30 Teams, 30 Players: The Mariners’ Edwin Diaz

Edwin Diaz recorded his 50th save of the season Sunday against the Diamondbacks. Going into Tuesday’s game, he leads the closer pool by a wide margin, with Craig Kimbrel next in saves with 37. There are 38 relievers with 10 or more saves so far this season – just taking those relievers, he’s 1.35 standard deviations better than Kimbrel and nearly two full standard deviations better than the rest of the pack. His value goes beyond saves – he’s second among full-time relievers in strikeouts with 108 (trailing only Josh Hader, who has 115), and he has microscopic ratios, with a 1.97 ERA and 0.781 WHIP in 64 innings. He’s just as dominant as he was in his rookie year, and he’s shed the control problems that held him down in 2017. I’m less concerned, however, in how he’s doing it, but more interested in his overall impact on the standings this year.

Let’s start off with a basic angle – as should surprise no one, Diaz is the most valuable relief pitcher in 2018, by a pretty comfortable amount. Using RotoWire’s Earned Auction Values tool, Diaz has been worth $27 in 15-team mixed leagues, with a 65-35% budget allocation. Only Blake Treinen has earned in the $20’s at $23, and everyone else has earned $17 or less. He towers over the pack of relievers this year.

Liss and I happened to bring up Diaz on our “Talking Yang” football podcast this week, and speculated that there’s probably a good correlation between those who own Diaz and those doing well in the overall contest. Let’s face it, you only need another half-closer to be crushing saves if you own him, rather than chasing the awful speculative closers in waiting that have been out there this year. So I decided to dig into the overall standings of the NFBC Main Event to test that hypothesis.

Not to get all click-bait happy, but what I found really surprised me. Of the top 20 teams in the overall Main Event standings, only one (the fifth place team) owns Edwin Diaz. Only one team owns Craig Kimbrel, and none have Kenley Jansen. Unlike Jansen and Kimbrel, Diaz’s draft cost wasn’t very high. His ADP in the 34 15-team Main Events was 86.35, with a range of the 67th pick to the 108th pick. On average he was the eighth closer taken:

  1. Kelley Jansen, 42.06
  2. Craig Kimbrel, 51.91
  3. Aroldis Chapman, 63.82
  4. Roberto Osuna, 73.88
  5. Corey Knebel, 78.12
  6. Felipe Vazquez, 82.91
  7. Cody Allen, 83.71
  8. Edwin Diaz, 86.35

Let’s go back to those top-20 overall teams. I was struck by the diversity of closers on those teams. Blake Treinen was one of two pitchers on five of those teams, the most any pitcher appeared. That shouldn’t be a surprise – Treinen is having a great year, having picked up his 33rd save Tuesday night. His ADP was 140.88, well down the middle tiers of closers. Sure enough, the guy that’s leading my individual Main Event league, the “coldwater coyotes,” owned by William Tyrer (21st overall) also owns Treinen. The other closer on five top-20 teams? The one and only Bud Norris, a guy that didn’t sign until February, didn’t begin the year as the closer, and wasn’t thought of as the full-time closer, but rather someone holding the job until Greg Holland was ready. Twenty eight saves later, Norris is helping out a lot of winning owners in a season where there haven’t been too many good full-time closers to be plucked off the waiver wire.

Here’s the list of primary closers (roughly defined as 15 saves or more this season) on those 20 teams, along with how many teams that they are on:

  1. 5 – Blake Treinen, Bud Norris
  2. 3 – Brad Hand, Shane Greene, Brad Boxberger, Fernando Rodney
  3. 2 – Aroldis Chapman
  4. 1 – Edwin Diaz, Craig Kimbrel, Wade Davis, Raisel Iglesias, Sean Doolittle, Keone Kela, Felipe Vazquez, Arodys Vizcaino, Brandon Morrow, Cody Allen.

While I’m hesitant to draw broad conclusions from one season, let alone one contest, score one for the “don’t pay (big) for saves” crowd. You still need to get closers in the NFBC – punting the category still seems like a non-starter if you want to compete in the overall, let alone have a chance at winning it. With the caveat that looking at the top 20 teams is an arbitrary endpoint, I think we can stipulate that all of these teams are going to cash in their individual leagues and have a chance at an overall payout too. The lowest top-20 overall team in saves still has 37 saves.

There is one angle that we might be overlooking, that would allow Diaz owners to inch up the leaderboard. If you have a balanced team and want to compete in your league, let alone the overall, you need to average hitting the 80th percentile in all the categories. Last year, it was a little easier to hit that target – you needed around 80 saves, rather than the 88-89 that it took the previous four years. This year we’re on a course for roughly the same target. The 80th percentile in the Main Event is sitting at 67 saves, which projects to be around 80-81 at the end of the season. If you start with Diaz and his 50+ saves, chances are you might already be there, or near there. You can start loading up your roster with more starters down the stretch to stream against bad lineups, and add more wins and strikeouts. And because you’re not chasing saves, chances are you probably have enough FAAB to accomplish that task each week. As someone who blew a lot of FAAB money to try to replace the injured Sean Doolittle (please come back!), I can tell you I miss having that extra FAAB right now.

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I think that the main reason that target has been lowered is that teams are managing their bullpens differently. Look at the Phillies and the Astros as two examples from winning teams. They haven’t employed full-time closers the extent of the season – only in monthly spurts in the case of the Astros, and with even less regularity in Philly. What’s good for that team in terms of bullpen management is a nightmare for the fantasy owner. Diaz conversely not only has gotten almost every save chance, but the Mariners have cooperated by having a ton of one-run victories. Overall in MLB, saves are up a little from 2017 (.257 saves per game, as opposed to .243 per game last year), but still down from previous years, and more widely dispersed.

Next year’s article on how to attack saves could be difficult. While I’d like to emulate those Treinen, Hand and Boxberger owners, it seems a little too volatile to wholly rely on that class of closers in 2019 costs. I think that will be especially acute in live drafts. Diaz’s success has forced me to reconsider his draft tier, however – most likely at the expense of the top tier of closers. Which means I might miss out on Edwin Diaz for another year, in search of the next Edwin Diaz.