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Stathead Sagas: Year Of The Closer?

Jack Moore

Jack Moore is a freelance sports writer based in Minneapolis who appears regularly at VICE Sports, The Guardian and Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee, among others. Follow him on Twitter @jh_moore.

Fifty-two different relievers have converted at least two saves. It's June 7th.

Tom Wilhelmsen was the newest addition to that list Wednesday night, working around an Albert Pujols double to pick up his second save since Brandon League's demotion. It took a full season to get 74 players to two saves last season. Although the pace will slow down at some point, 2012 looks to leave that number in the dust.

Some of these names boggle the mind.

Sean Burnett? Who?

Ernesto Frieri? That guy that the Padres got rid of?

Rafael Dolis? You mean the one with more walks than strikeouts?

Dale Thayer? Better mustache than arm.

Given the riff-raff handed the reins of the closer's role this season, one would expect the group as a whole to be performing worse than previous years. Beyond just the relative unknowns of these players, there's also the hype given to “Closer Mentality” – likely a real and important thing, but one that many don't admit a player has until he's already succeeded in the role.

It is, at least on its face, a perfectly reasonable assumption. It is also perfectly wrong. Observe:

The league has posted an ERA of 3.25 so far this season in save situations. Even in these tough offensive times, that's a fantastic mark. Relievers are allowing a 3.72 mark in non-save situations and the league as a whole is at 3.96. But we do have to acknowledge the fact that the league can't hit a lick this season. The league batting average is just .252 and over 78% of plate appearances are ending in outs. It's an easy time to be a pitcher, even if over half of the league's Opening Day closers have been displaced for some reason or other.

To help account for the lack of pop in the bats this year, we can turn to a statistic published on Baseball-Reference called tOPS+. OPS has become more and more en vogue over the years, and OPS+ adjusts for league and park. When looking at splits, we can turn to tOPS+, which is the OPS in the split relative to overall OPS. For example, when looking at a left-handed hitter, he may have a tOPS+ of 130 against right-handed pitching – he hits them 130% better than he hits the league as a whole.

This concept can be applied to groups as well as individuals, and that's precisely what is done in the figure above. This year, relievers in save situations have a tOPS+ of 81 – that is, hitters are producing 81% as much offense in save situations as they are in all situations – the lowest since 2007. In comparison to a 97 tOPS+ in non-save relief situations, that's fantastic.

In Major League Baseball (and in any sport) there are occasionally shifts in where the best talent happens to be. At times, the hitters own the pitchers. Conversely, in 1968, the league ERA was under 3.00. Recently, defense has been stressed as data suggests it's more important than previously given credit for.

It's very possible that there is an influx of relief talent in the game right now. Look at Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen – all three of them have legitimate chances to break the K/9IP record Jansen himself set last year at 16.10. Chapman is just a fraction under Jansen's pace, at 16.07. Kimbrel and Jansen are slacking at 14.57 and 13.81, but it's a long season.

But it shouldn't really surprise us that there are plenty of relievers – non-closers, too – capable of locking down the ninth. There were 26 different relievers in 2011 who bettered Clayton Kershaw's league-best 2.28 ERA among qualified starters. Eight of them had more double-digit saves. Everybody raves about Brian Wilson (3.11 ERA, 95 OPS+ allowed), but Sergio Romo (1.50 ERA, 33 OPS+ allowed) and Santiago Casilla (1.74 ERA, 57 OPS+ allowed) were definitely better pitchers. Same with Casey Janssen (2.26 ERA, 60 OPS+ allowed) and the rest of Toronto's awful bullpen (including Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch).

In a way, a year that was initially defined as a Closer Apocalypse of sorts has tuned into a Year of the Closer. And this is where the fantasy owner can take advantage: with closers pitching so well, their value relative to starting pitchers rises. This is especially true in innings cap leagues, where per-inning production trumps all.

Despite the distinct drop in ERA among late-inning relievers (3.43 in 2011, 3.25 in 2012), the overall league ERA is actually up slightly, from 3.94 to 3.96. Indeed, starter ERA is up from 4.06 to 4.13 while reliever ERA is down from 3.69 to 3.60. Even in WHIP, where the propensity for late inning intentional walks can equalize the usual difference in skill, relievers have the advantage in 2012, 1.296 to 1.318. Last season: 1.316 for starters to 1.315 for relievers.

Thanks to the way “save situation” is classified, a bunch of hold situations end up encompassed as well, but the message for fantasy players is clear: need to cut down your ERA? Grab some relievers. They're killing it this year. If you can get a top or even mid-tier closer at any sort of discount, it's probably worth your while; if you need to slash your ERA even without regard for saves, grab some setup men.

At least through the first two months of the season, there's been a revolution in the relief ranks. When it's late and close, pitchers are locking down as well as they have in recent memory, and fantasy owners who can stuff the most of these guys on their rosters will be rewarded more handsomely than ever.