Before I begin this article, I would like to thank the legend himself: Lenny Melnick (@LennyMelnick). We had a very spirited back and forth about this topic and he was kind enough to mention me a couple of times during his podcast a few days ago while discussing his point of view. While we disagree on this topic, I can understand and accept his point of view, even though I'm opposed to it. He has accomplished more in his career than I could ever hope to amass so he's absolutely doing something right. Now, onto the article...
One common reoccurring suggestion I’ve heard from many experts in the fantasy baseball community is “wait on closers” or “don’t pay for closers”. You can always get saves late in drafts, or guys lose their job as the months pass and there are plenty of saves to be claimed off the waiver wire. While all of these statements may be true in some cases, I’m going to give you an argument why you should draft closers often, early, and plenty of them.
Depending on the format of your leagues, this strategy may be more or less beneficial, but I have seen this strategy be very successful across a variety of formats. For this discussion I will focus on a very common format: 12 team 5x5 standard roto league. Not that this is the only format where this strategy works, however it is one that most people reading this article should be able to relate to.
Now, here's why you should go after the elite closers and relievers:
Their actual statistical impact is under-valued.
The first thing I recommend: Stop thinking of closers as a 1 category investment. Most people equate closers with saves and it’s simply not the case. Most closers, especially the elite ones contribute in all 5 standard pitching categories. The elite ones contribute in saves, but also in ERA, WHIP and K's more than they receive credit for. Yes, they pitch less innings than a starter would, but in my next example I will show how impactful two or three elite closers can be together.
I’m going to take one of my teams from a few years ago as an example. I drafted three closers in the 7th, 9th, and 12th rounds respectively. Their stat line read like this for that season year:
Looking back you could argue that these combined stats were those of a Cy Young candidate; plus an extra 108 saves. Some would also say I was fortunate that all three closers worked out so well for me. Later in this article I'll discuss why this isn't so much luck. Now, I needed to spend 3 mid-round picks for these stats, but let's look at the final roto standings for that season:
Had I completely ignored this team and made no in season moves or roster adjustments, I would have accumulated enough saves to finish with 9 points in that category. I understand that may not seem like a lot, but with in-season moves and waiver wire pickups, this strategy can easily get you close to the top spot. In addition to the saves, let's not forget the 201K's, 9 wins, and amazing ERA and WHIP. It is a bit difficult to quantify the impact of the wins and strikeouts in this example, but I look at them as a bonus to whatever my starters accumulate. When drafting I really don't worry too much about wins because they are so volatile, especially for relievers. Closer should accumulate at least a couple and help you in the final standings.
If we turn the focus to the elite ERA and WHIP we can more easily see the impact. In this league as an example, an average team threw 1400 IP. For my team a little over 200 IP came from these 3 closers (close to 15% of my IP). If my starters put up an ERA of 3.60 for the remaining 1200 IP, my closers would have lowered my team's ERA for the year down to 3.45. This may not seem like a lot; however this would have moved the needle for my team 3 standings points in the ERA category. The same goes for WHIP, had my starters posted a WHIP of 1.20 for their 1200 IP, my 3 closers would have lowered it to 1.17 gaining me an additional 4 points. Again, I can't easily quantify with certainty the K's or wins, but for the sake of argument I'm going to say they gained me 2 more points in the standings which I believe is conservative yet realistic. Accumulate these points, and my 3 closers alone single handedly are responsible for 19-20 gained points in my roto league final standings. That is significant value, and almost always completely overlooked. I understand not every league will work our exactly the same way. It has worked out for me in a similar way many times and at times, I've seen the ERA and WHIP points swing even more than in this example.
I've mentioned that all leagues have varied rules and are unique. Many leagues institute a Games Started (GS) or an Innings Pitched (IP) limit to prevent players from pitching countless starters each day and dominating the wins and strikeouts categories by streaming. If your league uses a GS limit, closers/relievers don’t factor into that limit and are extremely important. You can use as many as you like, and their stats only add to your team’s categories while not impacting your GS limit. Use this to your advantage.
It’s not only closers that have great value and often get under-valued, other relievers that don’t accumulate saves can also provide a positive impact for your team. Here are three setup guys from the same season mentioned in my last example. While they didn’t accumulate many saves, they still could have been a tremendous value for someone’s team:
If a team owned these three players for most of the season, they essentially would have had the equivalent of a Cy Young caliber starter as well. The 300 k’s would be a great boost to your team’s total and an ERA of 1.58 and a WHIP of 1.02 for a combined 242 innings would lower any team’s respective stats. Also, these players were quite available in most leagues. Because they didn’t project to accumulate a lot of wins or saves, these non-closer relievers are often overlooked year to year and can be drafted in the very last rounds or even claimed off of waivers.
