The closer role is the most volatile in the sport of baseball. There seems to be a revolving door in bullpens these days with few teams being exceptions. These frequent closer changes are frustrating for fantasy owners and, I'm sure, for actual GMs, as well. We've seen the price for closers drop in drafts in recent years because people are starting to realize that there is a good chance a closer taken on draft day will not finish the year as a closer. Last season, more than half of the teams in MLB finished the season with a different closer than the one with which they had started. So with all of this shuffling and switching, how can fantasy players get one step ahead of their competition? How do we evaluate bullpens and open closer opportunities to make sure we pick up the right guy to fill the role? I haven't drafted a closer in the last three years but I've been able to remain competitive in the Saves category.
There are several factors to analyze that will help you make the right addition when an opportunity presents its self. Let's use the Arizona Diamondbacks as a case study to examine how we can make the best educated guess as to who will fill in for a fallen closer. Why was Heath Bell the choice when the Diamondbacks seemed to have several other options?
1. The best pitcher doesn't always get the job
There is a misconception that managers will use their "next best" reliever to fill in as the closer when the regular closer goes down. However, this is not always the case. Many people, including myself, feel that David Hernandez is the best pitcher in the D-backs bullpen. This is because David Hernandez has the most value when Kirk Gibson has the ability to use him freely. When a player is labeled a "closer", there seems to be a belief that the pitcher can only enter the game in the 9th inning when a save opportunity is in place. With that belief, it would make sense that a manager should have his best pitcher available when he needs him most and that may not always be the 9th innning. He may need his best guy in the 7th inning of a one-run game when the opposing team's three and four hitters are coming up with runners on base. If his "best relief pitcher" is pigeonholed into the closer role, the manager is less likely to call on him in that situation.
2. Bullpen Construction
Baseball has become a game that is all about matchups. How does this hitter fare against sliders? What are this batter's career numbers against this pitcher? How successful is this pitcher against left handed hitters? It's important to look at prospective closers' platoon splits when evaluating their chances at being named the closer. Most teams have at least one pitcher who they use in high leverage situations to focus on getting the other team's best left or right handed hitter(s) out. For the Diamondbacks, that lefty specialist is Tony Sipp. Sipp has a career .211 batting average against when facing lefties and an awesome slider that is almost unhittable for batters from that side. Sipp also fares very well against right handed batters, so he would seemingly fit well into the closer role but that would leave only Matt Reynolds as the lone lefty and a void in the rest of the bullpen.
It's important for a closer to be equally effective against all batters because a manager generally does not play matchups in the 9th inning. The closer is the "go-to" guy in that he is the one who can close the door against whomever he faces. For this reason, we can eliminate Brad Ziegler from contention - right handed hitters have hit .212 against him throughout his career but lefties have hit .307 with a .412 OBP. In addition to the ability to get hitters of either handedness out, it's often preferable to have a closer who is able to strike hitters out when needed. Strand rate is an important stat for closers since their main job (as is with all pitchers but with heightened circumstances) is to prevent runners from scoring. Strikeouts and groundball rates are two stats to pay attention to as they limit runners in scoring position. There is more than just a physical aspect to being a closer and we've all heard of the alleged closer mentality. Some people have trouble buying into the idea that there is a certain demeanor or approach or even skill involved in being able to close games. Although we can't quantify the intangibles necessary to be a closer, I think it is foolish to deny their existence. With that in mind, however, it's not something that we can use for fantasy purposes but know that not every pitcher is able to handle the job.
4. Previous experience/Past performance
Matt Reynolds has closed two games this year but never recorded a major league save before this season. His ERA currently sits at 1.21 with a 0.99 WHIP but he doesn't have a track record of success. He has a career walk rate of 7.0% and LD% of 24%. So far this year, 32.3% of the batted balls against Reynolds have been line drives. His swinging strike percentage is down and his K% has always been average for a reliever. Often times, if there is a former closer in a bullpen, that player will have a leg up on his competition. He's had success in the role before so it's often assumed he can do it again.
5. Money/Trade value
Lastly, pitchers signed to expensive contracts or who are potential trade targets may get more opportunities or a "longer leash" than players who are not as high profile. Heath Bell fell out of favor after signing a large deal with the Marlins last season and the D-backs traded for the one-time shut down closer this offseason in a deal that sent Chris Young to Oakland. The Diamondbacks are paying Bell $5 million each of the next two years with an option for 2015. Putz has had his struggles and has had some injury history so it made sense for Arizona to see what they were paying for.
By considering all of the dynamics that go into making a decision about a fill-in closer, we are able to make an educated decision with regard to what pitcher to add as a prospective closer. The choice is not always obvious and sometimes teams do things for reasons we don't understand or with motives we are not privy to outside the organization. Hopefully, this article will help you make those tough decisions in the future and will help you hit on the transactions you make.