The Case for a Second-Tier Closer

Should you spend for an elite closer?

Earlier this year, I broke down the profitability potential of the starting pitcher tiers. We learned that it was profitable from a return on investment perspective to purchase an “ace” starting pitcher in your auctions and/or drafts. I am referring to the article entitled, “The Case for An Ace”.

Today, I dive into the hit rates and profitability for various relief pitcher tiers. Sure, there will always be hits and busts in each draft round. If you happen to strike the right player, you will be set … and vice versa if you happen to draft a dud. From a game theory perspective, knowing the more profitable price points for players at particular positions (or for particular scoring statistics) is extremely valuable to the shrewd fantasy owner.

In the long run – it is better to know that saves have a better ROI in Round X vs. Round Y, whereas steals have a better ROI in Round W vs. Round Z, etc. Why not maximize your potential sources of profit in fantasy baseball, by being efficient with your draft selections and with your auction dollars? Sure, you are free to draft Aristides Aquino in the 1st round if you so choose – but it is prudent to keep in your back pocket what the numbers say about what the best investments are.

The Experts / Tout Wars

In my days of playing fantasy baseball, I have come across two opposing strategies regarding closers. Both approaches have been heavily publicized over the years.

  • Never. Pay. For. Saves.
  • Buy a top closer.

Many fantasy experts such as Matthew Berry and Lenny Melnick never allocate considerable draft resources to relief pitchers. Berry famously wrote every season in his Draft Day Manifesto the line alluded to above – “Never. Pay. For. Saves.” Melnick often nominates closers at auctions, never purchasing any – in order to clear money and roster spots off the board.

Some others such as Zach Steinhorn plan to purchase a top closer at each auction. Steinhorn says “You’re not just paying for saves. You’re paying for elite ratios.” He later continues, “You’re paying for stability and the peace of mind not to have to blow out your FAAB budget throughout the season hunting for potential saves.”

Let’s look at what the experts of Tout Wars execute at the very top of the closer pool.

To purchase a top 5 closer at the Tout Wars mixed auction, it has taken an average of $20. In some seasons, the top closer may be purchased for $21, and in some extreme cases, the price of the top reliever can balloon to as high as $25. There is no trend in the Tout Wars data – just some year to year random noise. Elite closer prices show little variance.

From my experience in the NFBC, the top closers get scooped up for about the same cost. In the past, I myself have purchased closers at $21 – and have won a few times doing so. There will almost always be some individuals that are willing to pay a premium for the top closing options.

But is this the best use of fantasy capital?

Definitions:

A few definitions to help us:

  • $AAV – Average Auction Value – The average of the auction values from this season’s NFBC auctions during the month of March. This will represent the opportunity cost to roster a player in 2019.
  • $Value – The final full season returned value in a 15-team NFBC contest (standard 5×5 mixed league). For this, I use the FanGraphs’ Auction Calculator. Nominally, the FanGraphs auction calculator returns partial season auction values. In order to be directly comparable to the $AAV, I have annualized all figures.
  • $Bargain – This represents the profitability of each player by staring with their returned value and subtracting out the opportunity cost to roster. Mathematically, it is the $Value minus the $AAV.
  • % of Value – This represents the percent of original cost that the player held. It is the 2019 values divided by the $AAV.
  • Verdict – We will classify 2019 player results into four categories:
    • Gain – Profitable players. Players who returned more value than their initial price point.
    • Par – Players who earned a large portion of what was paid for them (>70%).
    • Most – Players who returned 50%+ of their original price.
    • Bust – Players who returned little to no value (<$1), or even negative value. All players returning less than 50% of their original cost.

Note: The $Values have been capped at a return of -$2 per player. Players with negative values are below replacement and not worth rostering. These players should effectively be cut from rosters before accumulating large negative values. For this study, we will let players earn a slight negative value (-$2), but not any more negative.

All data is as of end of play on September 17, 2019.

We will also break up the relief pitchers into four different tiers:

  • Elite Relievers – These are the closers that you pay a premium to roster. They have a stable role, typically a history of success, can rack up large strikeout totals, and tend to have elite ratios. They were bought at the NFBC this season for an AAV of at least $16.
  • High-End Relievers – Second-tier relievers. They either have a very stable closer role or are a middle reliever with elite Ks/ratios. Typically, you expect a full season of saves from this cohort. They were bought for double digit AAVs.
  • Low-End Relievers – Relief pitchers purchased for $4-$9, though almost all were bought for a maximum of $6 this season. These are third-tier closers, or upper-end middle relievers.
  • Dollar Relievers– Relief pitchers purchased for $1-2.

Hit Rates:

On average, relief pitchers in 2019 retained 85% of their initial value, which is a far better return rate than their starting pitching counterparts. This year’s 85% is somewhat on the high side of RP returns.

