When evaluating statistics, we should follow the law of averages. Per Google, this is the “commonly held belief that a particular outcome or event will, over certain periods of time, occur at a frequency that is similar to its probability.” In simpler terms, over time, with a large enough sample size, we should see a regression back to the mean expectation. This is something to remember particularly in fantasy baseball when looking at players’ statistics- making conclusions from small sample sizes can often lead to flawed conclusions. Unfortunately, small sample sizes are all we get from relievers.
The best relievers pitch around 60-70 innings, which is two to three times less than that of a starting pitcher. With how much a statistic like ERA can fluctuate based on batted-ball luck and other unstable facets, this can lead to an extreme amount of unpredictability. Usually, a little bit of chaos is good, but, in this case, it just complicates our analysis.
This season, fantasy managers have reacted in an interesting way: closing pitchers are being drafted earlier than ever, as there is a clash to combat this unpredictability by getting the most reliable relievers out there. As long as saves are a category, we are going to need to find out the best way to get them, and, for now, this is the path the market has decided.
However, is this approach valid? By looking at past closing pitcher data, our goal is to be able to answer this critical question. How can we best predict who is going to finish with the most saves on his respective team? How well does average draft position determine who will get the most saves? We’ll find out all the answers to that here, which will lead us to hopefully identify an optimal approach to target closers. Why am I wasting time rambling here? Let us just get right into it!
Investigating Recent Closer Trends
To accumulate saves, a reliever needs to have a firm grip on the closing role on their respective teams. The relievers we want to target, for obvious reasons, are those who are the undisputed closer, and are thus in position to accumulate as many saves as possible. Unfortunately, outside of a few well-regarded relievers, it tends to be a mystery who will get this luxurious role. To better help us in achieving our goal in identifying what makes a good fantasy closer, let us answer some key questions.
Does The Opening Day Closer Often Finish With The Most Saves?
To clarify, the opening day closing pitcher was identified as the closer who was first on the team to get two saves, excluding extra inning games- who gets the save is harder to predict in that case. Based on that definition, since 2019, a majority (71.67%) of these relievers ended up leading the team in saves.
Intuitively, this makes obvious sense. The reliever who has the closer role to start the season is in position to have it for the longest time, allowing them to accumulate saves. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean 71.67% of opening day closers finished the year as the closer. That would be a separate investigation, which would be relevant in head-to-head leagues. That being said, in Roto leagues, we just want to get our saves however possible. Thus, believing in those who have the opening day role is a great start.
HOW OFTEN DOES THE OPENING DAY CLOSER FINISH WITH THE MOST SAVES?
|Year||Led Team In Saves||Tied For Saves||Didn't Lead Team In Saves||Percentage|
In 2021, we saw a spike with 80% of opening day closers finish with the most saves. Will this continuous trend work its way in 2022? That’s what we’ll have to wait and see!
Does The Opening Day Closer Usually Have Closing Experience?
Conventional wisdom would lead you to believe that pitching in the ninth inning with the game on the line is much different and more difficult than pitching in any other situation. Now, the validity of that should be heavily questioned, as there is no data to support that claim. However, it’s something that managers tend to believe in, and the results pan out.
68.89% of opening day closers had at least one season of closing experience the season previously. Managers simply have more faith in someone that has done it before, and we need to take this into account. Take Mark Melancon‘s season with the Padres as a clear example. All reports and indications were that Drew Pomeranz or Emilio Pagan would be the team’s closing pitcher, and they appeared to be superior pitchers to Melancon. At the end of day, though, manager Jayce Tingler believed in Melancon, who has a history of closing out games.
This may mean not making the “sexiest” of picks, but, at the end of the day, all saves count the same! If a veteran free agent reliever, such as Ian Kennedy, lands in a situation where he is going to compete for the closer job, expect him to win the job. Sometimes, the best picks are the most boring ones, and we have to think like a manager. In that case, believe in conventional wisdom here.
HOW OFTEN DOES THE OPENING DAY CLOSER HAVE FORMER CLOSING EXPERIENCE
|Year||Closer Experience||No Close r Experience||Limited Closer Experience||Percentage|
For whatever reason, only 62% of opening day closers in 2021 had substantive former closing experience. I’m not sure this is anything but a one-year outlier, but perhaps it is a sign of things to come. After all, managers are starting to get more input from their front office in decision-making, meaning that the top pitcher on the team now has a better shot at the closer role than previously. In other words, biases from managers that previously may have affected closer situations may be going by the wayside.
