Craig Kimbrel: Pay for Saves If You Don’t Pay Attention

We’re all well aware that Craig Kimbrel is really good. But allow me to give you a little refresher on his greatness.

He’s led all relievers on ESPN’s player rater in two of the last three years and was second in the year he didn’t top the list. Among qualified relievers in those three years he ranks second in ERA, first in xFIP and SIERA, first in saves, and first in strikeout rate. His strikeout rate is so elite that he also leads in K%-BB% despite having a walk rate that is only slightly above average. He’s a stud.

But is he good enough to transcend the “don’t pay for saves” mantra that was started by Matthew Berry and piggybacked on by countless fantasy writers?

Well, let’s talk about why not paying for saves is something almost every expert recommends. The first and likely more important reason is that you can generally find saves late or cheap in drafts. Eight of the 19 closers with 30+ saves last year were taken after pick 150 according to ESPN ADP. And plenty of saves can be had off the waiver wire with the turnover that happens at the position. Two of those eight closers I just mentioned were essentially undrafted.

That turnover is also the second reason why you shouldn’t pay for saves. The inherent volatility that comes with the 60-70 inning sample sizes that closers have each year makes spending any significant money on a closer a risk. In fact, it’s the bad 10-20 inning stretches that can sometimes cost a closer his job even though the bad stretch is often a product of bad luck as opposed to bad performance.

Four of the first 11 closers taken last year per ESPN ADP had a combined ten saves. Jason Motte got placed on the DL late in March and didn’t pitch an inning all year. J.J. Putz blew four saves in April, lost the closer job and never got it back despite finishing the year with a 2.25 ERA. Joel Hanrahan had Tommy John surgery in early May. John Axford lost the closer role after the first week of the season in which he gave up six earned runs in three games over 2.2 innings of work. From that point on he had a 3.74 ERA, 22.3% K%, 9.5% BB% and 0.97 HR/9. Not stellar numbers by any stretch, but not horrendous either. He never got another shot at closing.

So should either of those reasons, the other cheap sources of saves or the risk that comes along with small sample sizes, scare you off Kimbrel? The answer depends somewhat on where you’ll have to take him. The only ADP data I can find right now is the NFBC ADP which has Kimbrel’s average pick at 40. He’s obviously the first reliever being taken and the seventh pitcher being taken overall.

Of the two reasons to avoid paying for saves, the small sample size issue doesn’t worry me much with Kimbrel. He has just over 200 innings in his last three seasons and has a 1.48 ERA, 1.36 SIERA, 42.9K% and 8.3% BB%. You can’t have small sample size blowups and post numbers like that. Because of his elite ability to miss bats and an elite ability to keep balls in the park thanks to a good ground ball rate and the ability to induce weak contract when hitters make contact at all, Kimbrel isn’t quite as susceptible to the small sample size issues that can haunt other closers.

But is he worth taking at pick 40 or slightly earlier? Is he worth the $20 or so that it will cost to obtain him? Would your money not be better spent on good hitters and pitchers available for a similar cost while waiting to acquire saves later?

Zach Sanders has a great method for valuing and comparing players at different positions, which you can read about here. Sanders’ method said that Kimbrel was the 34th most valuable player last year and the 12th most valuable pitcher overall. I took the Steamer projections for 2014, drew out the roto categories, and ran Sanders methodology to see how valuable Kimbrel was projected to be this year. That experiment projects him to be the 6th most valuable pitcher and a borderline top 20 player overall in 2014.

The reason is that Kimbrel gives you so much more than just saves. Steamer has him projected for a 1.88 ERA over 65 innings. When I ran the Steamer projections through Sanders’ method, Kimbrel was projected to have the second most valuable fantasy ERA despite the low innings total. His 0.88 WHIP is projected to be the 15th most valuable WHIP. And his 96 strikeouts are projected to have league average value. And when you factor in that Steamer projects him for 28 saves just like 30 other closers, this projection is shooting his value low given that he has topped 40 saves in three straight years.

So yes, I think Kimbrel has a very, very good chance to live up to his ADP and be worth the $20-ish dollars he’ll cost in an auction. I wouldn’t fault you at all for taking him at that cost. He’s worth it. But I still won’t be taking him at that cost. The reason for that simply comes down to the type of fantasy player that I am. And whether you should take him or not depends on what type of fantasy player you are.

