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Fantasy baseball closer primer: Breakouts, rankings and more

When drafting closers, you should be looking at three factors: price, strikeouts and reliability. All three are awfully simple to gauge.

I hate the closer position in fantasy baseball, as well as in real baseball, and I think you should, too. Well, unless you’re related to Mariano Rivera or Billy Wagner or Trevor Hoffman. Your relative made his livelihood, as well as his legend, getting three outs a couple times per week, so I understand your affinity for the position. If you’re not related to a famous closer, though, you should hate the position. It promotes suboptimal bullpen usage for the glorification of a stat invented by reporters. It’s silly and it leads managers to make bad decisions. It’s also a fact of life, so I’ll stop whining and get down to brass tacks.

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When drafting closers, you should be looking at three factors: price, strikeouts and reliability. All three are awfully simple to gauge. Wade Davis, for example, is an excellent closer. I think he’d be more effective if Ned Yost used him in the highest-leverage relief situation, rather than just saving him for the ninth, but that’s another argument for another day. Davis also carries a National Fantasy Baseball Championship ADP of 67.03, higher than Sonny Gray, Jason Heyward, Matt Carpenter, Anthony Rendon, Eric Hosmer and on and on. As good as Davis is, that price is just far too high. And mind you, elite closers do a whole lot more than just save games. They’re significant contributors to the strikeout and rate categories, but not significant enough to be drafted alongside hitters with top-30 ceilings.

Most closers get their gigs because they can miss bats. It’s typically a job requirement. Closers need to be able to pitch out of trouble, whether it’s inherited or of their own making. The best way to do that is by not letting the ball be put in play. If you see a closer who doesn’t strike out more than a batter per inning, run for the hills. For every Huston Street, there are five Steve Cisheks. If a closer can’t whiff a batter per inning, there’s a much better chance he’s a Cishek than a Street.

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The final factor is job security. Every closer is going to blow a handful of saves, and more than a few are going to have extended issues at some point this season. It’s simply the nature of the beast. Baseball is a funny game. Sometimes you mow down three hitters in a row, and other times, hard-hit balls find gloves. Then there are those times were you get lit up, or when a seeing-eye single, stolen base, sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly turn into a blown save. It happens to every closer. The ones with job security don’t have to look over their shoulders when they hit a rough patch. The ones without it could be setup men within a couple weeks. Sometimes there won’t be any way around drafting a less-than-secure closer, especially if you’re attacking the position on the cheap, but it’s something you should always avoid when possible.

The only formats in which you want to put a premium on elite closers are those that either use K/9 or have a weekly or season-long innings limit, which effectively turns the strikeouts category into K/9. Aroldis Chapman had 15.7 K/9 last year, and it was just the third-best mark of his career. By comparison, Clayton Kershaw led all starters with 11.6 K/9 last season. Elite closers will send your K/9 soaring.

That pretty much covers the position. It’s outmoded and we should be better than valuing a statistic created out of thin air that doesn’t actually measure how well someone performed on the field and promotes bad managing, but hey, we can’t be perfect.

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Breakout: Ken Giles, Houston Astros

Giles served as an understudy to Jonathan Papelbon for a year and a half before taking over as Philadelphia’s closer after the team shipped the veteran south to Washington last year. Giles was very good, but not quite great, all season, posting a 1.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 11.2 K/9. He benefited from some good home run luck, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see that his xFIP wound up at 3.05. The real Giles is probably somewhere in between that ERA and xFIP from a season ago. But going back to 2014, Giles has two straight seasons with an HR/9 south of 0.3, so it’s entirely possible that keeping the ball in the yard to an extreme degree is a demonstrable skill for the 25-year-old.

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His fastball remained ratcheted up at 96–97 mph and, perhaps more importantly, the Phillies found a new home for him in the off-season, sending him to Houston. There isn’t really any evidence to suggest that being on a better team automatically means more save chances, but when the difference is as stark as it is between the 2015 Phillies and 2016 Astros, we can at least bank on Giles getting more save opportunities per team game this season.