Let’s now consider the other league format I mentioned earlier, Innings Pitched limit. Even if your league uses an IP limit, the value of having these elite relievers is significant. With IP limit leagues you need to get the most value of each inning accumulated. You might sacrifice somewhat on your wins total by using these types of players (though not necessarily as relievers do get some random wins), you are going to gain dramatically when it comes to K’s, ERA, and WHIP. Elite relievers generally have elite K/9 rates, as well as low ERA and WHIP, which provide a lot of value in IP limit leagues. In general, fantasy baseball players neglect the most non-closer relievers (especially if your league doesn’t count holds as a category), but after looking at the above numbers, it is very tough to ignore the value.
These examples show how a solid collection of closers can impact your team's overall statistics. I'll now move onto my next argument for drafting elite closers:
Investing early promotes job security.
It's an awful feeling when one of your players goes down to an injury or loses his job. It's especially painful when it's a closer and you have no way to get additional saves. Unless you already have his replacement on your team, you'll likely lose out on a good chunk of saves going forward. While there is a lot of turnover at the closer position, there isn't usually a lot of turnover with the elite closers. I also believe there is a science in predicting which closers are at the highest/lowest risk for keeping and losing their jobs. I wrote a piece here discussing many variables other than skills that impact a closers job security.
To summarize that article, by doing research about all 30 projected closers, you're giving yourself the best chance to draft elite closers that will keep their jobs all season. Looking at my previous example, someone may argue that I was very lucky that the three closers I drafted all worked out well for me. There may be some truth to that, however I strongly believe there is significantly less risk for closer busts when you're evaluating and targeting the elite ones properly.
There are only 30 closers. When one hits waivers, they can be tough to claim.
If for some reason you didn't end up with the closers you wanted during the draft, you still have the ability to pick them up throughout the year. While the elite closers tend to keep their jobs, there will likely be 10-15 closers that change jobs at some point during the season. Some would say this reinforces the argument to punt saves during the draft and just wait to pick them up later. Not so fast... this is not as simple as it sounds for a couple of reasons:
I've covered many reasons why you should focus on getting elite closers. Now, let's consider some of the common counter-points:
You pass up too much talent in the middle rounds if you draft closers:
Another argument I’ve seen is the investment during the draft for these elite relievers is too great. If I’m using picks in rounds 7-12 to get 3 closers for example, I’m missing out on other, potentially great players. Anyone that has played fantasy baseball for a while should understand that almost any draft pick can be a bust. That said, I feel the elite closer picks bust far less than any other picks. Elite closers have insane skillsets and ratios that are unmatched by other pitchers in the game.
If I decided to wait on closers and did a fantastic job drafting in rounds 7-12, maybe it's possible that I would have drafted a better overall team. But the security that the elite closers provide coupled with my confidence to draft well in the later rounds gives me enough assurance in my strategy.
History has also proven you can find values later in drafts. If you have prepped well and done research heading into your draft, your picks in the middle to later rounds should be valuable enough to keep your team competitive in all of the hitting categories. Granted I might not be as good as the other teams that punted saves, but I don't need to be. I don't need to win every category, I just need to stay competitive. Getting the elite closers puts me in a position to win saves as well as finish very high in ERA, WHIP, and K's. I'm comfortable taking my chances with my later round picks to stay competitive batting.
You don't need to invest in elite closers. You can still draft closers, just later:
This is a fair point to an extent, but you lose a too much value in many cases. The elite closers that go off the board early, go early for a number of reasons: elite skills, proven track record, job security, potential for saves, etc. If you're getting 3 closers but they are all in the bottom 1/3 of all ranked closers, there is a big drop-off in skill and job security. This tier of closers I do consider more of a 1 stat contributor and often they can be a detriment to your ERA and WHIP as opposed to a positive. They are also the most likely candidates to lose the job or be part of a time share. Can you catch lightning in a bottle and get one that's an over-performer? Yes, these types of guys break out every year as well, but that's more the anomaly as opposed to the rule.
I know that some would argue the points that I’ve made, and there is some evidence showing that you can punt saves and still be very successful in certain formats, but I will respectfully disagree. If you’re in a head to head league then this might not be the article for you, and punting is quite viable to succeed. I've been drafting for 10+ years using this strategy and it has consistently led me to successful seasons.
Investing in relievers is something you can do where you may not necessarily see the results in your daily stat card, but trust me, at the end of a season when you’re atop the standings, you’ll thank me.