How Many Undisputed Closers Are There?
The prevailing narrative is that there are fewer undisputed closing pitchers than there used to be; “closer-by-committee” is becoming the common approach. Does that hold up? There appears to be some validity to it.
2020 is a bit of an outlier, so it may be closer to just over 50%. Either way, pitchers with a clear grip on the closer role are few and far between. This would support the notion that you should draft a closing pitcher early, especially since undisputed closers are the best path to accumulating the most saves.
Opening day closers who ended up as the undisputed closer averaged 24.59 saves. For those who weren’t? Only 8.97 saves. Long story short, rather than chasing relievers in committees, make sure to target players who are shaping up to be the sole closer on their respective team. This is a difficult task, but one that has to be done.
How Well Does Average Draft Position (ADP) Predict Saves?
Since relievers can be volatile, it’s interesting to think about how well average draft position (ADP) is an indicator of who the best closers are for fantasy purposes. Luckily, now that we have a way to source back previous NFBC Main Event ADP, thanks to rotoholic.com, we can do just that.
For our data set, we will be using the top-30 relievers in ADP from 2019 to 2021, excluding those who got injured- using injured closers would make our analysis weaker, as it isn’t a true indicator of picking the “wrong” closer. Since relievers are starting to move up the draft board, we will use their rank amongst the relievers of that year in ADP, as that will provide a better means of comparison- we’re more worried about if the top closers are truly as valuable as we think they are. From this look, there might be some merit to that idea:
SAVES vs RELIEVER RANK SINCE 2019 (ADP)
When searching for 30-40 saves, the clear spot to look is within the top five. Over the past five years, closers drafted at the top-five at their position have averaged 32.24 saves, while 80% of them have achieved 30 saves or more (2020 stats were extrapolated for the purposes of this investigation). That being said, this isn’t the only takeaway here. There appears to be an extensive amount of volatility with the next tier of closers, which can be approached in different ways. Some may want to embrace the chaos and hope they can land a cheap closer in the elite tier. On the other hand, with some much downside, many will want to play it safer by avoiding this group. In fact, this is exactly why closing pitchers are being pushed up the draft board.
So, how “safe” are the top closing options? Let’s take a look at the top-ten closers for the last three years, and see how they fared:
AVERAGE SAVES VS AGGREGATE RELIEVER RANK SINCE 2019 (ADP): TOP TEN
MEDIAN SAVES VS AGGREATE RELIEVER RANK SINCE 2019 (ADP): TOP TEN
At least for the last three seasons, the top seven to eight closing pitchers have been relatively reliable, though the top-five options still seem to be on their own tier. At the same time, when looking specifically inside the top five, I would hesitate to say that drafting the presumed top closer on the market is needed. As you can see, there has been little difference within the top-five closers, with some busts emerging from the top options.
In 2019, Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen combined for 42 saves. The next two closing pitchers, Kenley Jansen and Brad Hand, combined for over 1.5 times (67) as many saves. That’s a significant difference, and a great reminder that there is very little differentiation from the top closers. Rather than making sure to “get your guy”, the focus should merely be on getting a player in that top-five tier.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to select multiple top closers. However, the opportunity cost of giving up on a top hitter or starting pitcher may not be worth the price you have to pay for those closers. That makes the middle range (#11-30) of the closer search critical; identifying a reliable player from this group can make or break your season, at least when it comes to getting enough saves.
AVERAGE SAVES VS AGGREGATE RELIEVER RANK SINCE 2019 (ADP): #11-30
MEDIAN SAVES VS AGGREATE RELIEVER RANK SINCE 2019 (ADP): #11-30
There is definitely extra volatility when looking at non top-ten drafted relievers. There is overall some reliability from #11-15, which may extend to #9-#15, but, after that, it’s more of a crapshoot. As you can see from some of the successes lower in the reliever ADP ranks, it is possible to find a productive closer later on. However, if you haven’t landed your starting closers in the top-15, you might be in trouble, unless you’re deliberately trying to forego to save category in an attempt to bolster your other categories.
You may want to skip out on this group altogether. That being said, there isn’t much different with the first few spots of this list and back few spots of the top ten- there might be some validity into waiting into the early teens for your second closer, assuming you plan to roster two closers. From there, you can pray on the upside of a closing pitcher after that, but their floor is as low as it gets- you don’t want to have to count on them and should be ready to drop them for another prospective closer at any point.
