The Art of Chasing Saves (Fantasy Baseball)
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There is not a more volatile position than closer in the current landscape of Major League Baseball. Targeting closers can be frustrating for fantasy owners with how often players lose the ninth-inning role. Let’s dive into how to approach the save category for fantasy baseball leagues in 2020.
Know Your League Format
I mention this in every relief pitcher article, but the importance cannot be overstated. More than any other position, the closer and relief pitcher position in fantasy baseball is extremely league dependent. There are two fantasy baseball formats that are most common:
- Head to Head
To see a more in-depth comparison between these two fantasy baseball formats, check out this article by Paul Ghiglieri. For the purposes of this article, I will summarize that H2H is a week to week battle while rotisserie is a war that spans the entire season.
In a rotisserie league, falling behind in a category early could cost you valuable ground that may be impossible to make up. In a H2H league, a slow start will only cost you some wins in the standings. To spin it in a positive way, a player who is going through a hot stretch could fetch you some matchup victories in a H2H league. However, that same player may not be as valuable in rotisserie if his production is unlikely to last throughout the season.
When applying these league formats to relief pitchers, closers are typically more valuable in rotisserie leagues and less so in H2H leagues. The reason for this is falling behind in the saves category of a rotisserie league could be costly. While players receiving save opportunities always emerge on the waiver wire, the teams in your league who have an early lead in saves will likely keep a stranglehold on the category as the season progresses.
In a H2H points league, closers are simply another way for your team to rack up points. There is no requirement that fantasy points come from a variety of areas. Just as one could roster a team full of batters that predominantly hit home runs, a fantasy owner could elect to have primarily starting pitchers and earn few points from saves.
Approaching Your Draft
Fully aware of your league’s format and its impact on the save category, it’s time to formulate a plan of attack for your draft. If you are in a rotisserie league and want to get off to a good start in saves, it is a good idea to target some solid, established closers.
Now, as I mentioned in the open, the relief pitcher in fantasy baseball can be frustrating. Closers lose their jobs all the time. Just look at Blake Treinen for example. In his 2018 season, he appeared in 68 games for the Athletics, recording 38 saves to go along with a 9-2 W-L record and a minuscule 0.78 ERA. That ERA was expected to regress toward the mean, but returning with the same team in 2019, he should have been able to hold onto the closer job, right? Wrong. Treinen appeared in just 57 games, saw his ERA balloon to 4.91, and surrendered the job to Liam Hendriks.
Treinen’s rapid fall from fantasy relevance should be a strong piece of evidence to wait on closers in your draft. While I do advocate for taking high-upside bullpen arms late in the draft and paying close attention to the waiver wire during the season, it is still a good idea to emerge from your fantasy draft with players who will see save opportunities right away.
To see some of the closers that I most prefer in the top tiers, take a look at this article. With the current suspension of spring training, it is even more difficult to evaluate MLB depth charts. However, we still have a good idea of who should at least open the season as the closer for most teams.
When targeting a closer in your fantasy draft, you should think about a few factors. Does this player’s bullpen have other strong options who could be a threat to his closer job? Is this team projected to win enough games that this player will receive enough save opportunities? Is this player under team control for future years or could he possibly be traded and lose his ninth-inning role? These are just some questions to keep in mind, but, of course, closers always carry an inherent risk.
Even in a rotisserie league, I would not recommend paying a premium for several different closers. It is perfectly reasonable to lock up an elite arm like Aroldis Chapman, but plenty of value can be found later in the draft or even during the season.
Okay, the Season has Started, Now What?
Pay. Attention. Sometimes fantasy sports are that simple. Hopefully, you are playing fantasy baseball because you love the sport and enjoy following the MLB. By just keeping tabs on each MLB bullpen as well as those of your league-mates, you will already be at an advantage.
Check the boxscore from games the day before. Did a pitcher blow a save? Has he had shaky outings or was this his first hiccup? Was an unexpected arm called upon for the ninth inning? Just doing a quick check around the league could give you the jump on a rising pitcher that will be the hot waiver wire pickup in a short time.
In the same lense, you should also pay attention to the bullpens of your league-mates. Perhaps an owner in your league was hit with injuries or simply does not have any arms that are consistently receiving save opportunities. If you have a surplus of closers in a rotisserie league or do not need the save points in a H2H league, this could be an owner that you approach in a trade.
As is always true, it is best to buy low and sell high. For the closer position, this means selling players just before they are at risk to lose the ninth-inning role. The cheapest way to acquire saves is to obtain the player before everyone else realizes that he will start receiving save opportunities. Last season, players such as Taylor Rogers and Emilio Pagan emerged off the waiver wire as reliable fantasy options for saves.
Saves are one of the most difficult individual statistics to predict in baseball. As a result, the closer position in fantasy baseball can often drive owners crazy. However, by simply knowing your league format, developing a draft plan, and paying close attention during the season, you can give your fantasy team an advantage in the saves category.
For an overview of the relief pitcher position as a whole, check out this article for the primer of relievers in 2020. Thanks for reading, stay healthy, and good luck in your fantasy drafts!