Below is the complete list of relief pitchers purchased at NFBC auctions in March (with an $AAV of at least $1), displayed with their average auction values, returned values and verdicts:

2019 Relief Pitchers – Profitability
No. Tier Player Saves $AAV $Value $Bargain % Of Value Verdict
1 Elite Edwin Diaz 25 20 1 -19 3% Bust
2 Elite Blake Treinen 16 19 -2 -21 -10% Bust
3 Elite Kenley Jansen 30 18 13 -5 70% Par
4 Elite Brad Hand 34 17 13 -4 76% Par
5 Elite Felipe Vazquez 28 16 19 3 117% Gain
6 Elite Roberto Osuna 34 16 17 1 103% Gain
7 Elite Aroldis Chapman 37 16 15 -1 95% Par
8 High End Kirby Yates 40 14 21 7 148% Gain
9 High End Sean Doolittle 28 13 8 -5 58% Most
10 High End Raisel Iglesias 32 12 8 -4 69% Most
11 High End Josh Hader 33 11 21 10 192% Gain
12 High End Ken Giles 20 11 10 -1 94% Par
13 High End Wade Davis 15 11 -2 -13 -18% Bust
14 Low End Will Smith 33 6 16 10 266% Gain
15 Low End Alex Colome 27 6 12 6 199% Gain
16 Low End Archie Bradley 14 6 1 -5 13% Bust
17 Low End Trevor May 1 5 4 -1 78% Par
18 Low End Matt Barnes 4 5 1 -4 18% Bust
19 Low End Shane Greene 23 4 10 6 250% Gain
20 Low End Mychal Givens 11 4 1 -3 22% Bust
21 Low End Andrew Miller 5 4 0 -4 -2% Bust
22 Low End Pedro Strop 10 4 -2 -6 -45% Bust
23 Dollar Zack Britton 3 2 4 2 178% Gain
24 Dollar Greg Holland 17 2 0 -2 -9% Bust
25 Dollar Blake Parker 10 2 0 -2 -25% Bust
26 Dollar Taylor Rogers 27 1 14 13 1405% Gain
27 Dollar Seth Lugo 5 1 11 10 1084% Gain
28 Dollar Adam Ottavino 2 1 6 5 646% Gain
29 Dollar Sergio Romo 20 1 5 4 528% Gain
30 Dollar Ryan Pressly 3 1 5 4 464% Gain
31 Dollar Steve Cishek 7 1 3 2 293% Gain
32 Dollar Diego Castillo 8 1 2 1 250% Gain
33 Dollar Mark Melancon 11 1 1 0 111% Gain
34 Dollar Chad Green 2 1 -1 -2 -71% Bust
35 Dollar Joe Jimenez 7 1 -1 -2 -103% Bust
36 Dollar Anthony Swarzak 4 1 -2 -3 -200% Bust
37 Dollar Ryan Brasier 7 1 -2 -3 -200% Bust
38 Dollar Chaz Roe 1 1 -2 -3 -200% Bust
39 Dollar Jeremy Jeffress 1 1 -2 -3 -200% Bust
40 Dollar Wily Peralta 2 1 -2 -3 -200% Bust
41 Dollar Kelvin Herrera 0 1 -2 -3 -200% Bust

Next, let’s look at the how each of each of the tiers fared (in terms of the end of season verdicts), starting with the elite:

The elite closers this season included the likes of Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen, Kenley Jansen, Brad Hand, Felipe Vazquez, Roberto Osuna and Aroldis Chapman. Oddly (and I believe that this is simply random), the top two relievers were the only two busts of the group. All other closers returned at least 70% of their initial value.

Even the two failures at the very top still saved a minimum of 16 games in 2019. Overall, the elite class of 2019 was in my mind a successful tier.

In terms of the hit rate, the high-end relievers were the most successful tier of relievers. Kirby Yates and Josh Hader were huge successes in 2019. Wade Davis was the only bust of the season, earning -$11 for the year, which we have capped at -$2. Despite that, Davis still saved 15 games for the Rockies.

In contrast to the top two tiers of closers, the third tier of closers were mostly unsuccessful. 60% of this group were busts – Archie Bradley, Matt Barnes, Mychal Givens, Andrew Miller and Pedro Strop – who cost a total of $23, yet returned only $1 in the aggregate.

For the three relievers in this group who were profitable (Will Smith, Alex Colome, Shane Greene), they accumulated $34 of rotisserie value, while their cost was only $16 at the outset of the season. From a game theory perspective, one would note that there was a one-third chance of doubling your money for selecting a closer from this tier.

