Because of these unique factors, every preseason there is additional emphasis on the role when projecting players and specifically ranking closers. I would say closers are most often ranked based on recent history's success in the role as well as overall peripheral skills. Looking at 2016 consensuses ADP data for example, here is a snapshot of what the top 5 closers are projected to be today:
Feel free to change the order, however most would agree that this group would be considered the 'elite' closers heading into 2016. While this is a true statement to some extent, it should not be the end of the discussion. I feel there are a number of other factors that one must think about when evaluating closers. Just because these 5 may be the most skilled and have the most success recently, I would argue many other factors must first be analyzed before a final ranking is determined:
- Skills / Peripherals: This is pretty much used by all most when projecting closers. You want your closer(s) to be dominant, have a high K/9, and low ERA and WHIP. There are a number of other underlying stats one can also look at to project sustained success in the closer role also such as Ground Ball%, Left on Base %, BB/9 rate and many others. Bottom Line, your closer must have the skills to get a save each time he takes the mound. Blowing them will cause him to lose his job.
- Track Record: Someone that has been closing successfully for 10 years will have a much longer leash when things go badly than someone closing in his first season. In most cases, veteran closers have accrued trust from the organization and this has value to your fantasy team. So much of a closers value is directly tied to his job security and you will see in the next few bullets, I really drive this point home. Track record is one of the key cogs however that earn a closer job security.
- Salary: I find this is a variable that usually isn't considered by most fantasy players, however is equally as important as track record, if not more. If a closer has an annual salary of $10 million, he is going to have much more job security than someone getting paid $500K. Whether salary should matter, it can be argued, however the reality is: it matters. Organizations don't want to invest heavily in someone and then quickly change their mind after a slow start.
- Team Tenure: While not as important to me as the first 3 topics, team tenure operates in a similar way that salary and track record does. If a player has been closing with an organization for 5+ years for example, the team have seen his success first hand for a long period of time. Even if he's not necessarily an elite pitcher, he has banked trust from the team, and in turn, additional potential job security.
- Competition: A struggling closer is more likely to lose their grip on the role if there is a stud setup man or other reliever waiting in the wings. If the rest of the bullpen is abysmal, he may be given more opportunity to turn things around. When looking at closers, you should really look at the bullpen as a whole to evaluate the talent of all relievers and identify who may or may not be at a higher risk of losing their job based upon surrounding talent.
- Team's Save Chance Potential: This is a bit more difficult to project compared to some of the other factors. Ideally, you would want to project teams that would have the highest chance to present save opportunities. Obviously the team would need to have chances to win a lot of games, but you would also want them to win by small margins. Great pitching + average hitting teams are generally a good combo for save opportunities, but even projecting what teams will be good can be a huge challenge. I don't put as much weight into this bullet as I do others, however I do my best to try and project each teams potential save opportunities and then calculate accordingly.
Once I look at all of the above data, I crunch numbers and come up with my closer rankings. I performed this exercise for 2016 and my top five looks like this:
You'll see my rankings have some similar names to the ADP top 5, but ADP data has Robertson outside of the top 10 and Papelbon outside of the top 15. For me, they get big bumps based on salary, track record, competition, and save opportunities.
You'll also see Chapman is not in my top 5, blasphemy for most. You can argue he has the greatest skill-set of any reliever in the game, however he has a number of question marks that move him down my board (all the way to number 9):
- He had a poor finish to the season in 2015 which concerned me just a bit.
- He not only changed teams, but went from the NL to the AL, and AL East which has a ton of great bats besides Tampa Bay.
- There are 2 other elite arms in the bullpen, arguably the best non-closers in baseball. Also, Miller already had proven success closing for the Yankees.
- I project the Yankees to only have an average chance for save opportunities. While Vegas has the Yankees projected as the 4th best team in the AL (I'd take the under), I'm not sure how many of those games are going to be close games for save opportunities.
- Chapman has off the field issues, and while we don't know if he might face any type of discipline, it's just another red flag to consider
- No one has thrown as many 100+ mph pitches over the last 3 seasons and it's not even close. Hell, add up every pitchers in baseball for 3 full seasons and Chapman still has more. That's a tremendous amount of strain and while he's been seemingly fine, it's in the back of my mind as a minor concern. Circling back to my first point about Chapman, I didn't like the way he ended 2015 and I wonder if something mechanical had to do with the decline.
When you look at all of these question marks, it's just too much risk for me to invest in such an early pick. Might he be elite, absolutely. But I'm comfortable with my thought process for why I wouldn't take him as a top tier closer this season.
I understand this isn't quite a science and others may disagree with my top 5, however most should agree that job security is critical when selecting closers. My additional factors aren't exactly sabermetrics, but taking them into consideration when ranking your closers should at minimum help you move some of the riskier picks (while possibly more talented) down your draft board.