After all, it is possible to find a reliever on the waiver wire that accumulates a lot of saves:
- In 2021, saves leader Mark Melancon, Alex Reyes (10th), and Emmanuel Clase (14th) all were not drafted amongst the top-30 relievers, even when excluding players who got injured early on.
- In 2020, Trevor Rosenthal (7th) and Matt Barnes (12th) also weren’t drafted amongst the top-30 healthy relievers.
- The same goes for Ian Kennedy (10th), Liam Hendriks (16th), and Carlos Martinez (17th). Hendriks and Martinez each took on the closer role later on in the season and thus offered value at a time where closers may have been losing their job or being traded to teams that didn’t utilize them in that role.
Case in point: the waiver can be your friend when it comes to finding relievers. Now, you’ll have to outbid your league-mates and use your judgment to make the optimal call, but there will be one-to-two relievers who pop out of nowhere to be their team’s closer this season. I’d prefer to not have to rely on that and add extra upside to my team by utilizing the waiver wire to potentially help get me enough saves to get to the very top, but I understand why some may feel it’s okay to play the long game and take a bit of a risk in relying on finding a waiver-wire gem.
High-End Fantasy Closing Pitchers Don’t Need To Be On Winning Teams
In an ideal world, the closing pitchers on your team would be on winning teams. Based on conventional wisdom, a team that wins more would have more save opportunities, meaning that the closers on those teams would be more coveted.
However, just because a closing pitcher is on a team projected to finish below .500 doesn’t mean they cannot be a valuable asset for your fantasy team. Let’s take a look at the number of saves each team had in 2021, and compare that to the number of wins they had:
For the most part, wins (r= .8) is correlated with saves. That being said, there are outliers here. The Padres, Twins, Tigers, and Mets all finished in the top-13 in saves, yet all of them had losing records. On the flip side, the Astros and Blue Jays were in the bottom-ten in saves, despite winning over 90 games. If the projections are incredibly high on a team (Dodgers) or low on a team (Dbacks, Orioles), you may want to avoid closers on those teams, but for the vast majority, team strength shouldn’t be the only determining factor.
After all, there are several closers who have recently provided fantasy value despite being on lackluster teams. Kirby Yates, for instance, had 41 saves despite playing on a 70-win Padres team. In that year, meanwhile, Raisel Iglesias and Will Smith also were near the top of the league in saves, yet played on sub-500 teams. Then, there is the fact that it is still hard to project team success. Who had the Giants at 106 wins, and the Twins only at 73 wins? When given the opportunity between an undisputed closer and a closer in a committee situation, take the one with no competition, even if they are on the inferior team.
So, after diving into the data, can we make a conclusion on what the most optimal approach is for targeting closing pitchers?
The answer is “yes” and “no”. While the data may support a certain approach, there are a lot different ways to look at it, and it comes down to your own interpretation and preferred style of team building. In my opinion, this research makes me prefer the idea of securing a top 5-7 closer (but not the top guy), and then doubling down in the #9-#15 range. Thus, the opportunity cost associated with drafting those two closers isn’t particularly high, but you have some reliability. After that, you can play the waiver wire and take chances later on to add extra potential sources of saves.
When targeting closers, you obviously want them to have the opening day role. Meanwhile, you’d like for them to be the undisputed closer on their team. At the end of the day, the role wins out over team strength, making it the most important factor when deciding between closers.
How to predict this? Look towards closing pitchers with previous closing experience. While we may see teams start to trust younger relievers more often, managers still have a clear bias to experienced veterans – the average age of opening day relievers the past three years is over 30-years-old – regardless if they should or not. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who we believe is the best option, but who the manager trusts the most.
So, will you react with the market and draft a closer early? Or do you prefer risky business? This is the fun of fantasy baseball! My suggestion: have conviction in your strategy, but be flexible. Confidence in your strategy will allow you to fully believe in the team you’re potentially investing money into, while being flexible allows you to draft the best possible team possible and not being too strict on a specific team-building method. At the end of the day, while we do our best to project relievers, the sample size is extremely limited, making it almost a guessing game. Who will be this year’s Mark Melancon? Who will be this year’s 2019 version of Blake Treinen? We’ll just have to wait and let it all play out!