Save Scarcity and the Closer Kerfuffle

Saves are hard to come by so be sure to back the right horse.

The title may sound more like a Hardy Boys novel than a Pitcher List piece, and in some ways, it just might be. The concept of the modern rotisserie fantasy baseball league began in the early 1980s when, as described in this Vanity Fair piece, Daniel Okrent and a group of buddies met up for lunch:

Okrent created the game over lunch with a handful of friends at New York City’s now defunct La Rotisserie Française restaurant. The first draft of the Rotisserie League occurred the following April at somebody’s apartment.

As this article from 2015 explains:

It was his vision of gathering together some pals, letting them each be the general manager of their own team. They would draft real baseball players and compete against each other to determine which GM had created and managed the best team.

Each GM would pay for players from each position for their team and manage it through the season. They would then add up their home runs, RBI, stolen bases, batting average, ERA, wins, saves and WHIP.

And so our modern game was born. Those of us who play the game using those categories, whether it be in a head-to-head or the more traditional year-long rotisserie format, have been strategizing around how to maximize our statistical returns year in and year out. Sure we have added categories like runs and strikeouts, or maybe even switched out wins for quality starts, or batting average for on-base percentage, but the fundamental concept remains the same: do better than your opponents at accumulating statistics. As this piece from 2002 demonstrates, it has brought people to baseball who may otherwise never have found their way to the sport:

Mike Binder is not a baseball fan, but he is a fan of fantasy baseball.

In the past few years, he’s won two televisions, two home theater systems, a DVD player, a leather jacket, countless T-shirts and other prizes playing fantasy baseball on Internet sites.

The same article also quotes Geoff Reiss, a former ESPN executive:

Seven or eight years ago, when we first contemplated this business, fantasy sports players were about as common to find and about as socially desirable to be as somebody who went to a “Star Trek” convention

Times have changed. The best players in the game aren’t winning DVD players or leather jackets, but rather compete for big money in high-stakes leagues and overall competitions. It’s also not just for Star Trek fans anymore, though pop culture conventions have become just as mainstream as fantasy sports, and the nerds rule the world. Take that, Geoff.

One thing that has not changed is the need to chase some categories a little harder and with more diligence than others. For the last few years, it has been steals that have emerged as one of the most scarce and difficult to draft. Next year, however, in your 2022 drafts, if it’s not already, it may just be saves that drive you the craziest.

 

Getting the Saves

 

It is not that there are fewer saves being earned across baseball; those opportunities still exist in largely the same numbers and ways that they always have. What has changed a lot over the last few seasons is who gets them and when.

In 2021, 198 different pitchers got at least one save for a Major League Baseball team. The problem is that so many got just a few. In fact, 84 of them got only one, and that’s not useful for accumulating saves.

Just 39 of those 198 guys (19.7%) earned double-digit save totals. A measly 19 had 20 or more. And of the original 198, there were only nine who earned more than 30 saves. That is only 4.5% of pitchers who got at least one save. And it gets worse.

Out of the nine pitchers to record 30 or more saves in 2021, only four of them were in the top 10 from 2020: Liam Hendriks, Mark Melancon, Kenley Jansen, and Josh Hader. So unless you drafted one of those four guys, you were likely chasing saves. And if you invested a lot of draft capital into a guy who did not wind up on this list, you were chasing them and were angry about it.

You need a plan for saves heading in to 2022 and you need it now.

 

The Early Trends

 

People drafting now are a very special group of fantasy baseball players, and you need to take that into account. Also, some early NFBC Draft Champions leagues have seen Liam Hendriks go in the third round. In leagues with overall components and especially in leagues where you cannot make waiver wire additions or trades, you will see the “sure thing” closers going the earliest. It is also basically oxymoronic to say “sure thing closers” in nearly any context. While that might be a bit of an outlier, closers are going to go early, whatever early means in your leagues, and you need to be prepared.

And yet you will be tasked with making good decisions on draft day, or be doomed to trying to be the fastest on your waiver wire or dole out a large percentage of your FAAB chasing them all season long. As was pointed out, that can easily be fool’s gold since so many guys get the chance in today’s game. All of this is to say, here is some information that might be useful as you decide what your strategy will be whether you’re drafting in a couple of weeks or a couple of months.

 

The Players Themselves

 

There are currently 33 pitchers listed on Fangraph’s Roster Resource Closer Depth Chart as being a closer or co-closer. If you want one that will get you 20+ saves, which is a low bar, roughly a third of those closers won’t get you there. If you want a set-it-and-forget-it approach, barring injury, you are likely looking at a pool of 6-8 pitchers who could get you there. Obviously, there is no way to know for sure which they will be, but we are in the business of making really educated guesses based on the best information and most likely outcomes.

To that end, let’s take a look at the guys, of those 33, that might have the best chance. All but two meet the following criteria from 2021: minimum of 50 innings-pitched, 3.00 or lower ERA, and 30% or higher strikeout rate. Without further ado, here are those pitchers:

Elite Upside

David Bednar (PIT) – 60.2 IP, 2.23 ERA, 32.49% K-rate |  People can be divided on what it means to be the official closer on a bad team. Sorry Pirates fans, but the team is not destined to be great next year. Are they going to get a lot of save-situation wins because they won’t score a lot of runs, or will they lose so many games that save opportunities will be limited? It’s a crystal ball moment: everyone wishes they had one. For what it’s worth, Steamer projects 24 saves which may not get you to an elite level, but you may be able to get him at a price that makes that okay. His strand rate was a little high and could regress a bit, but with a 10+ K/9 likely providing additional help with ratios, he’s worth a look.

