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.
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.