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Do only good closers keep their jobs?

June 17th, 2011 by in General Guidance, Theoretical

A couple weeks ago, I began a series looking at closers and how to best identify the closers that will succeed in a given year.  Given that, on the whole, less than 50 percent of pitchers who begin the season as a closer end the year closing games, deciding which closers to choose for our fantasy teams is a tricky subject.

Last time, I looked at how often closers lose their jobs based on their start-of-year classification of sole closer, injured closer, injury replacement, or part-of-a-committee.  I found that, far and away, sole closers are the best bets while the rest are lucky to get double-digit saves.  This time, I’m going to put the theory of “draft skills, not roles” to the test.
 

Last Season ERA

To do this, we'll first define "skills" as the pitcher’s previous season ERA, focusing only on pitchers who began the year as “sole closers” to avoid unwanted biases.  The chart to the right shows how many games a closer will save based upon his ERA the year before.

As you can see, there is definitely an advantage to having performed well the season before, but it’s not as big as most assume.  In the chart to the right, you see that the difference between the absolute cream of the crop and the absolute worst is just 10 saves.

Below, the data is presented in graph form, for those who like to visualize things that way.  The r-squared is just 0.03, which means that previous season ERA predicts just 3% of the variation in next-season saves totals for pitchers who begin the year as closer.  For every point that a pitcher trims off his previous-season ERA, his saves total increases by just 2.6.  So a pitcher with a 2.00 ERA would be expected to save 31 games while a pitcher with a 5.00 ERA would still be expected to save 23 games.

 

Projected ERA

“Previous season ERA is a poor indicator of talent,” you say?  Ok, let’s run the same test using the pitcher’s projected ERA for the season in question.  For this study, I’ll be using Jeff Sackmann’s ever-useful historical Marcels database.

When we do this, we end up with essentially the same result we got with previous season ERA.  Again, it’s better to have a good projection, but not nearly the necessity than most seem to believe it is.  The r-squared here is just 0.04, and for every additional point of ERA, a pitcher’s save expectation decreases by 5.7.  That’s more than for previous season ERA, but it still means that the difference between a 3.00 ERA projection and a 5.00 ERA projection is just 11 saves (and honestly, how many closers are really expected to be as bad as a 5.00 ERA or even as good as a 3.00 ERA?).

 

3-Year FIP

I originally planned to stop here, but since Marcel is such a simplistic projection system and since Jeff's calculation of Marcels ERA is even more simplistic – he says "I didn’t do any kind of DIPS or BsR adjustments" – I decided to do one more test using a pitcher's 3-year FIP.  Pitchers were only included if they had thrown at least 100 innings over the previous three seasons and, of course, if they started the year as the sole closer.

Using our third method, we again find the same thing: good closers do better, but bad closers manage to do just fine too.  Our r-squared jumps up to 5.5 here, but 1.00 of FIP translates to just 4.8 saves, making the difference between a 3.00 FIP closer and a 5.00 FIP closer just under 10 saves.

 

Skills vs. Role

I believe that today's findings are of paramount importance to fantasy leaguers.  While this isn't the end-all-be-all study, I think these findings are highly significant and cast a serious shadow of doubt upon the "buy skills, not roles" theory.

Up until this point, we've always assumed that a guy like Mariano Rivera is a better bet for saves than a guy like Ryan Franklin.  While this is true, today's findings show that there may not be as big of a gap as we've always thought.  After all, for almost every Ryan Franklin who loses his job, there's a Joakim Soria who does the same.

Of course, there are still more variables to look at (which I plan on doing in future articles), not to mention the value a closer derives from the other four categories (which I'll also look at in a future article).  For now, though, I think this gives us a lot to think about and really calls into question a lot of the assumptions that we as fantasy owners make about building a team.  Is it worth it to spend $24 on Neftali Feliz when you can buy Kevin Gregg for $8 and receive nearly the same amount of saves?

