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How to Win: Saves

Saves are a curious phenomenon. Invented quite recently--for a stat with the weight of tradition--their presence in baseball's statistical pantheon has actually changed the way games are played and millions of dollars are apportioned. If not for this category, you might still be seeing the game's best relievers pitching the seventh and eighth innings of tied ballgames...not waiting until the ninth, only to sit down if a lead disappears or grows over three. See, saves are illogical, and that's just something we all have to accept before we can win this category.

Saves are subject to several factors, only one of which is a pitcher's performance. Since nearly all saves are doled out to just 30 pitchers at any given time, the manager's choice of pitcher matters too. For some teams (like the Braves) the choice is easy. The Tigers are having a tough time with it. What goes into the manager's closer decision? Who knows for sure, but performance, raw ability, reputation, and appearance all seem to go into it. Recent performance matters too: a quality pitcher can go into a rough patch with a closer gig and high fantasy value and leave with neither. Finally, winning games is part of it too...but, so is winning by a little. I like to target good or mediocre teams with better pitching than hitting.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to win this one: more closers, or more information. 

To help you do either one, our first list is of the 24 closers who have a firm grip on their jobs. Note that this is not the same as last year's leaders, nor is it a ranking. You can check out our RP Rankings, or our Closer Depth Chart for information on each team's backup closers.

Firm Closers*

AL West

Grant Balfour, OAK
Tom Wilhelmsen, SEA
Jose Veras, HOU
Joe Nathan, TEX

NL West

Sergio Romo, SFG
Rafael Betancourt, COL
J.J. Putz, ARI
Huston Street, SDP

AL Central

Greg Holland, KCR
Glen Perkins, MIN
Chris Perez, CLE
Addison Reed, CHW

NL Central

John Axford, MIL
Jason Grilli, PIT
Jonathan Broxton, CIN**
Jason Motte, STL

AL East

Mariano Rivera, NYY
Joel Hanrahan, BOS
Jim Johnson, BAL
Fernando Rodney, TBR

NL East

Steve Cishek, MIA
Jonathan Papelbon, PHI
Rafael Soriano, WAS
Craig Kimbrel, ATL

*I say firm, but you know I don't mean it. These guys might not be fighting for jobs now, but any could lose it during the season to injury, sudden ineffectiveness, or manager's caprice.

**Brox is solidly a closer as long as the "Aroldis Chapman: Starting Pitcher" plan continues. If Chapman returns to the bullpen, expect him to bump Broxton out of the closer's chair.

With only 24 known closers this late into Spring Training, saves are already a rarer draft commodity than they used to be. It's down to two guys per team in a standard league; you could easily be stuck with just one in a deep league. The volatility inherent to closers makes me usually want to avoid them early in drafts (what I really like is snapping up three or four of the last six taken, but that doesn't look like such a good idea this year). This year, more than in others, I'd strongly consider using early and middle picks to get more than one of the top closers.

Closer Cage Matches

Not every save comes from a closer with a solid job. Each division hosts a team that can't seem to make up its mind about their stopper, and you can (with a little luck) profit from taking a chance with pitchers in those situations. Just don't depend on them. I went into a little more detail about these cases on Friday, so I'll keep it brief here.

Angels: Ernesto Frieri v. Ryan Madson

Frieri should start as closer; the plan is that Madson will return to the job when he's healthy.

Dodgers: Brandon League v. Kenley Jansen

League has been dubbed "closer" by the Dodgers...but they've done this before, and Jansen is really, really good. Especially at striking people out.

Tigers: Bruce Rondon v. Joaquin Benoit v. Al Alburquerque v. Phil Coke v. someone they haven't traded for yet.

This one's a mess. If you can spare your last round pick to have a horse in the race, go for it.

Cubs: Carlos Marmol v. Kyuji Fujikawa

Marmol is the closer. Marmol is very available in trade. Don't expect him to close in his new destination.

Blue Jays: Sergio Santos v. Casey Janssen

Janssen is hurt, but was supposed to have the job. Santos was pitching very well, but he was hurt last year and now he might be a little bit hurt.

Mets: Bobby Parnell v. Frank Francisco

Parnell is a pretty good pitcher who isn't hurt. Francisco is a volatile (but underrated) pitcher who is hurt.

Any of these situations could also end up in job shares or committee approaches. I've listed the current frontrunner first in each case (though others might be less bullish on Santos and Parnell), but all of these teams' plans are way up in the air.

Draft More Closers

Now that we've actually found the closers, we can get back into some real strategy. As I said above (long ago, by now), one of the two main ways to win saves is to have the most closers. In some years, you can do this on the cheap, by getting undervalued closers way at the back end of your draft. This year, not so much. You can also spend heavily on the most elite closers, those unlikely to lose their jobs even after blowing two or three saves in a row. (That can happen to anybody.)

