Save me a slice

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.

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  1. Donald Trump said...

    If you had to land Bell and Broxton last year yo justify your point, you probably have a weak point. The combination of two great closers usually leads to 150 total K, not 223.  Further, most of your opponents will get 130 K and some wins from their RPs, so the only real advantage of your strategy is better era and whip.  This is why most people do not believe in paying up for the top closers.  You get more bang for your buck by spending the money (or rounds) on position players.

  2. KY said...

    I agree with The Donald.  Especially on Broxton unless you were the guy who knew he would bump his already very good K rate much higher, you could only land 200K’s from your closers by luck.  And if it was your strategy to get that kind of K rate from your closer you probably drafted Brad Lidge!  The other counter argument is you could have Kiko Calero and Ronald Belisario for free yielding a 1.12 whip, 130IP and 135 K’s but no saves.  The saves is the main source of value over replacement for the closer, the guys you mention with really nice whips and ERAs have some value to be sure above their fellow relievers for their shinier whips, but it is not their main source of value.  When you consider the volatility of the closer role increasing the rate they become available on waivers as opposed to other positions you have to bump their replacement level up even further reducing the value of all closing players.

  3. Andrew P said...

    To me, closers are the sushi of fantasy baseball:

    tasty- but usually overpriced, a risk to order if you’re not sure what you’re getting, and accompanied with the risk of going really bad on you.

  4. Xeifrank said...

    Saves are probably one of the easiest categories/stats to pick up during the season, thus making their draft value lower.  I usually draft two closers in the middle rounds and take a flyer on one in the later rounds then do the rest during the season.  I load up on HR-RBI-RUNS in the draft as these are the most difficult stat categories to find on the waiver wire during the season.

    I also use this mock draft software to help analyze my (and others) team and its possible defencies during my draft.
    vr, Xeifrank

  5. Andre said...

    I understand where you’re coming from – especially in a roto format. In the 6X6 (standard plus OBP and QS) H2H keeper league that I play in though, I find little value to be had in drafting premium closers. As Xeifrank said I can always find a closer on the wire or by trading (especially with a team out of contention and restocking for next year). I feel I can make up for a few poor relief outings with mass numbers of solid starting arms – included limited streaming. All I really want out of a closer are saves. If he gives me more, fine but I’m not paying for it when I can snag a dependable SP or multi-category offensive contributor.

    MAYBE I’ll take one solid closer. If and only if I perceive he’s fallen far enough in the draft.

    Last season I drafted a few RPs very late with Motte, Corpas and Gregg. Obviously a pretty ugly bullpen. By week two I picked up Franklin off of waivers and heading into the playoffs I traded (mid-teen picks in ‘10) for Andrew Bailey and David Aardsma. Eventually I won the whole thing on the backs of guys like Derrek Lee, Andre Ethier and Ted Lilly – while other guys were drafting closers.

    On that note who do we see closing in Denver in place of Street? Morales looks legit to me. Hopefully he’s chosen over Corpas as I’ll be picking him up in the 20th or so…

  6. mike said...

    I’m in a league with holds and people are still drafting closers by the 6th round. And Matt Thornton can be picked up in round 21.

  7. Hayves said...

    Agreed with Donny Boy and KY up there, lets also not forget that a) those closers together still aren’t providing THAT many innings and b) that’s two roster spots (or 3 if you want the proper number of IP), so you can’t compare it to one starter, it’s one starter and 1 or 2 other roster spots, which are certainly valuable.

  8. Tom B said...

    If you play in a league where you assume that you can pick up saves in the middle of the season with no contention, then you have no business making grand statements about the value’s of closers.

    In any competitive league, if you don’t pay for saves, you don’t get saves. Simple as that.

  9. Derek Ambrosino said...

    First, let me state that I am also a fan of elite set-up guys.

    Second, sure the Bell and Broxton combo was a best case scenario. It was also a real life scenario; I landed that pair in three leagues last year. And, anybody who followed the set-up man market should have been pretty confident that Broxton would be one of the most valuable closers in the game.

    I’m not sure the replacement value argument holds water either, across the board. Where’s the extraordinary surplus of replacement value you’re getting at pick 60-80 if you are drafting a 25/100 1B or OF, or a starting pitcher – these are the deepest positions in the draft.

    Further, some of you may have made out drafting Andre Ethier in the 6th round (was he really going that high last year; I don’t remember for certain, but I don’t recall so), but somebody else was drafted Aramis Ramirez. Somebody scored by drafting Derrek Lee there last year, but somebody did the same the previous year and got burnt. I drafted Garret Atkins somewhere around there last year. Has Rivera or Nathan ever disappointed?…

    Third, different leagues have different dynamics. My day job is often murderous giving me almost literally no time to check updates and make moves. My fantasy team is often virtually non-operational between the hours of 8 AM and 7 PM… and the owners in most of my league are very savvy. Newly anointed closers are gobbled up in the blink of an eye. And, in the cases where a job is in jeopardy the most likely replacement candidates are usually rostered well in advance (these situations are rarely surprises).

    When it comes to closers, you just have to do what works for you and your league.

    But, if you take nothing else from this article and disagree with every other premise, acknowledge this – elite closers are not specialists; they are the best pitchers in the fantasy game, on a per-inning basis. (Elite set-up mean are very good too, again, and I often preach rostering them, and streaming them on Mons and Thurs in daily leagues. they are a great source of “free innings.”

  10. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Note: in third para of the above column, I meant to say Alexei Ramirez, not Aramis. Aramis owners got burnt too, but they invested even more heavily injury-prone star.

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