Punting Saves Hurts More Than It Helps

As we sit and wait for all the big-named free agents to find themselves new homes, it’s time to start thinking about strategy for next year.  There are numerous of ways to go about drafting your team and you’re going to hear plenty of do’s and don’ts from a variety of people.  So allow me to chime in here first and tell you why punting saves should not be in your plans when developing a proper draft strategy.  Some people see no harm in it and tell you to just bulk up elsewhere.  I disagree.  It’s an automatic concession of points to your competition and immediately puts you at a disadvantage.

Year in and year out, the most often punted category in fantasy baseball is saves whether it’s a roto league or head to head.  The common misconception that closers are merely one-category contributors steers some to believe that they can simply go with extra starting pitchers, bulk up on wins and strikeouts and therefore don’t need to spend the extra auction dollars or mid-round draft choice on a high-level closer.  But to use that as your reasoning and pass over a Heath Bell or a Mariano Rivera is, in my opinion, a mistake.

The ratio-stabilizing factor that a solid closer gives your team is a distinct advantage.  Of the top 20 save leaders from 2011, 14 had an ERA below 3.00 and only two had an ERA of 4.00 or more.  So by making a quick investment in a top closer like Rivera, you’re getting 60-plus innings of a 1.91 ERA which is definitely more helpful to your team than the contribution of your eighth or ninth starter, say Homer Bailey and his 132 innings with a 4.43 ERA total.  If your argument is that Mo is the best closer of all-time, well, it also works if you plug in the numbers of Drew Storen, John Axford and Joel Hanrahan.

As for the increase in strikeouts, you have to ask yourself  if the trade-off is really worth it.  Yes, starters throw more innings and have a greater chance to accumulate more strikeouts, but when you’re talking about a back-end-of-the-rotaation starter there are usually more negatives than positives that offset the difference in K’s overall.  Sure, you’ll see 20-30 more K’s on the year going with Zach Britton, but is he going to guarantee you that point in K’s that you automatically concede by having no closers in your head to head league?  Are his strikeout numbers going to offset the drop in points for ERA and WHIP that you will be forced to endure by using him over a closer in your roto league?  Probably not, on both counts.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that so many back end starters barely outproduce top closers in strikeouts with another boatload coming up short.  Sergio Santos had 92 K’s last year, a total better than that of Jeff Francis, Jair Jurrjens and Randy Wells.  Of those top 20 closers from 2011, six had 70 or more K’s while a total of 12 had 60-plus.  Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn and Tyler Chatwood all threw in excess of 130 innings on the year, none of them topped 80 strikeouts, and all of them had ERA’s sitting above 4.40.

Wins?  Come on.  This is FanGraphs, right?  Everyone knows just how arbitrary a category like wins can be.  If you don’t, then debate it in the comments section for a while or just talk to the voters for the Cy Young who gave the award to both Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez in recent years.

The bottom line is that by drafting decent closers, you are bolstering your pitching staff on multiple levels.  With the right guys, you can worry less about your ratios while watching your saves total completely offset the potential difference in strikeouts.  And if you really want to jump ahead of the game, then obviously target good strikeout pitchers for your staff.  Given the number of decent hurlers out there that can maintain decent ratios while punching out 120 or more batters, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over 10 years on a variety of websites. In addition to his work here, you can also find him at his site, RotobuzzGuy.com, Fantasy Alarm, RotoWire and Mock Draft Central. Follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy or for more direct questions or comments, email him at rotobuzzguy@gmail.com

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Craig Glaser
10 years ago

I agree with your overall point – it is silly to ignore closers (or any single stat) altogether but I think the 2nd to last paragraph is unfair. Sure wins are extremely hard to predict and in real baseball they do not tell you much about the value of a pitcher but they are just as important as any other category when it comes to fantasy. The average pitcher (both starter and reliever) averages 1 decision per 9 innings pitched (obviously.) Starters pitch more innings and therefore will end up with more wins, which has to be considered for fantasy.