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2021 Fantasy Baseball: The Save Game - Refining Your Closer Strategy

Shawn Childs debates the merit to various closer draft strategies and how you should treat the saves category in your Fantasy Baseball leagues.

Wins may be the most challenging part of fantasy baseball to figure out, but closers are the most frustrating. On draft day, I have a tough time using a high draft pick on a one-category player. I also hate chasing closers and closers in waiting around in the free-agent market. The last couple of years in the high-stakes games, I've tried to cheat saves. At times it can work, but many times a weakness will cost me a bench spot, which hurts my team in other areas. If you cheat saves and you're mistaken, you need to roster more inventory to increase your chances of finding the next closer to earn a job.  

In the high-stakes market in 15-team leagues in most seasons, you need about 85 to 90 saves on the year (about 3.5 saves per week) to finish the top 20 percent. In 2019 (less data last year), saves were down across the board, which led to only 73 saves to rank at the 20 percentile. In 12-team leagues, a fantasy owner needed to secure 82 saves for the same ranking.

The best teams will use seven starters and two closers. If you fall behind in saves, you are forced to use a third closer to make up ground. It can work as long as you are in the right position in wins and strikeouts. 

Milwaukee Brewers Josh Hader

Closers can make an impact in multiple ways – saves, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. At times, they can be a difference-maker in wins. A great example of a five-category closer was Edwin Diaz. His 2018 season should be my goal when I'm looking for a number one closer. He saved 57 games (45 saves would be a reasonable target) with two wins, 1.96 ERA, 0.791 WHIP, and 124 strikeouts. Ideally, it would be great to get a minimum of four wins from each of your top two closers to help in the win category. 

One of my goals is to find 150 strikeouts from my two closers. If I find two relievers with this skill set at the right price, I will beat most teams at my pitching staff's back end. There has been a rise in possible closers in today's game with the skill set to get 100+ strikeouts.

It's hard to project wins from a closer, but some closers get a chance to pitch in tie games. Maybe the goal should be 45 saves and wins combined. As I mentioned earlier, I've cheated saves over the past couple of years. Last year I wanted to find one plus closer. The change in the flow of the player pool helps execute this thought process.

There are many question marks in most seasons at the closer position, which will allow some fantasy owners to get out by cheating saves. This draft plan allows a fantasy owner to gain an edge on offense or starting pitching. To me, it's all about price point. Saves have gradually moved backward in the high-stakes market. Even with that, I have to decide if an SP2 is more important than an elite closer. Most teams will draft two starters inside the first five to six rounds in non-trading formats. The question comes down to: will a plus closer slide far enough to fit your plan, or does your draft structure allow you to take a third pitcher in the first eight rounds? For most teams, they won't look at the second-tier closers until rounds 10 or 11. 

If you decide to cheat saves, you are at the mercy of the inventory, "Beggars can't be choosers." At some point, saves become more valuable than skill set.  

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In the past, I've drafted a reliever in a bullpen that I thought had a better skill set while being a toss-up to land the 9th inning job. I've learned over the past few years; the player with the best skill set doesn't always end up with the job in the 9th inning. Most of the time, a manager chooses a player with the most experience. The key is drafting the right player. If I'm wrong, I just gave away a pick. I'm not a fan of doubling up in one bullpen if both players are getting similar respect in draft value unless the second option can be found in the late rounds. 

The cloudier the situation, the more risk/reward, which allows all players to be discounted to a point. When I get closer to the start of the regular season, I will have a better idea of the favorites to win closing jobs. At the same time, that player could have a short lease. 

On the flip side of chasing one closer or cheating saves completely in a draft is securing two lockdown 9th inning arms. If you build your team this way, the available bench space will help in starting pitching depth, allow you to roster an upside batter, or roster extra hitters to cover in-week injuries. Also, a fantasy owner will create more buying power in free-agent dollars to pick up other valuable players off the waiver wire. In this plan, a fantasy owner has to debate the draft costs while weighing the tradeoff in the starting pitching pool and hitter inventory.

As I go through the closer inventory, I'm trying to identify the best options. I also need to understand the draft flow. I want to minimize my risk (giving away picks) and maximize my opportunity.

When I'm ranking these players, strikeouts are a significant factor for me. Save opportunities are essential, but it is sometimes difficult to predict. I've seen closers from poor teams match closers from top teams many times in saves. I rank the top closers as the pitchers I think have the best chance of keeping their job and strikeout ability. The second half of the closing inventory is ranked will upside in mind. Some closers have job loss risk, but I like their opportunity. 

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