Early returns from NFBC drafts in January show that saves are a hot commodity. There are currently an average of 10 closers going in the first 120 picks, so if you don’t have your RP1 by the middle rounds, you’re playing catch up. This can lead to panicking and reaching as we feel the pool of saves drying up around us. Closers are particularly prone to busting, so I’m giving you three names to be extra careful of this draft season.
Aroldis Chapman (NYY)
2021 Stats: 56.1 IP, 3.36 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 40 K%, 16 BB%
ADP: 87 (Includes Draft Champions and FAAB leagues on NFBC from January 1st)
Aroldis Chapman started out 2021 in dominating fashion and was nearly untouchable in April and May. However, the infamous sticky stuff crackdown in June brought a tailspin of epic proportions. 11 of the 21 runs he allowed on the season came in June. His ERA for the month was 11.42 and his WHIP was 2.77. He had lost control of his fastball and everything else fell apart around it. He spent some time on the IL in August and eventually righted the ship with a solid September, but some troubling indicators still remain. His walk rate spiked to nearly 16% and his home run rate 1.44 per 9 innings was the second-highest of his career behind only the shortened 2020 season. He allowed a career-worst barrel rate and xWOBACON showing that batters were making harder contact than they ever had before. Even going beyond that, I find it troubling that a mechanical issue with his fastball could cause such a massive meltdown. Is his success really hanging by such a delicate thread?
My answer right now is “probably not.” June was a combination of many factors all going wrong and Chapman is still a good pitcher. However, “He’s probably fine” is simply not good enough for me when we’re talking about using such a high pick on a volatile position like a closer. A 40% K-rate can hide quite a few problems. What happens if that drops to the mid-30s next year? The increase in walks and homers narrow his margin of error and make it so that even a small dip in strikeouts could lead to disastrous results. Even if you believe in Chapman, is he really worth the 87th overall pick given the number of troublesome indicators? I would much rather take Jordan Romano or Giovanny Gallegos who are going, on average, a couple rounds later.
Mark Melancon (ARI)
2021 Stats : 64.2 IP, 2.23 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 22 K%, 9 BB%
This one is less about the player and more about the team. We often overlook how much closers rely on team context to have success. After all, you can’t get a save unless your team wins. For Mark Melancon, going from San Diego to Arizona is a big step down in terms of team context and that has to be factored into the draft price. The Padres provided the 8th most save opportunities in the majors last year while the Diamondbacks were tied for 29th. The Padres were squarely middle of the road in defensive runs saved at 16th in the league while the Snakes were markedly below average at 27th. Petco Park is arguably a top-five pitcher’s park while Chase Field is arguably a top-five hitter’s park.
All of this means that Melancon could perform exactly as well as he did last year and receive a significantly worse end result due to run support, defense, and park factors. Looking past the player, if you’re picking Melancon as your RP1, you’re banking on a 75-win season from Arizona in order to provide him enough save opportunities to return that kind of value. Maybe that sounds fine to you, but most projections right now have them well below that.
Looking at the player, Melancon has been able to find success throughout his career by keeping a high ground ball rate and generally avoiding the barrel of the bat. His game isn’t built on strikeouts which costs him some points in the advanced metrics, but also lowers his margin for error both in fantasy and real life. That margin of error, especially given reductions in defensive ability and a less friendly ballpark, seems lower than ever this year. Velocity and GB/FB ratio will be key for him. He’ll need to keep his velocity up to get all the strikeouts he can muster to limit the pressure on his defense. He’ll also need to keep the ball out of the air to limit the affect Chase Field will have on the game. It seems to me that a lot of things need to go right for Melancon to have success this year and I need more than that from the 12th reliever off the board. Take a chance on Craig Kimbrel finding a nice home instead.
David Bednar (PIT)
2021 Stats : 60.2 IP, 2.23 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 33 K%, 8 BB%
It really pains me to write this about David Bednar because he’s such a good pitcher. At an ADP of 208, he’s not even that expensive. However, when I look at guys going immediately after him like Taylor Rogers, Garrett Whitlock, and Lucas Sims, I have to admit his stock has way too much helium. Yes, he’s shiny and new and good, but he’s a Pirate and he’s likely splitting duties with Chris Stratton. Bednar will likely have a very good individual season, but I have doubts about how many saves that will translate into.
Over the last two seasons, Pittsburgh has played 222 games and generated 31 saves. This is a 162-game pace of 23 saves. For the whole season. For the whole team. They’re likely looking at another 55-60 win season, so there simply won’t be that many opportunities to go around. Stratton is a likely trade candidate, so maybe Bednar takes over later in the season, but there are so many risks inherent in that mindset.
First, if you think Stratton is definitely going to get traded, Pittsburgh has every reason to feed him saves in the first half to pump up his trade value and depress Bednar’s arbitration value. Second, if the Pirates are shopping relievers, there’s a non-zero chance that Bednar gets traded himself. He’s a superior pitcher with multiple years of team control remaining, and he could fetch a return the Pirates can’t pass up on. Finally, waiting until late-July to get full return on a reliever simply doesn’t make sense given how volatile the position is. Using a roster spot for that long for a position this volatile and this reliant on team context is just not a smart investment. Bednar absolutely retains more value in SVHD leagues as I really believe in him as an individual, but in save-only leagues, I see him as more of an RP3 rather than the mid-tier RP2 he’s currently being drafted as.
Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerguyboston on twitter)