Sleeper: Sean Doolittle, Oakland A’s

From 2012 through 2014, there were few relievers in the majors better than Doolittle: In a total of 179 innings, he amassed a 2.97 ERA, 2.20 FIP, 0.91 WHIP and 209 strikeouts against 32 non-intentional walks. Doolittle finally took over as Oakland’s closer in 2014, saving 22 games in 26 chances. Just when it looked like he was going to become one of the best in the game, he suffered a shoulder injury that cost him nearly the entire 2015 season. He ultimately pitched 13 2/3 innings across 12 appearances, racking up a 3.95 ERA and 1.24 WHIP but, encouragingly, 9.9 K/9.

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​Doolittle enters the 2016 season completely healthy, and that’s half the battle. What’s left is for him to prove he’s still the same pitcher he was before the injury. Shoulder injuries are more problematic than elbow injuries these days, and Doolittle’s average fastball velocity was down to 92.4 mph in his shortened campaign last year from 94 mph the previous season. Still, Doolittle doesn’t cost much on draft day—his NFBC ADP is 205.77—and the payoff would be great if he’s even just 85 or 90% of the pitcher he was before 2015.

Deep sleeper: Joaquin Benoit, Seattle Mariners

Benoit won’t start the season as Seattle’s closer. You know who will, though? Our punching bag from earlier in the column, Steve Cishek. The erstwhile Marlins closer racked up a 4.50 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in Miami, first getting demoted and then shipped to St. Louis. He faltered with the Cardinals as well but landed on his feet with a chance to close for the Mariners. Cishek previously had success as a closer with the Marlins, but he was never a relief ace who posted gaudy strikeout numbers.

That all came crashing down last year, and if it happens again this season, the ever-steady Benoit will be ready to step into the closer’s role. The ageless one had another effective season in 2015, pitching to a 2.34 ERA, 3.69 xFIP and 0.90 WHIP with 63 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings. Even if he doesn’t close, he provides value with his low rate and strikeout-per-inning profile. However, with Cishek one of the best bets to be demoted from his role this season, Benoit makes a great pick as a closer-in-waiting.

Bust: Drew Storen, Toronto Blue Jays

Storen was in the midst of the best season of his career when the Nationals surprisingly traded for Jonathan Papelbon, even though that didn’t seem to be a major need for the NL East’s foundering favorite. Once Storen was moved to a setup role, he immediately took a turn for the worse. That, however, is not why he lands in this ignominious spot. Rather, it has everything to do with Toronto’s surprise closer from a season ago, Roberto Osuna.

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It’s likely Storen will open the season as the closer, but Osuna, who is just 21 years old and had never pitched above High-A ball before last season, looked every bit the dominant closer in 2015. If Storen struggles for a couple weeks at any point this season, the Blue Jays have a ready-made replacement in Osuna. The one caveat is that Osuna was a starter in the minors, and it’s entirely possible the Blue Jays will want to try him in that role again at some point this season. If he is indeed in the bullpen, however, he looms as a serious threat to Storen’s status as the team’s ninth-inning man.

Keep an eye on: Arodys Vizcaino, Atlanta Braves

We’ve been reserving this spot for a prospect in our position primers, but there’s no closer who really fits that bill. Instead, let’s look at another youngster who could take over as his team’s closer this season. Jason Grilli will open the season as Atlanta’s closer, but watch out for Vizcaino. He closed when Grilli hit the DL last year, earning himself nine saves and proving that he could handle the job for a full season. When you’ve got a fastball that averages 97.7 mph and a devastating curve that checks in at 85.1 mph, confidence usually isn’t an issue. There could be some contract-related shenanigans at play, however. Vizcaino will be arbitration-eligible next season, and the more saves he gets this year, the more money he’ll make next year. Having said that, this Braves team is going to be terrible, and Grilli will almost certainly be dealt to a contender before the deadline. At that point, Vizcaino will take over as the full-time closer, if it hasn’t already happened.

Closer rankings

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