Prospecting for Saves

Thars saves in dem der hills!
This post should be almost useless to anyone interested in real wins and losses on a baseball field, but might prove helpful to those of you (and there are a lot of you) who play fantasy baseball. If you’ve ever seen a pitcher throw 2 scoreless innings in the 7th and 8th, striking out 5, followed by the closer in the 9th, pitching with a 3 run lead, allowing 2 runs before escaping with a save, you probably think the save is a stupid statistic.
But in most fantasy baseball leagues, saves are important. Leading your fantasy league in saves gets you just as many points as leading in ERA or runs scored. One of the cool things about saves is that you don’t have to spend money on draft day to do well in this category, you just have to know where to look. Many closers at the end of the season were not closers at the beginning. Sometimes the turnover rate is near 50 percent. If you are one of the unlucky who wasted big money on BJ Ryan this year, all hope is not lost. There’s plenty of season to go, and many saves yet to be found.
Here’s how I try to find saves mid season. I ask the following questions about a pitcher:
1. Does he have a closer job?
2. Does he have the ability to close baseball games?
3. If he doesn’t have a closer job, what are the chances he can get one?
Its not all stats here, you have to understand how the manager thinks, take some chances, and use a little imagination. After all, if everyone in your fantasy league has the same idea you do, you won’t get your man unless you have the best waiver pick. That’s not a good strategy, since it means you are likely in last place. You have to stay one step ahead of the pack.
You probably have a set of projections that you used to draft players coming into the season. Their usefulness is limited now. Pitcher true talent can change, and change quickly. When JJ Putz put up a 2.35 ERA last April, did you think he was just a mediocre pitcher getting lucky? If you did, you missed out on a guy who just turned into a great reliever. The ERA can fool you, but Putz’s 21-4 strikeout to walk ratio in 15 innings was the key here. A little scouting info can help here too, if you noticed that he came up with a devastating splitter.
The strikeout rate, more than anything, is what to look for. You can regress a pitcher’s strikeout rate 50% to the mean after only 15-20 innings of work, about what most relievers have right now. It takes longer for walks, about 40-50 innings, and longer still for homeruns and hits on balls in play. Actually, don’t even try looking for real changes onhits and homeruns. It takes more than a reliever’s workload in a full season to get a handle on these stats. Focus on strikeouts first, walks second.
Most likely all the current closers in your league are on somebody’s team. Lets take a look around the league and see if we can find some guys who might help you in the future:
New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera is finished. He’s got as many blown saves as saves, and a 7.71 ERA. He’s 37 and done. Well, maybe not. Rivera still has a 12-3 K-W ratio. Two years ago he got off to a bad start and there was talk about him losing it. He’s such a legend that his job is not in jeopardy unless he gets injured. In that case, only Brian Bruney is pitching like someone remotely capable of handling the job. Hold on to Mo.
Toronto: BJ Ryan is gone for the year, and Jason Frasor has taken over the job. Can he keep it? I have Frasor right now but I’m not so sure. Jeremy Accardo has a 16-5 K-W, has not allowed a run, and almost 2.5 K-W for his career. Shawn Marcum has an ERA worse than Frasor’s, but 22 K in 16 innings. Either one might get saves before the year is out.
Tampa Bay: Who saw this coming from Al Reyes? He’s actually been a good pitcher when healthy, and there is no threat to his job as Tampa Bay has zero other effective relievers.
Detroit: I thought Zumaya would take over for Todd Jones at some point, but that won’t happen this year. Jones is nothing special, but does the minimum required to get outs in the 9th. If he gets hurt Fernando Rodney will take over.
Cleveland: Borowski is the worst pitcher in their pen, but he has the magic closer dust. Actually, his strikeout rate indicates he’s better than his fluky 7.43 ERA. Cabrera, Betencourt, and Mastny are all probably better pitchers. There are those that think any decent reliever with a good K-W ratio can close. In recent years Cleveland has been burned by this thinking more than any other team. Last year, as in 2004, they kept trying different guys, and all they did was blow saves, though they pitched well in other situations. Perhaps Cleveland just got unlucky, but they have had the most success recently with an unspectacular veteran doing the closing, and unless Joe gets hurt, I think they’ll stay with that.
Philadelphia: Making your second best starter into a reliever probably isn’t the smartest strategy in the world. Charlie Manual may not be a smart man. Brett Myers is a little overqualified to be used as a closer, but if he’s there, he should be a great one. Since going to the pen he has a 17-4 K-W in 12 innings.
Florida: Now Henry Owens is hurt. They have 3 pitchers who look about equally capable of filling the role, Kevin Gregg, Tankersly, and Lindstrom. It all comes down to who the manager gives the opportunity to. Early indications are it will be Tank.
Milwaukee: Francisco Cordero has been dominant. So has Derrick Turnbow. Could Turnbow be trade bait and wind up closing somewhere else? Not likely. The Brewers look great this year, and if they don’t have a need to fill, they’ll want to gointo the playoffs with two dominant relievers.
San Diego: Trever Hoffman is not going to lose the job unless he’s hurt. If he’s hurt, Hells Bells may be replaced by Heath Bell. This 29 year old pitcher with little previous success was predicted by my CHONE projection system to be one of the best relievers in baseball. So far, so good. 23 strikeouts in 21 innings, only 15 baserunners allowed. While Hoffman getting hurt is probably a longshot, Bell may be good enough to help you in ERA and WHIP from the setup role.
Arizona: Jose Valverde has 12 saves. He’s done the job, but only has a 14-9 K-W. He’s an incredibly inconsistent pitcher, and who knows when the next meltdown will be? I’m going out on a limb here, but Arizona has gotten good starting out of 5 guys even without considering Randy Johnson. Randy can still be dominant, like striking out 9 Phillies in 4 innings. Then, he can quickly lose it, loading the bases with no outs in the 6th before the bullpen came in to serve one up to Ryan Howard. I see a decent chance that before the season is out, Arizona will ask Randy if he’s willing to become a closer. It might be the best fit for a still great 43 year old pitcher who has stamina issues. And if he does, he will dominate in it. Just like he did in this game: http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/2001/B11040ARI2001.htm
Or this one: http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1995/B10080SEA1995.htm

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One Response to Prospecting for Saves

  1. Jeremy in Tonawanda says:

    Didn’t Randy Johnson also close out the one-game playoff at the end of “Little Big League”? Just to throw another data point out there… 😉

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