Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fantasy Focus: Relief From Relief Pitchers

Most fantasy baseball leagues have a single category of Saves which SP's cannot help you with and the vast majority of points in the category are tied up at any given time in just 30 RP's who are designated as Closers by the respective MLB manager.  This creates, by far, the biggest headache and deepest intrigue in managing a fantasy baseball team.  Those 30 RP's come to have way more value than is warranted in real-life baseball and when you factor in the sometimes irrational exuberance over acquiring closers by fantasy managers, well, you really have an extremely skewed value allocation in the sport.

My own experience with RP's and Saves is very checkered, so don't look at me as being an expert by any means.  My experiences have pretty much run the gamut of options for dealing with the category, so I'll start with telling my story and then try to finish up with some comments.  Maybe some of the readers here will find it all helpful.

My first year in Fantasy baseball, I inherited a team with 5 very bad Keepers, so I tried to draft mostly young players with a lot of upside hoping to upgrade my Keepers.  I was able to accomplish this nicely.  My league expanded their Keepers to 6 players divided between 3 position players and 3 pitchers.  I was drafting #9 in a 10 team league.  When I got to the 3'rd and 4'th rounds, I decided I already had 3 pretty good SP's and now had 5 pretty good position players.  There were a few guys who had kept closers but none had been taken in the draft.  I got the jump on everybody by drafting 2 closers in rounds 3 and 4.  I ended up with a couple more a bit later in the draft.  I was very competitive in the Saves category and won my league championship in my second season of managing.  Now, with 6 Keepers and 2 additional draft rounds, that meant I was really drafting my closers in rounds 9 and 10, so I don't look at it as taking those closers early.  Everybody else got started too late!

The next season, I got out of sync in my draft and ended up with a weak team that finished 8'th in the 10 team league. The next season, I found myself with just 1 decent closer early in the season and opted to trade him and punt the Saves category entirely.  I put SP's with dual eligibility in the RP slots and tried to win as many W's and K's as I could and letting ERA and WHIP take care of themselves.  That strategy worked well enough for a 4'th place finish, but I found that punting one category completely forces you to go 6-3 in the remaining 9 categories just to salvage a 6-4 win and that can be very tough to do, especially in the playoff H2H's against good teams.

Last year, our league dropped the Keepers and went to an auction draft.  I drafted Brian Wilson, Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour, Kyle Farnsworth and Vinnie Pestano.  We all know what happened to Wilson.  Nathan had a good season, but Balfour lost and re-won his closer job with the A's at least 3 or 4 times.  Farnsworth took too long coming back from an injury and lost his job to Fernando Rodney and Pestano was never able to wrest the closer job away from Chris Perez in Cleveland.  I tried to pick up closers off the FA/Waiver Wire, but just couldn't get any traction.  By the time the playoffs rolled around, I was essentially punting the Saves category.  On the other hand, my friend came out of the draft without any closers at all, worked very hard at picking them up as the season went along, and ended up with 5 good ones.  I ended up beating him 6-4 in the championship H2H.

It's pretty easy to calculate how many closers you need to carry to be competitive in your league.  Just divide the number of closers at any given time, which is always 30, by the number of teams in the league.  For most leagues, you are going to need 3.  When you factor in that there are always 1 or 2 teams going with closer-by-committee, coupled with 3-4 really bad closers who will destroy your ERA and WHIP in any given week, add in the probability that at least 2-3 managers in your league will try to horde closers and it can be very tough to roster even 2, let alone 3.

So, what is a thoroughly frustrated manager to do?  Here are the realistic options I can think of:

1.  Accept the fact that you are going to overpay for Closers and make sure you get at least 3 in your draft.  Your job in this case is to not grossly overpay, such as paying $20 for Craig Kimbrel in an auction draft.  I would say it's reasonable to look for your first 2 closers somewhere in rounds 7-10 in a snake draft.  By that time you should have 5-6 position players drafted and 1-2 SP's.  Remember, you don't have to get Kimbrel as the first RP taken.  The #5-15 Closers are all almost as good as #1-4, but you also don't want to get buried by a run.  In Auction drafts, it's a good idea to budget $15-20 out of your $260 for your RP's.  You aren't going to get any for $1 in most real auctions.

