Talent Versus Opportunity in the Bullpen

Many a fantasy article has pointed out that opportunity is a major factor in a player’s fantasy value, sometimes moreso than their actual talent level. I would argue this applies more to fantasy football than it does to fantasy baseball. In fantasy football, one guy for each team throws passes. One guy generally gets the bulk of the rushing attempts. Simply being in that role will allow a player to accumulate fantasy points and thus have value, even though that player might not actually be that good.

In fantasy baseball, all five guys in a rotation get the same opportunity to accumulate points. There are nine spots in a lineup. Sure, some of those lineup spots are more premium than others and allow a player more opportunities to accumulate points. But there are what, five lineup spots a guy can be in and receive good opportunities to produce fantasy-relevant results?

The one area of fantasy baseball that is analogous to the monopoly a quarterback or running back has on opportunities to produce fantasy-relevant results is the closer’s role. For the most part, one guy on each team is accumulating saves regardless of whether they’re the most talented reliever in the bullpen.

I bring up this issue of talent versus opportunity because it’s almost exactly the reason a statistic like WPA/LI exists. WPA (Win Probability Added) is simply the sum of how much each event a player is involved in affects win expectancy. As an example, here is how our glossary page for WPA describes how a typical result affects a player’s WPA:

If a batter flies out on the first pitch of the game, the home team’s WE goes up from 50% to about 52%. This means that the pitcher who induced the out gets a WPA of +0.02 and the batter gets a WPA of -0.02.

The “issue” with WPA is that it’s cumulative, meaning the players with the highest WPA have to get the most opportunities to increase their WPA. That’s why most of the relievers atop the WPA leaderboard are closers. The same goes for LI (Leverage Index). LI is related to WPA in that when a certain outcome would lead to a larger increase or decrease in WPA, the Leverage Index is higher for that particular event. For example, if the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the hitting team trailing by three, the LI is very high prior to the play because the WPA would be very high if the hitter were to hit a grand slam.

Make sense? If not, go back and read each of the glossary pages for each statistic that I linked to above.

Moving on to the applicability of WPA/LI to current fantasy decisions, we can use it to identify talented relievers. Here’s how our WPA/LI page describes it:

WPA/LI measures how much value a player added to their team regardless of the leverage. Because of this, it is more a measure of a player’s talent level than WPA.

So then, what should we make of the fact that Will Harris has the highest WPA/LI among qualified relievers? Probably nothing since his gmLI, which measures the leverage index at the time Harris is entering games, ranks 83rd among 151 qualified relievers. I’d argue he should be in consideration to close were Luke Gregerson to ever lose the job, but he’s not even second or third in line.

After Harris, the top 10 of the WPA/LI leaderboard is filled by six closers and three other non-closers. All three non-closers actually rank in the top five. They are Wade Davis, Tony Watson and Brandon Maurer. They differ from Harris in an important way, which is that they’re all next in line for a closing gig with their respective teams according to our latest Bullpen Report.

Davis is second in WPA/LI, Greg Holland would be tied for 41st if he had enough innings to qualify. Tony Watson ranks fourth, Mark Melancon ranks ninth. Brandon Maurer ranks fifth, Craig Kimbrel ranks 111th. Because Melancon has been good in his own right and because the Padres are unlikely to take Kimbrel out of the closer’s role, those points are probably moot. But I continue to be wary that Davis will take over for Holland at some point. I touched on this a couple of weeks ago, but Holland simply hasn’t been good this year with significantly reduced velocity. Davis is likely owned in your league, but he should be added if available.

You can find more of Brett's work on TheFantasyFix.com or follow him on Twitter @TheRealTAL.

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Let’s say Yost announces that Holland is out temporarily. What are the chances that Davis keeps closer role form that point through ROS?