Giovanny Gallegos (STL) – 80.1 IP, 3.02 ERA, 30.7% K-rate |  This is the first arm on the list that doesn’t technically meet the criteria established above; he missed the 3.00 ERA cutoff by .02 so it still makes sense to include him. His FIP was 2,75 so let’s call it “honorable mention” and move on. Gallegos has shown how truly great he can be in fits and spurts. Steamer has him for just 23 saves but there could easily be more in that tank if he gets locked in; it feels like he will either under or over-perform that number, mostly based on how healthy he will be. Last year, he sported a 30.5 CSW% and should also have a 10+ K/9 next year. It would not be at all shocking to see him net 30+ saves.

Paul Sewald (SEA) – 64.2 IP, 3.06 ERA, 39.4% K-rate |  Paul is the second guy who technically comes up a little short of the ERA cut-off. Again, a .06 difference shouldn’t keep him off of your radar so here he is, on the list. The Mariners should be a better team and they almost made the playoffs in 2021. Sewald didn’t start the year as the closer and netted 11 saves in 16 chances. He is currently listed as a ‘co-closer” but it is very likely that does not play out. Paul had a 14.47 K/9 last year with a 33.3 CSW%. He got whiffs outside the zone while keeping his walk rate under 10%. He could easily end the season as a top-tier option.

Near Elite

Jordan Romano (TOR) – 63 IP, 2.14 ERA, 33.6% K-rate |  Everybody knows that the Blue Jays are a good team and good teams generate save opportunities. He earned 23 saves last year and is projected for 27 in 2022. Breaking that barrier of 30+ is most definitely not out of the question. He throws hard, had a walk percentage under 10%, and netted a 12+ K/9. Even if the ERA regresses a bit, which the peripherals hint may happen, he would still have a very good shot at giving you what you paid for and that’s not nothing with closers.

Ryan Pressly (HOU) – 64 IP, 2.25 ERA, 32.4% K-rate |  The Astros may have lost the World Series, but they still made it to the World Series. They are a good team and they will win games and Ryan Pressly will save a lot of them. Just like with Romano, volume matters, and with teams that could easily win 100 games, there will be more volume. He had an absurd 5.2% walk rate and gave up just four home runs all year. Four. You won’t sneak him past anybody in the draft, but he should have a really high floor and if you’re investing in closer at this level, that matters.

Elite

Raisel Iglesias (LAA) – 70 IP, 2.57 ERA, 37.73% K-rate |  These numbers may look familiar; they are remarkably similar to Liam Hendriks. Almost anything a person can do that is remarkably similar to Liam Hendriks is a good thing, particularly on a baseball field, but not limited thereto. 34 saves last year. 13.24 K/9. 36.8 CSW%. Rattling off stats is not an argument in most cases, but these really speak for themselves. Once you get to this elite tier, the trick is not paying up for saves that don’t come because of some sort of regression. If that happens with Raisel, it should not be disastrous and there is a much greater likelihood that you get that for which you have paid.

Liam Hendriks (CWS) – 71 IP, 2.54 ERA, 42.32% K-rate |  These numbers may look familiar; they are remarkably similar to Raisel Iglesias. What makes Liam even more dominant is that insane strikeout percentage. With a 14.32 K/9, Hendriks deserves the elite tag. The downside with him is that you absolutely will be investing in it. The best-case scenario is that you get exactly what you pay for and that’s pretty darn good. The chances that he loses his role are very slim. The chances that the White Sox decide to go with a committee with Tony LaRussa at the helm are near to zero. Draft with confidence, but be sure to know the price tag or he will be gone before you get the chance.

Josh Hader (MIL) – 58.2 IP, 1.23 ERA, 45.54% K-rate |  Hader has the highest strikeout rate of any closer, setup man, or middle reliever currently listed on roster resource. Again, just as with Hendriks, there is no doubt that Josh is an elite closer. He had a ridiculous 15.65 K/9 on his way to 34 saves. He had a 21.1% swinging-strike rate and 35.7% CSW. There are more numbers and they all say the same thing: Josh Hader is very good at throwing baseballs. The downside, again, is the price. If his save totals fall off a bit, which Steamer thinks they will for some reason, his ratio help plus 25 saves is still incredibly valuable in today’s game. His ratios plus 35 saves is even better.

 

In the End

 

The point of this list is not to tell who is a good pitcher, it is to identify closers at different levels who are the most likely, based on last year’s performances, to be in the top 10. Every year there are closers who fall out or off of that list. This bears repeating: Of the nine pitchers to record 30 or more saves in 2021, only four of them were in the top 10 from 2020. This means that more than 50% of guys to record 30+ saves this past year were not in the top 10 in 2020 and that fact underpins the transient nature of high quality and elite closers in Major League Baseball. Some of it is the way teams handle bullpens now. Some of it is the volatile nature of the role. Some of it simply how hard it is to be great in that job.

However we reach the destination, the result is the same and it is important to not over-invest in closers simply because they have the role to start the season. You don’t want to chase closers too soon because the elite guys are off the board. More than perhaps any other position, you need to understand the tiers and the dropoffs, as well as what the peripherals can tell us about most likely outcomes moving forward.

Also, you’ll need a little luck.

Good luck.

 

Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Matt Goodwin

Husband. Dad. Teacher. Writer. Podcaster. Baseball Fan. Quippy. Makes up words. FSWA. IBWAA.

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