Fantasy baseball position primer: Why you shouldn't splurge on closers in your draft

Think you need a top-flight closer to win your fantasy league? Think again: Here's why you're better off embracing a different strategy when it comes to drafting or buying a reliever.
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Relievers are the forgotten class of players in the fantasy world, and with good reason: With one exception, they don’t move the needle as much as any other position. Relievers generally top out at 70 innings, significantly limiting what even the best ones can do for your bottom line. Since nearly all fantasy leagues use saves as a category, relievers as group have a baseline value beneath which they will not fall, but their ceiling doesn’t climb much higher than that floor.

Consider this an argument strongly against investing in any of the high-priced closer options. That’s less a commentary on Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Zach Britton and more one on the position as a whole. All you need to do for proof that they’re overvalued is shift your gaze to the next few tiers at the position, then recall where that group of pitchers was last year at this time.

Seung-hwan Oh and Roberto Osuna are the Nos. 4 and 5 closers by FantasyPros consensus ranking; neither started last season with his team’s ninth-inning duties. The No. 8 closer, Edwin Diaz, was in the minors until early June and didn’t earn his first save until August. The 10th-ranked reliever, Andrew Miller, was a setup man for the Yankees before becoming a setup man, high-leverage specialist and sometime-closer for the Indians last season. He won’t even have the closer’s chair to himself this season, with Terry Francona preferring to play matchups with him and No. 12 Cody Allen.

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We aren’t done yet. No. 11 Ken Giles lost the closer’s job in Houston only to regain it later in the season. David Robertson, the 15th-ranked closer, had his worst season of the last three years, with his ERA (3.47), WHIP (1.36) and FIP (3.58) all career-worsts since he became a full-time closer in 2014. He also racked up 37 saves and 75 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings. No. 16 Alex Colome was an endgame option who ended up saving 37 games and notching a 1.91 ERA and 1.02 WHIP with 71 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings. Successful come in all shapes and sizes, and, more importantly, at all price points.

Chapman, the top-ranked closer, is the No. 70 player by FantasyPros consensus ranking. Jansen checks in at No. 71. Britton is four spots back at No. 75. You know who else is in that neighborhood? Kyle Hendricks, Jean Segura, Mark Trumbo, Masahiro Tanaka, Alex Bregman, Jonathan Lucroy and Anthony Rendon. I don’t care how good a closer is, I can’t justify taking a 70-inning-at-best pitcher over one who is a legitimate fantasy No. 2 or No. 3 or a hitter worthy of being a top-80 pick. Practice patience with respect to the closer position during your draft and vigilance during the season, and you will be just fine without investing significant draft-day resources in the position.


Five Big Questions

1. What’s that one exception you alluded to earlier?

Any league that uses strikeout-per-nine rate in place of raw strikeouts, or an innings limit (which is effectively K/9), flips the closer equation on its head. Chapman, for example, gives his fantasy owners in leagues with raw strikeouts about five strikeouts per inning. That’s a huge number for a closer but is no more than what fantasy owners get from their average starters. Turn your strikeout category into a ratio, however, and everything changes.

Chapman likely isn’t throwing more than four innings to get those five whiffs; in fact, he averages 15.2 strikeouts per nine over his career. By comparison, Max Scherzer is at exactly 10.0 per nine for his career, and Clayton Kershaw is at 9.8. Elite strikeout closers are incredible in their ability to fan an outsized percentage of the batters they face, which carries far greater weight in ratios than it does in raw totals. If you’re in a league that uses strikeout-per-nine rate or an innings limit, you will want to move the position’s strikeout kings up your cheat sheet.

2. Who represents the Goldilocks Equilibrium at the position?

I view drafting closers as a necessary evil: I never want to take one, but I don’t want to punt an entire category. While I’m not going to invest significant resources in the position, I want to come out of a draft or auction with three closers in most standard formats.

The Goldilocks Equilibrium refers to the just-right point of any group. Chapman is too early for my first closer, but someone like A.J. Ramos is too late. Instead, I want to find someone in between the two, a happy medium who is just right, like the porridge Goldilocks steals from an unsuspecting family of bears. For my money, that closer this year is Wade Davis.

The Cubs acquired Davis from the Royals in the off-season, sending Jorge Soler to Kansas City. Before arm issues derailed Davis’s 2016, he was one of the best relievers in the league: Over the last three seasons, he has totaled a 1.18 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 1.86 FIP and 234 strikeouts against 59 non-intentional walks in 182 2/3 innings. Save opportunities and team wins don’t have a directly linear relationship, but it stands to reason that the more games a team wins, the more chances it will have to set up its closer to nail it down. The defending World Series champions should win plenty of games this year, and when healthy, Davis is an elite closer.

Thanks largely to his arm problems from last year, Davis is the No. 9 closer on FantasyPros, with an overall ranking of 116th. That places him at the back end of the 10th round in a 12-team league, a price I can live with for my first closer. What’s more, it puts me on track to nab two more affordable closers and come out of my draft or auction with a competitive bullpen.

3. Can I successfully Terry Francona this thing?

Francona shepherded the Indians to the American League pennant and to within one win of a World Series title thanks in part to his unconventional bullpen usage. Never mind for a second that every manager should use his bullpen like this, especially in the postseason. Instead, let’s give credit where it’s due: Francona embraced a strategy few managers would, using his best relievers in the highest-leverage situations, no matter the inning.

