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How to Win 2014: Saves

No category and position are more closely related than Saves and the closers who luck into earn them. You certainly can't make up for lousy saves production out of your relievers by getting a third baseman who specializes in closing out ballgames. (You know...they way you might compensate for non-stealing middle infielders....) So, we're stuck with relievers.

There are more problems with relievers: they're inconsistent from outing to outing and year to year; they're pitchers and so more likely to get injured than others; they pitch in extremely small sample sizes, so luck doesn't even come close to evening out and a single bad night can ruin a season's ERA; their accumulation of Saves is subject to team performance, and that not even of winning but of winning by a certain small margin; their presence in the closer's role is dependent entirely on managerial fiat.

Wow. That list of problems is even worse in print than it was in my head. No wonder RotoAuthority's resident closer expert, Luckey Helms, argues against paying for saves

But I digress. The risks associated with relief pitchers aren't the topic of this article. How to reap their benefits is.

Strategy 1: Buy Those Saves

When you look at RA's Closer Rankings (or anyone else's, probably), you'll see four names far above the rest: Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Greg Holland. In some outlets you might see our fifth through seventh guys rated near them as well: Koji Uehara, Joe Nathan, and Trevor Rosenthal. These seven pitchers aren't so highly rated because they're the best sources of saves, though.

No, premium closers are premium because they do so much more than save games, offering the possibilities of sub 2.00 ERA's and K/9's over 12.00. All that is great if you're looking to build a balanced fantasy team (which you probably should), but it comes at a very high price. Getting one of these closers as an anchor could be a good idea if you're already willing to spend auction dollars and high draft picks on a closer, but getting two or three of them is likely a price too dear.

But that's not so bad, because there's no guarantee that the best closers will earn the most Saves. Sure, they've got the best odds to do so, but that doesn't keep Jim Johnson from saving 50 games a season with a K/9 of literally zero.* You can get saves without elite relievers. You can win Saves without elite relievers. You just need volume.

*Actually, his career number is 5.96, also known as figuratively zero.

When I advocate paying for saves, I tend to think in terms of my eighth-twelfth round draft picks--it's a lot tougher for me to part with auction cash than it is fourth-tier corner infielders and mid-rotation starters. While it's hard for me to part with a third round pick for Kimbrel and his greatness (the ghost of Eric Gagne keeps reminding me that only Mariano Rivera can be great forever), it isn't so hard for me to give up two or even three of my middle-round draft picks to lock down some saves. When I do, I'm really not looking for closer excellence; in fact, I want just one thing: job security.

Okay, I want excellence too, if I can get it, but job security is my top priority when I employ this strategy. With only this one factor under consideration, let's do a little re-ranking of closers.

Total Security

These guys have been closing games for a long time, earned the trust of their team, or just got a big pile of cash from a new team after closing games for a long time. Their managers likely can't remove them from the role without permission from the front office. They will safely ride all temporary storms:

Kimbrel, Nathan

Wow. Just two. No wonder they're so expensive.

Very Secure

These guys will have long leashes thanks to their strong track records, or standout performance, though they may not have been in the ninth very long. Their teams may have few other solid bullpen options:

Chapman, Holland, Jansen, Glen Perkins, Sergio Romo, Steve Cishek

Varying levels of quality here, but some potential value.

Mostly Secure

These guys are either quite good, or their team has few other options, but not both. They may be talented pitchers but lack the "proven closer" merit badge. Or their team may have had a turbulent recent history in the closer's role and be more open than most for quick changes. An extended stretch of bad luck could result in a demotion:

Uehara, Rosenthal, Casey Janssen, Johnson, David Robertson, Jason Grilli, Ernesto Frieri, Grant Balfour, Jonathan Papelbon, Fernando Rodney, Bobby Parnell

There are a lot of ways to be just "mostly secure," but these guys are still good bets to keep their job all year.

