The State of Relief Pitching

Jonathan Daniel

Bret Sayre kicks off a week of coverage on relief pitchers here at Fake Teams by taking a step back and analyzing the position as a whole.

You're going to see a lot of information this week on individual relief pitchers, whether it's player profiles, rankings or prospect information. But before we get into those specifics, it can be very helpful to take a step back. The idea behind this State of the Position series, which will run at the beginning of each week of coverage, is to give you a sense of what to expect from the position as a whole in various types of leagues.

The Overview

There is no position more fungible or divisive on draft day than the closer. This is mostly because there are so many different variations on the strategy. There a million places out there these days that keep pumping the "never pay for saves" meme, and there's certainly a good reason for that, but when you get too attached to any meme you can fall ill to its consequences. For example, I was a part of a mock draft which will be featured in the Rotoworld draft magazine for 2013 and I was not intending on taking one of the top closers. However, in the 10th round of a 14-team draft, I was still staring at Jason Motte in the queue and was more than happy to take him at that point. There's a right place to take any player, even a closer.

The 2013 crop of closers is as risky of a group as I can ever remember seeing. In fact, in our consensus rankings, the #4 overall RP is a pitcher who posted his first ERA lower than 4.00 since 2006 last season and the man behind him is a 43 year old coming off major knee surgery. Things don't much prettier as you make your way further down the list. You have younger closers, like Addison Reed and Greg Holland, who could take that next step forward to become first-tier closers or could lose their jobs to very capable relievers behind them. You have high performing closers like J.J. Putz and Huston Street, who can perform at an elite level when healthy (which is rarely as much as you like them to be). And do you want to be the one to figure out who will get the most saves in Washington, Toronto, Los Angeles (AL or NL) or Oakland? The number of teams expected to contend for division titles that don't have definitive answers at closer is surprising.

The League Breakout

In the official Fake Teams consensus ranks (which will be coming out in subsequent posts), the National League and American League were tied at 19 a piece, with two free agents still remaining. Of course, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise with the fact that only one reliever per team can be the favorite for saves. However, the quality of the relievers in question does vary. The top three (and safest three) options available are all in the National League in Craig Kimbrel, Jason Motte and Jonathan Papelbon. However, of the next ten closers in question, eight of them reside in the junior circuit.

In NL-only leagues, you're best bet is to monitor the prices for the top three options -- however, unless they are undervalued, the better play should be to wait until the glut of low-level closers come to an appropriate price. With that said, you're going to need to keep a close eye on the valuations of these lower-end closers, as you don't want to be the owner who has to pay a premium for Bobby Parnell or Brandon League. In AL-only leagues, there are two directions you can go in. If you're risk averse, you're going to want to grab one of the clearly entrenched closers, by my count it's either seven or eight (depending on how you feel about Greg Holland). If you're risk taking, you may want to bypass "closers" all together and grab three or four high-end relievers who are potential closers, like Sergio Santos, Vinnie Pestano, Jake McGee or many others.

Hold Steady

With more and more leagues heading towards a 6x6 format (or even more), holds are becoming more of a focus in fantasy circles. However, focusing too much on this statistic can be a bit of a fool's errand, outside of a handful of names. The turnover from year-to-year, when it comes to holds, is extraordinary. Since 2010, 82 seasons of 20 holds in a single season have been recorded. But when you make it cumulative, only 15 pitchers have recorded 60 holds over that three year span. If you raise the bar to 75, the number drops to seven.

And that doesn't even touch on the relievers getting these holds. They have to walk the fine line between not being poor enough to be removed from the set up role and not being good enough to take over for the team's current closer. The risks are great to use anything put late round picks (or single-dollar picks) on filling this need, and I think it's similar to selecting a defense in fantasy football.

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues

It's really impossible to sit here and tell you exactly what your strategy should be, as the way closers are drafted and valued swing wildly between leagues. However, the one thing which is more important than even the valuations of these closers is to monitor how they are being drafted. There is no other position in fantasy baseball for which it actually can behoove you to be reactive instead of proactive -- at least once you get past the first few names. There's just not that much of a difference between the names in the second half of the top-10 and the ones in the bottom half of the top-20. But then again, these are closers we're talking about. Unless you're grabbing a guy like Kimbrel, Motte or Papelbon, don't be the owner who starts the run on closers, be the one who participates. There's too many other positions to worry about over the course of the draft.

The Rest of the Week

Now that we've covered the position from a macro perspective, it's time to dig into the players. Ray will be bringing you the first part of our 2013 consensus positional rankings next (in just a few short hours), so stay tuned for that - along with a slightly different type of prospect coverage which starts tomorrow morning with Jason and Craig. The rest of the writing staff here will be working on bringing you in-depth profiles and sleeper picks. We've got a lot of information coming your way for both the rest of this week and the rest of the off-season, so empty some space in your brain and be prepared for an informational avalanche. Remember, if you haven't started your 2013 draft prep yet, you're already behind someone in your league (especially if you play in a league with me).

Follow me on Twitter at @dynastyguru.
Check out more of my stuff at The Dynasty Guru, including my 2013 Dynasty League Rankings which begin today with the first part of my Top 150 Dynasty League Prospects.

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