I recently tried this strategy out in a Yahoo! mock draft. A standard Yahoo! league is very shallow, and it doesn't contain MI or CI spots, and only runs three OF's. What does this mean for closers? Well, if I only need one player at each premium position, then I can stand to spend a little more on closers. That's what I did. I drafted four closers, and if this were a real league, I would win saves for sure with this crew. Here's my whole team (for context), with relievers in black:

1. Giancarlo Stanton (Mia - OF) 
2. Edwin Encarnacion (Tor - 1B) 
3. Cliff Lee (Phi - SP) 
4. Craig Kimbrel (Atl - RP) 
5. Aramis Ramirez (Mil - 3B) 
6. Shin-Soo Choo (Cin - OF) 
7. Jonathan Papelbon (Phi - RP) 
8. Jose Altuve (Hou - 2B) 
9. Michael Bourn (Cle - OF) 
10. Ian Kennedy (Ari - SP) 
11. Anibal Sanchez (Det - SP) 
12. Nick Swisher (Cle - 1B,OF) 
13. Brian McCann (Atl - C) 
14. John Axford (Mil - RP) 
15. Jason Grilli (Pit - RP) 
16. Alcides Escobar (KC - SS) 
17. Todd Frazier (Cin - 1B,3B,OF) 
18. Wade Miley (Ari - SP) 
19. Hisashi Iwakuma (Sea - SP,RP) 
20. Josh Rutledge (Col - 2B,SS) 
21. James McDonald (Pit - SP) 
22. Bronson Arroyo (Cin - SP) 
23. Jason Hammel (Bal - SP) 

My starting pitching is a little thin, and I don't have much bench, but I think it's a decent team. (If you don't, let me know in the comments, so I don't do this in a real draft...) The important thing, though, is that I will win saves.

Presumably, you can spend extra on saves without going to this extreme. One way to do this is to grab closers that are better than their draft positions. In case you didn't notice, I did a little of that on the team above.

John Axford is the 5th reliever going on MockDraftCentral, and 8th on RotoAuthority's rankings, so there's no value there...except that he's number 13 on Yahoo!

Similarly, Glen Perkins is our 15th ranked closer, and he goes at a fair 14th on MDC, but you can get him 21st on Yahoo!

Jason Grilli is our 10th closer ranked, but he's going 19th on MDC and 17th on Yahoo! Grilli (and his awesome 13.81 K/9) are very underrated.

Rafael Betanourt is our 14th closer, but he's 18th on MDC and 16th on Yahoo!

Addison Reed is our 17th closer, but he's 22nd on MDC and 20th on Yahoo!

Huston Street is our number 16, but he lasts until number 24 on MDC. On Yahoo!, though, he's ranked 12th, so be careful.

Jose Veras is way down everybody's lists, but saves could be extra-hard for him to come by: even at 250 overall on Yahoo! and 303 on MDC, he's probably still the second Houston Astro taken in many drafts. Yeah, that's a bad team.

Any of these pitchers--or any other--could get very underrated in any draft you might do. Even when intending to fill some other position, remember to consider grabbing a value closer if one slips to you. In an auction, of course, this is even easier to see, though your leaguemates might make you pay a premium if they notice you trying to amass an All-Star bullpen.

Get More Information

You can succeed in saves without spending more than the competition. In last year's Silver League, the team that won in saves finished at or near the top of the whole league standings. That team didn't break the bank on closers in the draft (though I seem to recall them spending the normal amount). Instead, throughout the year, they consistently snatched up some of the best closers to take over jobs midseason. Helpfully, I believe they started by nabbing Fernando Rodney.

If you think you can succeed this way, I say go for it. All it means is more more work, and it can really pay off. Following our own @CloserNews Twitter feed is a great way to start, but I'd suggest loading up on as many information sources as you can. It helps living on the West Coast, or staying up late to catch the night games and news. Injuries and managerial decisions can happen at any time, and in many leagues, a newly minted closer will have been snatched up by the time you wake up in the morning. 

There's another way to squeeze saves out of your team, and that is to stream setup guys. It takes some seriously careful watching (it was a lot easier for me to do when I was taking night shifts on the @CloserNews feed, I'll tell you that), but when a closer has pitched two or three days in a row, you won't expect him to come in the next day, so you grab his backup and hope for a save opp. For a couple years, I've wanted to try devoting a whole team to this strategy, but I haven't gotten around to it, mostly for time zone related reasons.

A Few Final Words: Different Strategies for Different Leagues

I'm in five different leagues next season, and I'll have at least four different strategies for success in saves. If your league does daily changes and has a lot of open P slots, then either of the strategies above will work well for you. You can leave most of your relievers in on most days (or cycle in your streamers), and sit them when you need to put in extra starters. It's like reliever paradise. I'll probably go for quantity in one, and information in another and see what happens.

But I also play in leagues with weekly lineup changes and waiver wire pickups, and one of them allows only two relievers--but awards them a ton of points. For these, my plan will (probably) be to get at least one high quality reliever, one medium quality guy, and a third or fourth injury backup. Or maybe I'll go for two of the top ten and hope for the best. We'll see how the draft goes.

Some leagues do quite a few categories: 7x7 or even 10x10. The more categories you have, the less you should spend on closers. Similarly, points leagues can have very valuable closers, or make them pretty worthless. On the flip side of things, if you play in a 4x4 league (the original standard), saves just got way more valuable. Ratchet closers up your lists accordingly.

Whether you play in a deep league or a shallow league, with weekly changes or daily, with just two RP slots or more than you can even use, there is a value for saves out there. Whatever it is pay that, and not more. In a head-to-head league, you could even punt the category (but don't, because someone else will and even one closer will beat that team twice next year), but every little bit helps in standard Rotisserie.

There's an old adage floating around in the aether of our cultural consciousness that, "It's better to be lucky than good." Nowhere is this more true than in getting saves for your fantasy baseball team, so: good luck!

By the way, this concludes the standard 5x5 categories, but it doesn't conclude the How to Win series. My plan is to examine OBP next week, since plenty of leagues use the stat and it indirectly affects all leagues. If a bunch of people clamor for something else, though, maybe I'll change the plan....



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