Drafting the right relievers presents an annual problem for fantasy owners. Sure, you can always take a look at their saves totals -- or holds, if that's part of the game in your league -- but this often ends with a few owners getting the shaft and drafting closers who have poor peripherals that drag down their other categories, just for the sake of picking up extra saves. If you overdraft for a guy guaranteed to get you saves rather than some of the poorer options that are picked up towards the back end of the draft, you may miss out on important contributors elsewhere. Today we're going to run a little exercise using WXRL, in order to see how often top relievers replicate their success, and whether it is worth it or not for you to spend (or waste) high draft picks on them.
To start, let's take a look (to the right) at the top 10 relievers this year via WXRL (Expected wins added over a replacement level pitcher, adjusted for level of opposing hitters. WXRL combines the individual adjustments for replacement level (WXR) and quality of the opposing lineup (WXL) to the basic WX calculation), and then take a look at where they were last season.
The first thing you may notice is that not everyone listed here is a closer -- Carlos Marmol has all of seven saves this year, and J.P. Howell, a converted starter, has three saves over 64 appearances, as he comes into games before Troy Percival in Tampa Bay. Brad Ziegler was not initially the closer for the Athletics upon his recall from the minors, but he's picked up 11 saves and has taken over the role from Huston Street. Before doing anything else, let's take a look at where these pitchers ranked in WXRL in 2007:
That's quite a difference, with only Joakim Soria and Joe Nathan close to replicating their performances. Ziegler came out of nowhere to dominate AL hitters, while Brian Wilson has done well full-time with the Giants' closer job. After failing to make it as a starter yet again, Howell was converted to relief work this year and has excelled in the role. Brad Lidge is another of the big surprises, as the pitcher who seemingly couldn't put his career back together thanks to problems with the long ball in Houston got some necessary coaching in Philadelphia and turned right back into the dominant fireman we initially saw him as. Mariano Rivera had himself something of a revival as well; his 2007 performance, ranking 18th, was obviously a good year, but this year he's more like the Rivera that will live on in Yankee and playoff legend.
What does this tell us? Well, that it's sometimes difficult to gauge just who is going to come out and dominate out of the bullpen, for various reasons. Marmol became the pitcher many expected him to be this year, but in addition to that, the Cubs increased his innings and used him in more important situations, increasing his value further. Having Marmol this year combined with another reliever who is used often is almost the same thing as having a quality starting pitcher, regardless of whether or not they pick up any saves for you. Howell's greatest qualification as a reliever heading into the year was that he was too good to release or to be kept down in the minors, but not good enough to start. Even the most optimistic of us didn't think Howell was going to be a top 10 reliever, taking to the role like he had always been there, but there he is. Ziegler wasn't in the majors last year, but after mastering a new side-arming delivery at management's behest, he effectively came out of nowhere to set a consecutive innings streak without allowing a run to score to open his career, and now he's the closer in Oakland.
The stories of Howell and Ziegler are the ones to really make you think, though guys like Lidge can also be thrown into the mix. All three were pitchers who weren't going to be looked at during the earlier portions of this year's draft, and more likely would have been ignored until late in the game or perhaps available on waivers following the draft's completion. By virtue of having a secured closer role in Philadelphia regardless of performance, Lidge may not fit into that idea perfectly -- he would be drafted by someone -- but the other two certainly do.
That's the point of this exercise, really; someone always comes out of nowhere, and if you sit tight and wait for them to show up, you can instead use the draft to focus on improving your team in other areas. This is even easier to accomplish in leagues with both saves and holds, as the range of pitchers you can choose from to help you increases. In '07, hot properties included Hideki Okajima (4.429 WXRL, eighth in '07, now 79th in '08), Heath Bell (5.656 and fourth, now 17th) and Manny Corpas (4.158 and 13th, now 152nd), all three of whom came out of nowhere from a fantasy perspective, and except in Bell's case they've gone back there this year. The year before that, you had Cla Meredith (3.762 and 17th), Takashi Saito (5.468 and eighth), and Jonathan Papelbon (6.605 and second) to a degree. The point is, there are always going to be a few surprises that are available via waivers or later in the draft, so you don't always have to interrupt drafting position players or starting pitchers during the sixth round or so every year to make sure you grab yourself a closer.
This isn't a definitive study by any means, especially since owners all have different ideas as to how they can succeed, but it should give you something to think about the next time you're considering a closer over that slugging first baseman. For myself, it's one of those things I try to stick with as a plan for my own draft days. Later on, you can wonder how it is you put together such a strong set of starting pitchers, or how it is you managed to secure so many top-notch sluggers on your team; along the same lines as avoiding drafting a shortstop until later on if you miss out on one of the top three or four guys, avoiding relievers until you have to pick them isn't a bad idea, especially with the turnover at the top.
Basically, this is an area that deserves more exploration as we approach the '09 drafting season, and that's just what I plan on doing in this space, especially once the PECOTA forecasts for next year are released and we can take a look at the leaderboards for relievers. If you would like to see this same sort of thing looked at with just plain saves and holds as well, alert me in the comments section or via e-mail, and we'll put that on the schedule for this winter.