Volatility of roles and team matchup strategies often leave fantasy managers hunting for saves all year long. Only nine closers could achieve 30 saves in 2021, and no one eclipsed 40. Modern times are not always friends with the single, undisputed closer.
Knowing that information, we will analyze the five most valuable and the five least valuable relievers during the 2021 season, weighing preseason expectations in the rankings.
Most valuable closers in 2021
5. Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
Despite a somewhat rocky first few outings in April, Liam Hendriks was a huge hit in his first season as the Chicago White Sox closer. As of Sunday morning, he has a pristine 2.54 ERA in 71 frames, with a whopping 113 strikeouts.
He did blow six saves, but converted 38 and finished just one behind the league leader, Mark Melancon. Overall, it was an impressive season for Hendriks, and owners who invested in him got what they wanted.
4. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s hard to believe that, at one point, Jansen was on the verge of losing the closer’s job with the Los Angeles Dodgers, or at least that was the common thought. If you go to the stats page, you will find a 2.22 ERA in 69 innings, with 86 punchouts and 38 saves.
Being the closer of a 100-win team and having the stability in the role, like Jansen has had for years, will make him a perennial top closer until Father Time comes calling.
3. Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres
Melancon was the league leader in saves, successfully completing 39 close games. Considering he wasn’t one of the top, elite options with early-round price tags, it’s safe to say owners are content with his 2021 performance.
Now, a keeper league alert: Don’t overpay for him. Yes, he led MLB in saves, but he is not the most dominant of closers (8.21 K/9 and a 4.27 expected ERA in comparison to his 2.23 actual ERA) and that, coupled with his age (36) offers no guarantees for the future.
He did have an incredible 2021, though.
2. Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
After finishing the 2020 campaign with an uncharacteristically high 3.79 ERA, Hader showed in 2021 why he is the most secure investment as far as closers go. Yes, he required an early round pick, but boy did he deliver: a 1.23 ERA in 58.2 frames, with 15.65 strikeouts per nine innings.
Oh, and he saved 34 games, too, ranking fifth in all MLB. When it comes to job security, no one in the league is safer than Hader, and that makes him a fantastic investment for the future, too.
1.Jake McGee, San Francisco Giants
After having his first sub-3.00s ERA season since 2015 last year (2.66), McGee signed with the San Francisco Giants, who took a chance on him to see if he could replicate that over a full, normal season.
The gamble paid off, as he finished with a 2.72 ERA and 31 saves even though he shared several opportunities with Tyler Rogers. Considering the cost of investment was low (and none, if you were able to snag him for free), he was, without a doubt, one of the most valuable closers of the 2021 season.
Honorable mentions: Emmanuel Clase, Raisel Iglesias
Least valuable closers in 2021
5. Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees
At first sight, Chapman’s season wasn’t a disaster: a 3.36 ERA, 30 saves (ninth place in MLB), and 15.50 strikeouts per nine innings. However, his ERA was a full run worse than his career 2.36 mark, and he handed an absurd 6.07 walks per nine frames, much higher than the 3.09 he finished with last campaign.
The most logical explanation for Chapman’s issues was MLB’s crackdown of foreign substances on the ball by pitchers. From that point on, throwing strikes consistently was mission impossible for him.
By the end of the season, Chapman didn’t trust his fastball and threw more sliders and splitters. It’s definitely a concern going forward, and given the sky-high expectations, he was one of the most disappointing closers this year.
4. Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Owning Bard in 2021 was the perfect definition of a roller-coaster: peaks and valleys, and sadly, there were more of the latter. As his 5.21 ERA suggests, he wasn’t nearly the same reliable reliever he was back in 2020 (3.65 ERA) after seven years out of the league.
Late in the season, Bard lost his hold of the closer role to a mediocre reliever, Carlos Estevez. He tumbled and slumped, yet still managed to get 20 saves for his owners. Given his ugly 1.60 WHIP, however, you could say those 20 saves were very, very expensive.
3. Brad Hand (three teams)
Hand’s 3.90 full season ERA hides the disastrous showing he had, particularly after the break. For starters, his 8.49 K/9 was down from 11.86 a year ago and 13.19 in 2019. Additionally, he had a mediocre 4.58 FIP, which is more associated with a back-end starter and not a shutdown reliever.
Hand earned 21 saves, most of them in the first half with the Washington Nationals. During the second half, he had a 5.86 ERA, compared to a 2.43 mark before the break. Is it possible he started the declining so sharply at age 31? Did he hide an injury? Whatever the reason was, Hand was a bitter disappointment.
2. James Karinchak (Cleveland Indians)
James Karinchak started the season in the mix for saves in the Indians’ bullpen. Emmanuel Clase entered the equation, sure, but Karinchak still got some opportunities (he finished with 11 saves). The first half went by and he was mostly fine, especially in the first two months: he had a 2.52 ERA and 68 punchouts in 39.1 innings prior to the All-Star Game.
Like Chapman, however, he struggled after the crackdown of foreign substances. Since June 21, when MLB started to check pitchers, to the end of the season, Karinchak had a poor 5.70 ERA in 23.2 frames.
Now that Clase proved his worth over a full season, Karinchak’s future as a closer is in question. He needs to show he can get back to being an elite reliever, first.
1.Cesar Valdez, Baltimore Orioles
The 36-year-old Valdez entered the season as the primary closer for the Baltimore Orioles after having a 1.26 ERA in 14.1 innings in 2020. On the strength of a very good changeup, he wanted to deliver on that promise, but his mediocre fastball prevented him from having sustained success and he lost his gig early in the season.
Valdez finished 2021 with a 5.87 ERA in 46 mostly mediocre frames, so he was a dud for fantasy owners this season.
(Dis)honorable mentions: Rafael Montero, Amir Garrett