I’m obsessive about this stuff. I don’t even want to tell you how many hours I spend writing about fantasy baseball and managing my teams. It’s a full time job. And because of that I’m all over the constant chase for saves on the waiver wire. There is only one Twitter account that I have set up to text me as soon as the account tweets and that’s the @closernews feed from Tim Dierkes. I’m a freakin’ hawk about being first to the wire to pounce on potential saves. I also pride myself on being able to build a solid pitching staff and being good enough with streaming starters to do well in the categories where Kimbrel would be a big help. If you’re like me, you might not need Kimbrel on your team.

But if you’re a more passive, casual player, I think Kimbrel is a great guy to roster. If you’re not going to chase saves with a devoted fervor, you need to lock up guys who are safe bets to get 30+ or even 40 saves. There’s no safer bet for that than Kimbrel. And if you’re not the type to stream starters and be active in that respect, Kimbrel can be a huge help in the ratio categories. So if you’re a little more laid back about fantasy baseball, you should ignore the “don’t pay for saves” advice you’ve probably heard in a lot of places. It doesn’t apply as much to you. Pay for saves if you don’t want to pay much attention.

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I appreciate the Kimbrel breakdown, but I disagree with your end notion that paying for saves is fine for the casual fantasy player or player that doesn’t want to pay too much attention. Paying for saves, or in this instance, drafting Craig Kimbrel all factors into how you construct your roster. You mention yourself that Kimbrel’s value is there and worthy of his draft day value. He isn’t just an Addison Reed type you can find on waivers when a mid-tier reliever gets booted.

If you’re only chasing saves, then this is a fine way to go about getting closers, but for drafting with a value based strategy this doesn’t really add up for me. There isn’t a relationship between investing in Kimbrel and how obsessive an owner hunts down potential closers on the waiver wire. There is a point where it’s worth it to draft Craig Kimbrel based on his projected value, and not just let him slide by because he’s a closer.

Especially this year when there is a lot of questionable offensive talent on draft boards, I’d imagine players like Kershaw, Darvish, and Kimbrel will be drafted higher than ever before based on their track record and the surrounding uncertainty for several of the usual suspects on offense.

The bigger question for Kimbrel is … can he keep this up? Modern closers have a track record of burning out rather quickly. That would be a larger concern for Kimbrel in drafting him/assessing his long-term value.


I lost my main 5×5 Roto fantasy league last year because of saves. I was first or second in 8 categories and fourth in SB’s, but could never gain ground in saves (yeah, I drafted Axford) and ended up losing the league.

The problem is this: I’ve noticed a strategy by a number of players the last few years where they don’t draft any starters, but load up on closers and middle relievers. There were three different teams in my ten team league last year who each had five closers. Since relief pitchers tend to post superior rate stats, streaming starters in favorable matchups and streaming high-quality middle relievers based on usage patterns allowed them to basically punt wins while putting up fantastic rate stats, and staying competitive in K’s by streaming high-K-rate middle relievers.

The problem for the rest of the league, of course, is that there are only so many closers available, and when three teams take up half the major league closers, it’s almost impossible to pick up any ground in saves off the waiver wire. You can always find starting pitchers to pick up wins for you, but when you’re stuck with only two closers and no chance of picking up a third, you don’t really have any options.


individual league demographics will always rule the roost, but i’m surprised that this league is able to stream so effectively. in my experience, streaming works in a limited run of play. as a long-term strategy it leaves you too wide open to get the doors blown off your ratios. there’s no truth to the idea that “pitching has gotten better” so there are more quality pitchers available. if i were you, i’d consider punting saves, getting some high quality middle relievers and attack all other avenues. if closers are being taken way higher than where they should be going, there is value left available to take advantage of.


Even in this situation, I wouldn’t punt saves. I’m in the same kind of league. Hell, one guy had seven closers on his team. While I couldn’t compete with that nonsense, I was still losing matchups due to punting saves in the draft. Eventually I traded Chris Davis away for two closers. Damn near made the playoffs after that.


Yeah, but I think the point here is that you can draft 5 closers if you want, but chances are you wind up with only 2-3 keeping the job. I picked up Benoit last year, I had Rosenthal late in the season, and had Balfour and Reed from the draft. So I was able to keep up with the fools who drafted lots of closers early. 1 guy drafted Chapman and Kimbrel early and no one else, but the rest of his team suffered. He did not finish top 4! I finished 3rd, but was 1 RBI away from the final and would have won. I totally agree with the point of highly competitive players should draft some value closers who are solid and scavenge during the season while streaming starters. Definitely how I play in daily leagues.