12 Responses to “Do only good closers keep their jobs?”

  1. Chris Hill says:

    This is fabulous analysis.
    As a matter fact Derek, I had independently reached the conclusion that Capps for $3 was a move of genius and Feliz at 24 and Papelbon at 19 were moves of sheer idiocy. The only good news was I managed to get full value for Papelbon, which was right up there with getting anything for Morneau in terms of good luck.
    It does appear that buying roles not skills is the way to go with closers, and betting against guys who got hurt (Nathan, Bailey, Aardsma) or are inheriting the role (Thornton) sounds like a plan too. 
    Saves and Speed ultimately are role/manager dependent. The are also a self reinforcing feedback cycle- get the job done, you get to do the job more often (Fernando Salas anyone?). Fail, managers ship you to triple a and try a new guy. (Mattingly doesn't have a closer committee,he has a closer convention).
    The moral of the story is that all established closers are roughly equal, at least as I read it. Nicely done.

    • Derek Carty says:

      Yes, in terms of saves they seem to be much more equal than some think.  The Thornton types are the guys I'll be looking at next time, and I have a feeling I'll find that he wasn't as sound of an investment as I thought he was.
      I don't regret trading for Papelbon, though it'd be nice if Jim Thome had actually played more than three games since acquiring him, if Masterson could win a game, and if Adam Lind wasn't outpacing even my optimistic (from what everyone has told me) projection.

  2. Chris Hill says:

    In my own defense of $24 for Feliz, by the way, I thought the Rangers would make him the starter and Ogando the closer. I thought Feliz as a closer was a huge waste of talent and that Ogando didn't have the endurance to be a starter. I couldn't have been less correct. So much for buying a $32 starter for $24. Next year, I just buy the $32 guy (and pay for Gordon and Bautista)

    • Kurt says:

      i shall ask a close friend this wnkeeed (he has lots of biz books/internet biz books); i’m not up on those in particular, but Jack’s Notebook intrigued me from the get-go, prolly cos it’s in novel form.i, too, read more than one book at a time (the only way to go), iz stawree of mai lief akshually, LOL.

  3. Eric Kesselman says:

    My teams rarely have closers, largely because this was how I felt going into most drafts. If you can get lucky on a Sergio Santos type that is clearly immensely valueable, but its never clear how many spots to fire into that, or how much to spend. 

    Was Kevin Gregg so clearly the annointed closer? I feel most of the discounts involved in guys like that involve the uncertainty of his job, not the certainty of his secondhand skills.

    • Derek Carty says:

      Gregg was the pretty heavy favorite at the time of the draft (maybe 80%) and even more so once opening day came around (maybe 98%)

      • Peter Kreutzer says:

        If Gregg was such a heavy favorite at the time of the draft, why did he go for less than Uehara?
        I had Gregg in my draft sheet as a heavy favorite because he was an established closer with a proven (albeit dubious) track record. But clearly others disagreed. I don't think even I had him as an 80 percent fave on draft day, and I bought him.
         

        • Derek Carty says:

          When the Baltimore Orioles signed Kevin Gregg earlier this year, it was assumed that he would be their closer. Now after yet another setback to Koji Uehara, that assumption seems to be much closer to reality.

          http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/al/2011-03-04-567477088_x.htm?csp=34sports

          • Meichell says:

            This is an interesting exineprece, to say the least. I’m a bit overwhelmed, in a good way. My goal when I put the focus on poetry was to have a quality book, and I think I’ve accomplished that! I just love that our books will have birthdays close enough that we can have mutual birthday parties like those women on The Real Housewives of shows on Bravo. Can we descend from the ceiling on giant swings?

        • Derek Carty says:

          If I were to guess, I think part of it was the perception that Gregg was awful, Uehara was good and would take the job at some point, and there was still plenty of ST left for Gregg to suck and lose the job before the season even began.

        • Mahmoud says:

          Fantasy-wise I am definitely dipaspointed about Morrow’s decision. I have him in a deep dynasty where SP is at a premium. I was looking forward to the K and low ERA over 200 innings in the next few years. Closers are great in a 20-team league, but still easier to find than elite SP when teams have the best prospects locked up in their minors systems.

  4. Shelly says:

    Bom domingo de Pe1scoa e abuerrta da Major League para todos!! Vou deixar este artigo para irmos comentando e papeando sobre o confronto, a MLB e muito mais durante o domingo e o jogo inaugural. Funcionando como o Mural da ESPN, que alie1s transmitire1 o jogo ao vivo, com uma pitada das nossa provocae7f5es e ane1lises votadas para a nossa liga. Tambe9m sere1 legal para vermos as pontuae7f5es e tirarmos dfavidas das jogadas, regras e lances da partida.

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