Are Elite Closers Undervalued?

Recently, some of RotoWire’s top men have been recapping their experiences in expert leagues like Tout Wars and elite NFBC events, and one common refrain in all of them has been how to handle saves: how early is too early to pop a closer? How long can you wait to grab one? That sort of thing.

Looking at the overall pool of closer talent, it’s easy to see why so much effort is going into getting it right. The top two closers by ADP, Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen, have little track record of success in the role, just a very shiny 2018 on their resume, and Diaz switched teams in the offseason to boot. The names fantasy GMs are used to seeing at the top of the list all seem to have warts — Kenley Jansen has had health scares, Aroldis Chapman posted a grisly 14.2 percent walk rate last year, and Craig Kimbrel doesn’t even have an employer yet.

What isn’t being talked about as much, as least as much as I think it should be, is the changes happening in bullpen usage around the league, and the impact that could have on fantasy saves as a whole.

As part of the wave of “analytics driven” strategy that has produced things like the exaggerated shift and the new four-man outfield, some teams are moving towards a more flexible bullpen that puts their best relievers in the highest leverage spots, not necessarily in the ninth inning. The Rays got all the press last season for their use of openers and such, but Gabe Kapler and the Phillies weren’t afraid to flaunt convention either — Victor Arano had a three-save week out of the blue in July, then never sniffed another one.

A look at our closer page suggests that trend will only snowball in 2019. As many as 10 teams — Arizona, Boston, the White Sox, Kansas City, Miami, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis and Tampa Bay — seem like they could enter the season without an “official” closer, and a handful of others, such as the Cubs, Cincinnati and San Francisco, also seem like bullpens where multiple relievers could be in the save mix. As more teams leave the idea of a set, one-inning closer behind, it will become easier for other managers to avoid having one, as Conventional Wisdom on How To Run Your Bullpen loses its grip.

If we are entering an era where multiple relievers on a team could be options for saves on any given night depending on matchups, who’s rested, etc., overall save totals in fantasy baseball will start to decline, as there won’t be enough active rosters spots for all the relievers in those committees, and some saves will slip through the cracks (just as Arano’s probably did in your league last year). Consider this: only 11 pitchers notched 30 or more saves last year, the same number as in 2017. In 2016, there were 16 closers with 30-plus saves. In 2015, there were 21, and looking back over the decade before that, the 16-19 range was the norm.  If that trend holds, the pool of “top” closers could well be cut in half compared to what we’re used to.

On the one hand, this makes it easier to punt or semi-punt saves in home and office leagues. Not investing prime resources into closers might still be able to net you 3-4 points in the category if enough other teams are in the same boat. In ultra-competitive leagues, though, and especially in formats like the NFBC where you’re competing against the entire field, securing one or even two of those top options would seem to be paramount. Sure, there were still pop-up closers who became great FAAB buys last year — Treinen, Kirby Yates, Jose Leclerc — but as save chances get spread around, that pipeline will become even more unreliable, increasing your chances of being left high and dry in the overall standings.

We’ve actually seen something like this phenomenon before, just in a different sport. In recent years, NFL teams have started to separate into haves and have nots when it comes to running backs. Franchises lucky enough to have a Saquon Barkley or Ezekiel Elliott lean on them heavily, and those players remain the first ones off the board in fantasy drafts. Teams without a three-down bell cow, however, have increasingly turned to timeshares and committees rather than give an inferior talent extra touches, and as a result the ADP gap between the top tier and the rest has widened.

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Baseball teams are beginning to approach save chances the same way — if you have a stud, you use him, but if not you look for advantages that might allow a lesser talent to pitch like a stud in a specific situation. From a fantasy strategy perspective, that should mean go big or go home on closers. Either use prime resources to secure those elite, dependable save sources, or cast a wide net late and hope to get lucky. Getting stuck in the middle, and rostering a few committee relievers who might only get you 15-20 saves even if they pitch well, seems like a scenario guaranteed to shut you out of a top finish in the category.

Right now, the first approach isn’t really happening — as of today’s NFBC data, there isn’t a single closer inside the top 50 (Diaz is No. 51 on the list, with an average ADP of 50.7) — but maybe it should be, if you want to get ahead of the emerging trend rather than chasing it.