Earlier this winter, The Hardball Times offered prospective fantasy baseball writers the opportunity to compete in a Hardball Times fantasy league. Entrants wrote fantasy baseball articles, the best of which would be chosen as our winner. While we could only choose one winner to play in the league (congratulations, Dave Chenok), we had so many great articles that we have decided to publish some of the best. This is one of those submissions.
There are a few things I look forward to each year as we move from winter into spring. Longer days and warmer weather. Crocuses popping up through the snow. Grover Cleveland’s birthday (which happens to be the same day as my niece’s). And, especially, the inevitable article that appears on every Fantasy website imploring would-be league champions: “don’t pay for saves.”
The typical article explains why it is folly to waste money (or high draft picks) on closers. “Saves are unpredictable,” they tell us. “Closers can lose their job at any moment.” The article may tell us how Joe Borowski got more saves one year than Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and K-Rod combined, and you could have gotten Borowski 137 rounds later. The article asserts that saves are always out there on the waiver wire. “And after all,” they smugly conclude, “a save is a save, no matter who gets it.”
It all reminds me a little of Robin Williams whispering “carpe diem” to his minions in “Dead Poet’s Society”; the boys listen with bated breath and nod gravely.
I look forward to this annual article because, like lemmings, people follow the advice. And that clears the playing field, allowing me to do exactly what the experts advise against: take strong closers in earlier rounds.* The experts are missing something pretty fundamental: a save is not a save.
Why not? The key concept here is so simple that it amazes me it gets consistently ignored: Closers contribute to scoring categories besides saves. ERA. WHIP. Ks. Joe Borowski may well get as many saves as Mo one year, but Joe is probably going to hurt you, relative to Mo, in all the other scoring categories. “Oh,” I hear the experts saying, “but that is silly. Closers don’t pitch enough innings to impact those categories meaningfully. Solid starters will more than make up for any ERA or WHIP effect you get from having Joe versus Mo.”
The problem is: It isn’t true. It’s like saying that eating a chocolate bar each day won’t affect your weight, because you eat a lot of other food, and it’s only one little chocolate bar. Right.
Look, in a given week, three relief pitchers are probably the equivalent of one starter in terms of innings. Over the course of a full season, the difference in the non-save scoring categories between having, the equivalent of six innings a week of Josh Johnson (which three good relievers will give you) versus having the equivalent of six innings a week of Joe Blanton (which three weaker ones will give you) is nothing to sneeze at. You’ll do well enough in saves, and help your position in the other pitching scoring categories.
Best of all, you don’t have to sacrifice quality starters to assemble an elite relief corps; in most mixed leagues, starting pitching is so deep that—assuming you know what you are doing—you can find a starter in Round 17 who is statistically equal to one you could add in Round 12.
*The rest of this article is written from the perspective of a snake draft league, but the principles and analyses apply equally well to auction leagues
Let’s illustrate with an oversimplified example. Assume a league with none active pitchers, six of whom are starters and three of whom are relievers. I’ll use the full-season stats of six starting pitchers I actually had in one league to model that part of the equation:
Core starters INN K ERA WHIP Wainwright, Adam SP STL 230.1 213 2.423 1.051 Myers, Brett SP HOU 223.2 180 3.139 1.243 Wilson, CJ RP TEX 204.0 170 3.353 1.245 Scherzer, Max SP DET 195.2 184 3.496 1.247 Santana, Ervin SP ANA 222.2 169 3.921 1.320 Gallardo, Yovani SP MIL 185.0 200 3.843 1.368 SubTotal 1261.1 1116 3.339 1.241
Now let’s look at the impact of adding three “early round” relievers per my strategy…
Scen 1: “Top-drawer closers”
INN K ERA WHIP Wainwright, Adam SP STL 230.1 213 2.423 1.051 Myers, Brett SP HOU 223.2 180 3.139 1.243 Wilson, CJ RP TEX 204.0 170 3.353 1.245 Scherzer, Max SP DET 195.2 184 3.496 1.247 Santana, Ervin SP ANA 222.2 169 3.921 1.320 Gallardo, Yovani SP MIL 185.0 200 3.843 1.368 Bell, Heath RP SD 70.0 86 1.929 1.200 Wilson, Brian RP SF 74.2 93 1.808 1.179 Soria, Joakim RP KC 65.2 71 1.782 1.051 SubTotal 1471.2 1366 3.125 1.227
…versus the impact of waiting and taking less attractive closers per “conventional wisdom.”