That strategy doesn’t translate perfectly to the fantasy game, though it can still be instructive. The rise of specialists in the majors has created a class of setup men who, while largely shut out of the ninth inning, still have fantasy value. The most obvious example is Dellin Betances, who has become a fantasy stalwart as a reliever the last three years despite totaling just 22 saves thanks to his 404 strikeouts in 254 2/3 innings and elite rates. Betances isn’t the only one, though. There is now an entire group of pitchers who strike out a ton of batters, post impressive ERAs and WHIPs and vulture the occasional win. By rostering a couple of them together, fantasy owners can generate something like SP4 value. It’s fantasy baseball’s version of alchemy.

Let’s put this into practice. Last year, David Phelps and Nate Jones belonged to this class of player. Together, they made 133 appearances, but just 12 of those were either starts (all by Phelps) or saves. In other words, they were pure setup men from start to finish. They combined for 12 wins with a 2.62 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 194 strikeouts in 137 1/3 innings. That’s more wins than Kenta Maeda, a better ERA than Madison Bumgarner and a better WHIP than David Price across the same number of innings as Danny Salazar. That’s quite the player, especially when you consider that you created him from the scrap heap of a league's free-agent pile. Rather than grabbing a seventh starter and bench hitter toward your draft’s endgame, consider embracing your inner Francona and opting for a pair of elite setup men.

4. Who’s the position’s prime bust candidate?

No position experiences more turnover than closer, a player who invariably gets a larger share of the blame than he deserves for a blown save. As criticism mounts, he feels more pressure on the mound, and the manager faces more questions, many of which are based on specious reasoning. It’s a vicious cycle that takes down about one-quarter of the league’s Opening Day closers every year.

Sam Dyson looks dangerously like one of this season’s failed closers. The Rangers' righthander took over for a faltering Shawn Tolleson last year and turned in a successful fantasy season, saving 38 games for first-place Texas, which ranked seventh among all relievers. The save, however, is a somewhat-arbitrary collection of (usually) three outs upon which we’ve bestowed greater importance than any other outs because they happen to come at the end of the game. Saves don’t actually say anything about how effective a pitcher was. The numbers that do weren’t as kind to Dyson.

First of all, Dyson had a 3.62 FIP and 8.1% walk rate, stats far too high for a dominant closer. Even if you want to look at his fantasy-category numbers, his owners likely weren’t thrilled with a 2.43 ERA or 1.22 WHIP; they were just happy to take those if it meant also getting 38 saves. The greatest indictment of Dyson, however, is his strikeout rate. He fanned 55 batters in 70 1/3 innings, good for just 7.4 per nine and, when accounting for his 304 batters faced, a 19.3% strikeout rate. Those ranked 109th and 104th, respectively, among relievers. Few closers succeed for long without top-level strikeout stuff, and Dyson lacks that. He likely will also lack a closer’s gig before the summer.

5. Which closer-in-waiting should I grab late in my draft or for $1 at my auction?

If Dyson is the position’s most likely bust, his likely replacement would, by definition, be an answer to this question. While Jeremy Jeffress could factor into the mix, Matt Bush is the high-upside option, as he has the strikeout stuff both Dyson and Jeffress lack; in 61 2/3 innings last year, he fanned 61 batters. He also had a 2.48 ERA and 0.94 WHIP, so he can earn you some value without being a closer.

The aforementioned Jones fits here, as well. It’s no secret that the White Sox would like to deal Robertson now that they’re in full rebuild mode, as he will never be part of a contending Chicago team but can be a key piece for a team making a postseason run this year. If the White Sox do find a taker for Robertson, Jones would step in as the closer on the South Side.

Hector Neris is the best pitcher in the Phillies' bullpen, but he’s unlikely to open the season as the team’s closer. That honor will go to Jeanmar Gomez, he of the 37 saves from last year and also the lower strikeout-per-nine and strikeout rate than Dyson. Neris, meanwhile, whiffed 102 batters in 80 1/3 innings, pitching to a 2.58 ERA, 3.30 FIP and 1.11 WHIP. His 9.2% walk rate is reason for pause, but the best reliever typically finds his way to the ninth inning, sooner rather than later.

Huston Street is the favorite to start the season as the Angels' closer, but it’s awfully hard to see him holding the job all year. Now 33 years old, Street isn’t the pitcher he once was and was one of the most ineffective relievers in the majors last year before a knee injury ended his season in July, throwing just 22 1/3 innings and amassing a 6.45 ERA, 6.42 FIP, 1.93 WHIP and a comically low 13.3% strikeout rate. Put simply, Street inspires no confidence in the ninth inning. Teammate Cam Bedrosian, however, has the look of a dominant closer in the making. The 25-year-old posted a 1.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 2.13 FIP and 51 strikeouts across 40 1/3 innings last year. His season ended early, too, as he needed surgery to remove a blood clot in his arm, but it’s not expected to affect him this season. Bedrosian clearly has the skill set to be a closer, with his fastball averaging better than 95 mph, accompanied by a wipeout slider. The bet here is he’ll have the opportunity to be one sooner rather than later.