the start.

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