2.  Punt the category in the draft, but try to acquire RP's off the FA/Waiver Wire as the season goes along.  Last year was a particularly volatile year for Closers, but in most years, you can count on a turnover at the position of about 1 in 3.  There will be opportunities to add Closers, but you have to remember that other managers will be scouring the same waiver wire looking for the same thing.  Be prepared to spend an inordinate amount of your time bird-dogging Closers and it still might not be enough!  A reasonable compromise strategy would be to try to get 1 or 2 Closers in the draft and add on from the FA/Waiver Wire after the season starts.

3.  Punt the category and fill your RP and 1 or 2 or your swing slots with good setup men.  These guys often log more innings than the closer on their team and often have exceptionally good ERA's WHIP's and K/9's.  If you get 3-5 of them on your team, they will get you as many K's as 2 good starters and will help your ERA and WHIP and not by a small amount.  They will even get you a Save here and there which might win you the category against another team that is also Save challenged.  They just won't help you build up very many W's.

4.  Punt the category and load up on SP's who have dual RP eligibility.  This enables you to potentially dominate the W and K categories and if you choose carefully, you can do quite well in ERA and WHIP too.  This probably only works in H2H leagues where you can use your bench as an extended rotation.  Many rotisserie leagues have innings limits which prevent you from running up K's and W's by piling up IP from a stockpile of starters.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you fantasy baseball players out there.  I will write another post about specific RP's another time.


  1. Awesome Dr. B, good to know that I'm not the only person who is frustrated by this position in fantasy baseball. I think I like the strategy of drafting 1 or 2 who you have the least amount of doubt about and then possibly get their handcuffs (set up guy or next in line on that team to close if they get injured) to protect yourself. Then try to pick up a closer or 2 on the waiver wire as others are injured or lose their jobs.

    One more thing I wanted to ask you Dr. B as I am remembering back to last offseason and all of the points I tried to make that ended up being received with mixed reviews. 2 players I liked and wanted to see the Giants take a chance on were Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes. At the time you had very little confidence in either but I noticed both are now fantasy favorites of yours. Looking back, would you change your take on those players or do you still think the risk was too great to take (especially for Darvish)?

    Lastly, I noticed you are targeting a few young pitchers like Bundy and Bauer I think but do you have any young position players to keep an eye out for a midseason callup? I was thinking Profar and Olt from Texas off of the top of my head.

    1. Cespedes and Darvish are both good players. They both have tremendous upside, but both carry some risk, Darvish, that he may not ever get his walk rate down and Cespedes that he may continue to get nicked up and miss time in the lineup. They were both costly signs for their respective teams. In retrospect, it looks like it might work out for those teams. I'm still not convinced it was the right move for the Giants at the time.

      As for position players with rookie eligibility, if you look at a combination of performance potential and potential to receive an early callup and playing time, I guess I would go with Wil Myers of the Ray, recently traded there from the Royals. Oscar Tavares is a terrific prospect for the Cardinals, but he will have to wait for Beltran to get injured and if Beltran stays healthy, he will have to wait until next year. Profar is a great pickup for a keeper league, but may not hit enough right out of the gate. Olt may be challenged for playing time too,

    2. I know this comes across as me just being stubborn, and maybe I am. I just don't think the Giants were in a position to go after international FA's with a pricetag in the mid-high 8 figures, and it's just not part of Sabean's MO anyway. They had their hands full with arbitration for Timmy and a long term 9 figure contract for Matt Cain. Plus they have an extension looming with Buster Posey.

      One more thing, Cespedes may work out great for the A's. He certainly looks good so far, but he does represent a sea change in philosophy for Billy Beane, and kudos to Billy Beane for not allowing himself to be boxed in by the Moneyball caricature.

