For the past three seasons
, I have chased my own tail in trying to predict how closers will perform each season.
The premise of the strategy is simple: closers are born to fail. Year after year, a noticeable percentage of ninth-inning men get hurt or lose their jobs. We know from work originally done by Ron Shandler at BaseballHQ that roughly 30% of closers lose their job within the season and saves come out of the woodwork. Edward Mujica
, Kevin Gregg
, Jim Henderson
, Joaquin Benoit
, Mark Melancon
, Rex Brothers
, Bobby Parnell
, Danny Farquhar
, and Heath Bell
each saved 15 games without opening the season as the closer and nearly all of them were undrafted in mixed league formats. 2013 simply echoed 2010 when I began the strategy after reviewing the Tout Wars results and finding that relievers who went undrafted in the 15-team mixed auction accounted for 227 saves that season.
The experts vary on how to treat closers, and the format in which you play can dictate your opinion as well. If you play in a head-to-head league or use a no-trade format like NFBC, you cannot punt a category, and even if you play standard roto, saves are still one-eighth or one-tenth of your scoring. Several years ago, I won an AL-only league while compiling only 13 saves on the season, but that required nailing nearly every other category and besting my closest competitor by a single run to win the league outright. Relying on that sort of strategy annually is imprudent, and that’s why I came up with my own way to embrace my fear of closers.
This plan involves staring into a matrix – a matrix of what I consider to be the essential skills for evaluating closers. The list of skills has not been a static one as I have made a few tweaks each year to it, but these are the current skills I use when making my evaluation of relievers:
- K% - Does the pitcher miss bats?
- BB% - Does the pitcher avoid handing out freebies?
- Zone-Contact% - Can the pitcher miss bats while pitching within the strike zone?
- HR/9 – Can the pitcher keep the ball in the yard?
- BABIP – Is pitcher coming off an abnormally high or low season? What is their career baseline?
- LOB% - Is pitcher coming off an abnormally high or low season? What is their career baseline?
- HR/FB% - Is pitcher coming off an abnormally high or low season? What is their career baseline?
- SwSTR% - Can the pitcher miss bats when batters swing?
- Split% - Does the pitcher have drastic splits in how they handle RH or LH batters?
The good news is that if you would like to do your own leaderboard and add and/or subtract from this list, you can create a free leaderboard at fangraphs
to do this.
The other thing I like to do is compare the closers to the league average for other closers. If we compare closers to starters, it skews the results because starters have lower strikeout rate, lower LOB%, and lower Zone-Contact%. Simply put, closers are more dominant than most of their starting counterparts because closers work in short bursts and are often utilized in favorable matchups as well as against pinch-hitters. The threshold for the league average closer is high. Last season, this is how the closers performed as a group:
The embedded worksheet below shows the projected closers for each team as well as a few representatives in committees and how they stack up against the league average in each of the aforementioned skills. If you scroll all the way over to the right for each player, I include some brief thoughts on each player. If you prefer a local copy of the worksheet, you can view it and download it here