Scen 2: “Don’t pay for saves”
INN K ERA WHIP Wainwright, Adam SP STL 230.1 213 2.423 1.051 Myers, Brett SP HOU 223.2 180 3.139 1.243 Wilson, CJ RP TEX 204.0 170 3.353 1.245 Scherzer, Max SP DET 195.2 184 3.496 1.247 Santana, Ervin SP ANA 222.2 169 3.921 1.320 Gallardo, Yovani SP MIL 185.0 200 3.843 1.368 Jenks, Bobby RP CHW 52.2 61 4.443 1.367 Gregg, Kevin RP TOR 59.0 58 3.509 1.390 Capps, Matt RP MIN 73.0 59 2.466 1.260 SubTotal 1446.0 1294 3.342 1.252
Whoa. The difference is fairly significant in all three of the non-save categories modeled. Think you won’t score more points with a 3.125 ERA than a 3.342 ERA? Yeah, you will. In my main league last year, a 0.217 ERA differential was worth up to six points.
“But wait,” I can hear the experts protesting. “You picked three guys you knew had great stats for Scenario 1, and three guys with lousy stats for Scenario 2. You cherry picked.” Well, not really. I saw these exact combinations (or their equivalents) in several leagues I participated in last year. Maybe the difference wouldn’t be as dramatic if I’d used Jon Papelbon instead of Joakim Soria, but it’d be even greater if I’d used Matt Lindstrom instead of Matt Capps. Frankly, guys who follow the “don’t pay for saves” mantra don’t wind up with relievers as good as Bobby Jenks, Kevin Gregg and Capps.
“But wait,” I can hear the experts chortling. “What if you’d picked Joe Nathan or Jonathan Broxton—you’d have been hosed with this strategy.” Well, that’s true, but anyone can get injured, as the folks who used an early pick on Chase Utley well know. Besides, you have to be a little bit smart in executing any strategy—Nathan has had arm trouble in the past. And Broxton was outstanding in 2009, but it was his first full year as a closer—you don’t want any early-round strategy focused on guys without a multiyear record (see also Pablo Sandoval).
“But wait,” I can hear the experts spluttering. “If you wasted early round picks on Heath Bell, Brfian Wilson and Soria, you would never have had the six starting pitchers you did. Your Scenario 1 starters would not be as strong as your Scenario 2 starters to start with, and that would wash out the impact of the closers.” Again, not true—I did take Adam Wainwright early in this league, but I picked up four of the other six guys after Round 15 or off waivers, and my core starting pitching was statistically superior to most teams in my leagues. You need to do your homework, but you can assemble a statistically equivalent set of starters waiting several rounds to take your last three or four. Your straters may not be as good as someone else’s, but if you play your cards right there’s an equal chance they’ll better.
“But wait,” I can hear the experts croaking. “If you used early round picks for closers, you can’t possibly have had enough hitting—you must have sacrificed points there.” Well it’s hard to model what I didn’t do, but… assuming you use the first four rounds of your draft on strong hitters at weaker positions, there are generally enough corner infielders and outfielders left in rounds 8-12 to build a very solid overall hitting lineup. You can have your cake and eat it too.
Look, there are no guarantees in any of this. I am not saying that prioritizing closers guarantees you’ll win your league. What I am saying is that the non-save scoring statistics of closers have more impact on your team’s overall pitching performance than conventional wisdom would have you believe. So when this year’s draft rolls around, think twice before you congratulate yourself for your fantasy acumen in picking up Fernando Rodney in Round 17. You may think you didn’t “pay for saves,” but actually you just did pay—the opportunity cost of the money you could have won, which is now flying into the stands along with the last home run Rodney gave up. But—oh yeah—he still got the save. Trust me, a save is not a save.