Finally, we come to the $1-2 relievers at the end of the draft. These are the dart throws. These players were either closers-in-waiting, fill-in stoppers for injured primary ones, or were deemed as excellent middle relievers worth rostering for their ratios.

Above, you will see that the prospects of turning a profit are about 50/50 in this class. There were players such as Taylor Rogers, Seth Lugo and Sergio Romo who accumulated nice profits for owners. Half of the players were busts (such as Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Brasier, Chad Green), however, they were easily cut from fantasy rosters as needed.

In terms of bust rates, the high-end relievers were the most successful (the least unsuccessful). The dollar relievers also did quite well; a $1 spend with a 47% success rate potentially lead to uncovering some player gems. Even the low-end success rate of 44% was quite acceptable.

Overall, 2019 has shaped up to be a highly successful season for acquiring closers up and down the draft board.

Profitability:

In the previous section, we simply looked at the success rate of relievers by tier, without regard to the magnitude of their success (or failure). Below is a summary of profitability for all relief pitchers drafted in 2019:

And on a per-player basis:

As generally expected, profitability (as seen through “% Of Value”) goes up as the cost of the players go down. Often though, a few highly profitable players can skew the cohort. If we look at the rightmost column, which multiplies profitability by the rate of success (the compliment of the bust rate) – we no longer see an increasing curve.

The low-end relievers did not earn enough on average to offset the fact that they had the worst bust rate of all groups. I would consider them to be the least desirable tier.

The high-end relievers at 76% were very close in profitability to the dollar relievers. The class is even better as this analysis indicated, since fewer of the high-end pitchers would be capped at -$2 as opposed to the dollar RPs. I would consider them to be the most desirable tier with the best combination of success rate and return on investment.

Based on the above, for 2019 – the most effective use of fantasy capital in the long run (as far as relievers go) would have been to purchase two high-end relievers [at $11-$14 apiece, or from the equivalent snake draft rounds]. Then, with a third reliever slot – one would select an additional dollar closer.

2018 Relievers:

Thus far, I have only shown you one year’s worth of data – for the current 2019 season. Let’s also look at the comparable per-player metrics from the prior season:

Compared to 2018, 2019 was clearly a far better season for closers. Relief pitchers in 2018 only held onto 72% of their values, whereas in 2019 they held onto 85%. The player success rates were also better in each tier. What is most noticeable is that the low-end relievers only held onto 22% of their drafted value – which makes the already-worst tier of pitchers, even worse.

In general, the shape of the profitability curve holds to form going from 2019 back to 2018. The two most profitable categories (magnitudes and success both rates factored in) were once again the high-end and dollar relievers.

Combining both years yields the following aggregated chart:

Conclusion:

Fantasy experts Matthew Berry and Lenny Melnick do not draft any high valued, or even mid-tiered closers. But that neglects the fact that some tiers of relievers return par value and have established high rates of success.

Zach Steinhorn always purchases an elite stopper. However, that class of closer may not exhibit the highest return on investment.

Optimally, one should budget $25 at mixed auctions for two high-end (but not elite) relievers, and then set aside a dollar or two for an endgame RP selection. Wait an extra round after the elite closers go off the board at a draft, but make sure that you don’t walk away without a second-tier reliever.





Ariel is the 2019 FSWA Baseball Writer of the Year. Ariel is also the winner of the 2020 FSWA Baseball Article of the Year award. He is the creator of the ATC (Average Total Cost) Projection System. Ariel was ranked by FantasyPros as the #1 fantasy baseball expert in 2019. His ATC Projections were ranked as the #1 most accurate projection system in 2019. Ariel also writes for CBS Sports, SportsLine, RotoBaller, and is the host of the Beat the Shift Podcast (@Beat_Shift_Pod). Ariel is a member of the inaugural Tout Wars Draft & Hold league, a member of the inaugural Mixed LABR Auction league and plays high stakes contests in the NFBC. Ariel is the 2020 Tout Wars Head to Head League Champion. Ariel Cohen is a fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and the Society of Actuaries (SOA). He is a Vice President of Risk Management for a large international insurance and reinsurance company. Follow Ariel on Twitter at @ATCNY.

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HappyFunBall
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HappyFunBall

Put me squarely in the “don’t pay for saves” camp.

I’ll spend on quality starting pitching. Absolutely.

I’ll then buy two bargain, but not awful, closers on draft day just to keep me from completely bottoming out in the category. I prefer good pitchers on bad teams, where the lack of save opportunities keeps their price low

Then I accumulate a lot of innings from good ratio relievers rather than play guessing games with mediocre starters. Those good ratio relievers can often be had cheaply, and many of them grow into a closer role before the year is out.

I seldom WIN saves that way, but I’m always above the league median, and at less risk. IMHO.