Basically Secure

These guys own their job without question for now, but poor performance could change that, as they aren't established, have inconsistent histories, or their teams have multiple decent alternatives:  

Addison Reed, John Axford, Jim Henderson, Rafael Soriano, Huston Street, Jose Veras

Out of this group, falling strikeout rates and the presence of elite setup guys in their bullpens makes me think that Soriano and Street are particularly volatile. I won't be drafting either in any format.

On Thin Ice

These guys have next to no job security (but may be available very late in drafts for excellent potential value):

Tommy Hunter, LaTroy Hawkins

Fighting for the Job

These guys don't technically have the job, but are in the lead for it at the moment. When they get it, their prize will be to move to the "On Thin Ice" tier. Yay for them. Their top competitors are in parentheses:

Neftali Feliz (Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers), Nate Jones (Matt Lindstrom, Daniel Webb, plus a bunch of other guys), Chad Qualls (Josh Fields, the injured Jesse Crain)

Possession is nine tenths of the law in closer land, so anyone who does end up with a job is worth drafting in the hopes that good luck and inertia are in your favor.

Job Stealers

These guys have a better shot than most at stealing a closing gig at some point in the season. If your purpose in drafting non-closing relievers is to snag saves, these are your guys:

Mark Melancon, Pedro Strop, Joaquin Benoit, J.J. Putz, Rex Brothers, Tyler Clippard, Darren O'Day, Cody Allen

Also included are anyone who loses in the above closer battles.

Strategy 2: Don't Pay for Saves--but Don't Ignore Them

I spent a lot of time on the first strategy, so I won't fill up too much more space with this one. Frankly, it's pretty straightforward, just a lot easier said than done.

A caveat: I don't find this to be a worthwhile strategy in leagues with weekly free agent/waiver wire moves--you need to pay to compete in those formats.

The first thing to do is set aside some roster space for relievers. Maybe you use some late-round picks on the dark horses in closer battles, or some slightly-less-late-round picks on the leading candidates or even full closers with low job security. Or maybe you just take the best setup guys available, regardless of whether or not their closer has good security. Whatever.

No matter what you do with this roster space (and you'll want at least three roster slots for this, I should think), you'll be treating the players you draft as highly expendable. These are your rotating Saves slots for now, not players on your team.

You also need to start following @CloserNews on Twitter. No Twitter account? Get one if you don't want to pay for Saves. Use this advice not only to find out which closers are about to lose their jobs, but also who's likely to get rested the next day. Then, pick up the setup guy for the teams with resting closers. You'd be surprised how many Saves fall through the cracks each year. Back in the old days, when I worked for CloserNews, I seriously considered attempting to get all my Saves like this with a fantasy team to see what would happen. Still haven't had the guts to try it.

Get up early (if you're on the West Coast) and stay up late (East Coasters) to catch the latest updates.When they announce that LaTroy Hawkins is being removed from the closer's role, somebody in your league will already have their fantasy team loaded up. Be that person. 

Keep a particular eye on the strikeouts and velocity of closers and the guys replacing them--sometimes that's even more important than their overall stats. Remember, being "closer material" is less about being the best pitcher in the bullpen and more about being the coolest pitcher in the bullpen, selling jerseys, growing facial hair, pumping up the crowd, and blasting Metallica or AC/DC.

I'm totally on board with the first half of the rationale against paying for Saves: closers are volatile and unpredictable. The second half, that Saves are always available on the waiver wire, has grown dicier. It's totally true--but your whole league knows it, and they'll be looking for Saves too.

Strategy 3: Hybrids

You can always mix the two strategies; in fact, anyone paying for Saves should be just as active on the waiver wire as anyone else. Not only can you benefit from more Saves (and make trades if you have excess) you're protecting your investment by making it more difficult for anyone to get similar value for free. Your only limit is roster space.

You can also make Strategy 2 your primary plan, but keep an eye out in drafts for solid value. If enough of your league wants to get their Saves from the waiver wire, you might want to go the other way. Alternatively, it might be good to get one closer with high job security to anchor you while you speculate on further Saves.

Good luck in Saves--you'll need it. Or, better yet, follow @CloserNews! We'll be back next week to wrap up the traditional categories with Home Runs.



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