Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Openers & Closers by Committee (2023)
As soon as we think that we have it figured out, another change happens. That’s baseball, yes, but it’s also sports in general. The leagues are copy-cat leagues, as they try to replicate the success of what has worked for others recently. We’ve seen it succeed (shifting, spread offenses) and fail (wild-cat offense). And for baseball, we’ve seen it with pitching a lot over the last few years.
So what does it mean for fantasy, and how can you adjust to the use of openers and bullpen usage? I’ll give you my approach, and you can apply it accordingly.
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How to Plan for Openers and Closers by Committee
We’ll open with the openers, of course, because no one enjoys a good dad joke more than I do. For all of the concern around openers in recent years, we actually saw it course correct last season.
Jay Jaffe did a great job breaking this down at FanGraphs, so read the article when you’re done here. But just know that everything we reference in this portion is from the article that he did the research on.
Last year, starting pitchers averaged the most innings per start (5.21) since 2018 (5.36), when the openers were really starting to come on. Given the lockout, there was naturally a gradual shift as the season went on with early workload concerns. But Jaffe broke it down in the article, showing that pitchers increased their innings per start as the season went on.
What’s more, when the postseason hit, starters were getting a full traditional workload.
I can see the argument for fantasy managers rostering a Ryan Yarbrough-type pitcher who embraced – and succeeded – in the follower role, giving him a better path to earning a win. But overall, I think the decreased usage of openers and bullpen games, in general, helps fantasy managers when it comes to strategizing week to week and throughout the year.
Saves, on the other hand, are a different beast.
More and more managers are using their relievers in a less traditional fashion, which makes perfect real-life baseball sense, but is a headache for fantasy managers to deal with. While the teams and players don’t – and shouldn’t – care about your team, we do.
Steamer projects nine pitchers to finish with 30 saves or more. We saw exactly nine relievers finish with 30 saves last year and in 2021. But in total, 116 pitchers recorded a save in 2022, 100 did in 2021, and 109 did in 2019.
I expect that trend to continue to rise as teams deploy their best pitchers in high-leverage situations.
Look at Minnesota, for example. Jhoan Duran is one of the best relievers in baseball, given his stuff on the mound. But with how good he is, he’s going to be locked into the high-leverage role instead of a traditional closer’s role. That could result in some saves, sure, but it’s also likely to result in him facing the heart of the order in the seventh or eighth, too.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, they have six guys who ATC projects to get at least one save, and two guys – Craig Kimbrel and Seranthony Dominguez – projected to have at least 13.
What is the solution?
Well, there are two approaches that I take.
The first is that I talk to my league and commissioner to see if we can switch to a saves+hold format. It can be equal value, or it can be saves+hold.5 to still give more value to the elite closers instead of watering down the pool. It’s a great format, and it helps to navigate away from the traditional baseball mindset of having a set ninth-inning guy when so few teams operate like that.
If your league doesn’t want to institute a big change like that, I get it. In that case – traditional leagues – you need to adjust your drafting.
Nine pitchers are projected for 30 or more saves, per Steamer. Nine.
Now, we’ve seen how paying up for one in the second or third round can come back to bite you outside of super high-stake leagues. But there is more of an emphasis on locking down one of those top guys. What I do, given how high Emmanuel Clase, Edwin Diaz, and Josh Hader go, is to take one of the second-tier of closers. Give me Ryan Pressly, Ryan Helsley, or Devin Williams as my RP1, and then I’ll target some guys I think can take the role later in the draft.
Some of those later targets who I like are Trevor May in Oakland, Carlos Estevez in Anaheim, and Alex Lange in Detroit.
You’ll need to play the waiver wire, of course. It sucks to have to allocate a certain amount of your FAAB dollars to relievers – as other managers will be doing, too – but I prefer to take that approach instead of passing up on core pieces of my team throughout the draft in hopes that the reliever I take ends up locking down the job.
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Michael Waterloo is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Michael, check out his archive and follow him @MichaelWaterloo.