  2. It is hard not to like what the A's are doing with limited resources. Last year I thought it would be an interesting idea to sign Darvish and trade either Cain or Timmy (this was before Cain signed his extension and nobody was positive he was going to stick around). I think Darvish pitching in the NL west with half his games at AT&T instead of Texas would have made him a cy young candidate. I remember watching him pitch against the Blue Jays and it seemed like every pitch for the first 4 or 5 innings went exactly where he wanted it to except for one mistake that Encarnacion took him deep on. Cespedes would look really good in left last year instead of Melky but who knows how it all would have turned out.

    1. Darvish and Cespedes are two of the more interesting players in MLB right now. I like both of them, but part of what makes them interesting is the distance between their ceiling and floor. Both levels got significantly higher for them last year, though. Right now, I'm just hoping Yasiel Puig is not another Cespedes. I think he's the one guy who could make the Dodgers truly dangerous right now.

    2. The history of Japanese starters coming to the US is pretty bad. The only ones I've seen been successful consistently were because they were pitching in pitcher's parks (like Dodger Stadium). Then Dice-K was good for a little bit but he's done already. Maybe Yu is different, but then you are betting against the bad history so far.

      Same with Cespedes: most Cubans coming to the majors have not done that great, especially right off the bat, many struggle. This was either a big win for the A's scouting or just a lot of good luck. Hard to tell with just one. Given all their problems starting with the CarGon trade to Rockies and the downward spiral of prospects that they got out of that trade, and all the prior trades that went south really badly (like Hudson, Swisher, and Ethier, plus keeping the wrong free agent players, like 3B Eric), I would just say that they decided to roll the dice and got lucky. Their method, best as I can see it is more akin to throwing jell-O against the wall and seeing what sticks.

      His early success reflects the high draft picks he got at the start of his job. His struggles since those glory days reflect closer to his actual talent level as GM, I think. Durazo was one of his white whales and that didn't go well. People forget but one of his prized picks in that Moneyball draft was Jeremy Brown, who never did anything in the majors. In fact, anyone looking at those drafts will find a decided lack of success. Most GM's who end up trading away Ethier and CarGon and getting essentially nothing in return would have been fired already. Plus you can add in Hudson and Swisher too.

      His successes, to me, reflect "if you do anything enough times, you'll be successful eventually in one way or another." He needs to keep 2012's success rolling forward for a few more years before I'll credit him for rebuilding successfully. One year does not a success makes.

  3. Wow, I just saw Jedd Gyorko hit a grand slam in his first at bat for SD. He might be another good rookie to draft late, should have 2B and 3B eligibility.

    1. Yep, need to keep an eye on him through spring training.

      Another guy who is less under the radar is Josh Rutledge of Colorado. If he wins the starting 2B job, he also has SS eligibility from last year, so he could be a nice MI option. I'm always interested in hitters who play half their games at Coors Field.

  4. I'll share my experience with closers and reliever too. But unlike DrB, my experience is with public league and seasonal categories, not H2H.

    My first year in Fantasy Baseball, I was forced to scramble. I didn't understand how the Yahoo rankings worked and ended up with a team of Giants players (when they weren't any good, Durham was the best guy and you know what he did..., though I did get Bonds too) plus I think Hawkins was my only closer, only he was a closer the season before and just joined a team where he'll be setup. Disaster draft.

    I ended up winning the closer category though. I monitored every team's closer situation (lots of fantasy columns on that) and jumped on the new closer when it looked good. Dustin Hermanson and Derrick Turnbow were good additions.

    So that became my M.O. for playing, punting the save category. I didn't always win the category doing that, you need turnover to do that. But I generally did well, as there usually was a lot of turnover most seasons. However, that requires you to be able to jump on news quickly to pull a guy off the waiver wire.

    I would recommend punting the category if you also following this tactic: get great strikeout relievers instead. A strategy I read turned me onto this tactic. The guy said that one way to help you win the ERA, WHIP, and strikeout categories (i.e. 3 of 5 categories) is to pick up great setup relievers, as they have great ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts. That has seemed to work for me when I'm lacking on closers.

    Plus, I find that this works really well on teams with iffy closers, as oftentimes the team would put my good reliever into the closer spot when the closer falters.