StrategyFebruary 26, 2009

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Use the Rules: Closers (Part 1)

By Drew Szczerba

“Never pay for saves.” It’s perhaps the most recognizable piece of advice in fantasy sports. It’s simple, easy to remember, and frequently reinforced. Plus, there is plenty of evidence to support it. Relievers are generally less predictable and contribute in fewer categories than other players. Spending a high draft pick or a lot of money on a closer is a high-risk play. More importantly, it’s a high-risk play in which the reward is not that great. Hence the rule: “Never pay for saves.” So why am I telling you what you already know?

No matter how much evidence there is to support their devaluation, there is one thing closers have going for them. They are in short supply. There are 30 Major League Baseball teams (if you count the Nationals), which means there are 30 closers available in your draft. Depending on your league settings, there is an excellent chance that all 30 will be taken.

Closers10 Teams12 Teams14 Teams

As you can see, a few small rule changes can cause demand to exceed supply. When this happens, the impact on player value is considerable. So what happens to the value of a closer when there are not enough closers to go around?

As you may have guessed, the value of all closers goes up when supply is unable to meet demand. They do not, however, all go up equally. Lesser closers will see greater swings in their values as league settings change. This is because a marginal closer can go from replacement-level player to coveted player depending on the rules. Let’s take a look at two very different relief pitchers: Joe Nathan and Matt Lindstrom.

Nathan is probably my top closer this year and I’ll generally target him in round seven or eight under most league settings. If the number of teams or the number of closers per team increases, I may consider him a round earlier. Even though I like Nathan, the odds of him ending up on my team are not very good. He usually goes before I’m willing to take him regardless of the league’s parameters. Nathan’s value is relatively static.

Matt Lindstrom is a lower-level closer. In a 12-team league that starts two closers, he’ll likely be taken near the last round and ultimately end up on someone’s bench. If you miss out on him there are five guys like him that will do just fine. But what if that same league were to start three closers instead of two? How would such a change impact Matt Lindstrom’s value?

After 20-plus closers are taken, he starts to look pretty good. If you’ve only drafted one or two closers and you need to start three, he starts to look really good. You may even start to develop a condition known as Questionable Closer-Goggles1 as you anxiously await your next selection. Even though Lindstrom’s stats may not warrant a mid-round pick in a vacuum, his value is determined as much by who’s selected before him as it is by his numbers.

Although this is true to a certain degree for all positions and skill levels, no combination is more dependent than marginal closers. You simply can not go into your draft committed to the idea that Lindstrom equals a 20th-round pick. If it’s round 13 and all but four closers are taken, you’d be justified in pulling the trigger. If it’s round 20 and there are still 12 closers available, you’d be justified in waiting.

One of the more popular arguments against ever paying mid-round prices for marginal closers is that saves will always come into the league during the season. This is not entirely true. Saves and save opportunities are finite. For a different player to get save opportunities another player must lose them. It is a zero sum game. This is part of why most of us are constantly “chasing saves.” When a setup man who is not rostered is named the closer, there’s usually a rush to the wire. That player is in high demand.

As a result of this demand, you may not be able to land the newly-anointed closer you need, as someone else may grab him. Even if you do get him, it may be too late. If you’ve been starting two closers to your leaguemates’ three, an extra closer might not help you catch up in saves. You may already be too far behind. So remember, at your draft you need to pay something for saves and you need to use the rules to determine the correct price.

Next week in “Use the Rules: Closers (Part 2),” I’ll explore some of the other rule variations that might affect how you value closers.

Coming this season, the Cafe will be featuring a thought-provoking lineup of weekly columns! In one column, we’ll break down the bullpens in flux and tell you which setup men you save-chasers should target. Happy drafting!

1. Formerly known as Todd Jones-Goggles

Drew is a born Yankees fan who, not surprisingly, doesn’t particularly care for the Red Sox or Mets. He does, however, have a soft spot in his heart for most small market franchises. He gets an uneasy feeling every time the Yankees overpay for latest big name, and fears they may someday begin to acquire whole teams. Drew has been playing both fantasy baseball and football for 10 years. You can catch up with Drew in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name Case Ace.
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