Everybody loves pizza. It’s delicious. It’s relatively inexpensive. It’s ubiquitous. And it’s even portable. How many times have you sat there debating what to eat for lunch, weighing far-ranging and even exotic options, only to conclude that you aren’t particularly enamored with any of those options and settle on eating pizza? When I don’t know what to eat, I eat pizza. When, I don’t know what to wear, I rock a grey tee and Air Max 95 neons, and when I don’t know what to listen to, I bump “Illmatic.”
So, what does this have to do with fantasy baseball and the current draft season? Well, I have a theory that stipulates elite closers are the pizza of picks 50–100 in a fantasy draft. In the mock draft that prompted my “Making a Mockery” column, I sat with the 72nd and 73rd picks in the draft. My corners were fully open and I was in need of power, so I was happy to spend one of those picks on Lance Berkman. As for the second pick, I really wasn’t thrilled with any of the options. I already had two elite starters (my experiment) and a stud middle infield duo. The elite 3Bs were off the board, and I was stuck in a tier of outfielders where there were plentiful similar options remaining. So, I opted for pizza and drafted Joe Nathan. (This was obviously prior to his injury news.) I had no regrets. This wasn’t the only time I’ve experienced this decision-making pattern.
As is the case with quarterbacks in fantasy football leagues, experienced managers are often reluctant to draft a closer at a price that reflects his true value, rank-wise. Many who dispense fantasy advice preach that we should wait on closers, I have my own strategy though.
I don’t usually like to start the run on elite closers, but if my pick comes in the midst of that run, I’m probably picking the best available closer unless there’s a player remaining from the past round who I had been targeting all along.
Some may contend that such a move is not a good one, that it is reactive and not proactive. But I beg to differ, because not getting shut out of the top tier closer market is an important part of my strategy. You might say I’m a fan of the stars and scrubs approach to drafting closers.
Mariano Rivera is pizza; what’s not to like about Mo? He posts miniscule rate stats, racks up saves in bunches and strikes out more than a batter per inning. Those who preach waiting on closers may underestimate the value elite closers bring as stabilizers of rate stats. Or, they may underestimate what a Fernando Rodney can do to help wreck them.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to divide the closer crop into four categories, or tiers. You have elite options, options with either good skills or high upside coupled with job security, options who are fairly reliable in terms of job security but are statistically mediocre, and high risks. The borders of the tiers get a bit squishy, and there are always guys in the second group with the potential to join the first group, just as there are always guys at the back of the third group with the potential to join the last group. Last year, Jonathan Broxton and Heath Bell were in group two, but it was clear to many an astute observer they had strong potential to join group one.
My strategy is usually to get one guy from group one; it doesn’t much matter who. Then, I want to get another guy from group two who I think can join group one. This year, perhaps Rafael Soriano. Then, I wait. I’ll dip into the closer pool again before the last few rounds only if it seems clear that one of the options remaining is substantially better than everybody else. Otherwise, I just try to grab group three players and possibly the more attractive risky players after, say, pick 200. At that point it becomes a numbers game, throw some of these players at the wall and see who sticks. You can’t expect 30 saves from mediocre performers or players with only tenuous grasps on the closer role, so sometimes it takes drafting two of these players to safely assume one competent closer.
I do try to hold a greater share of the closers than my fair proportion. In a 12-team league, I want at least three. Mathematically, a 12-team league would dictate that if six teams have three closers each, the other six will only have two. This means I’m pretty much in the top half of the pack. If I made wise choices, I’ll be in the top half of the top half, so I’ll be sitting on about nine points. If I find a waiver wire gem, I’m nearly guaranteed the 11 or 12, or I have a spare part to trade and improve elsewhere.
Stolen bases and saves are the two easiest categories to dominate from the draft because there’s such a scarcity of players who contribute significantly. The catch, of course, is that many of these players are “specialists,” and so you have to be cognizant of not running up deficiencies in the other categories that prohibit you from competing across the board.
But, that’s why elite closers really are valuable—they are not specialists. They are studs on a per inning basis. If you had Heath Bell and Jonathan Broxton last year, in addition to the 78 combined saves, you would have also gotten 13 wins, 223 Ks, a 2.66 ERA, and 1.04 WHIP over 145.2 innings. On a per inning basis, this would have been the best starting pitcher in the league! Broxton and Bell could have been had past pick 100 last year. Wouldn’t you have traded, say, a ninth- and 12th-round pick for a starter with those stats?
The moral here is that, as with a speedster devoid of power, you have to consider how a closer’s non-save stats affect your team. It may be helpful to think of your relief corps as a unit. One of my goals when assembling my relief corps is that, independent of wins, I want my relievers’ aggregate stats to represent the best starting pitcher on my staff. Having that one elite closer at the top is the linchpin to achieving that goal.
Most owners will reach for a closer at some point in the draft, and this owner is much more comfortable reaching for Mariano Rivera at pick 60 than I would be reaching for Bobby Jenks 50 picks later.
At the end of the day, what do you sacrifice by eating pizza? You forego more exotic options that may turn out to be wonderful. To be sure, there will be plenty of players selected at similar points to the top closers who will go on to have amazing seasons, perhaps even cracking the top 25. At the same time, you may be adopting less risk. Mariano Rivera’s only risk is injury; the chance of him stinking up the joint is virtually non-existent. Compare the risk of a player like Mariano Rivera with that of Josh Hamilton or Adam Jones. Pizza is good. Pizza is reliable. And pizza is a staple of a well-balanced, healthy diet—metaphorically speaking, at least.