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Monday, April 8, 2013

Full Circle on Relief Pitchers

When I first started playing fantasy baseball I drafted pitchers like just about everyone else - a starter every so often and a couple of relievers later on in the draft.  As I started to play more often I realized that you could basically take your pick of the top setup men in all of baseball for pretty much nothing.  I theorized that you'd be able to get great ERA and WHIP numbers out of these guys for close to zero investment.

And, as I continued to develop the strategy I went from two or three relievers to four closers... then to five total relievers, then six.  I realized that your could dominate the saves category if you locked up four middle-of-the-road closers and if you added one or even two elite setup guys to the mix your other stats would benefit as well.  Plus, one of those setup guys could possibly get promoted to the closer gig which would provide even more value and a good trade chip later on.

I started to think about it even further and what I was seeing was that if you have an imbalanced number of closers on your squad you can start to run away with the saves category.  That cushion gives you breathing room in the category but also increases the value of the closers you own since you are making them more scarce.  All great things.

But, then I started to dig deeper into the numbers...
and looked at the opportunity cost of the strategy and started to sour on it

For ease of use, let's say that starters get you 15 wins, a 4.00 ERA, a 1.30 WHIP, and 160 K's in 200 innings.  And, let's say that closers get you 30 saves, 2 wins, a 3.00 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, and 70 K's in 60 innings with other relievers doing something similar but with 0 saves and 6 wins.  Those are just round numbers for us to work with... your mileage will definitely vary.  Okay, so let's say your typical pitching staff has six starters and three closers.  That setup would get you stats like this:
  • 96 Wins
  • 3.87 ERA
  • 1.28 WHIP
  • 1,170 K's
  • 90 Saves

Okay, now let's take away a starter and add in one more closer and two setup guys.  (Note: This is 20 fewer innings pitched, but 1,360 IP versus 1,380 isn't a big difference at all.)  The big thing here is that it takes two more bench spots to accomplish this strategy which hurts your offensive flexibility.  But, the thinking here is that you plug in the relievers every day and starters only when it's their day to pitch.  You'd invest heavily in the best offense you can find so you don't have to worry about requiring a deep bench.  In other words, you spend draft resources on offense and manufacture pitching statistics based on the freely available resource of exceptional setup men.

Using our standard stats here is where our team would be with five starters, four closers, and two setup guys:
  • 93 Wins
  • 3.74 ERA
  • 1.26 WHIP
  • 1,220 K's
  • 120 Saves

So, basically at the expense of two roster spots and three wins everything goes up.  And, in saves you dominate.  Plus, you are incidentally speculating on two setup guys who could blossom into closers which would give you additional value to work with down the line.

However, several things have to go right with this strategy and there are significant opportunity costs in doing this.
  1. Starters are risky and you have even less margin for error when you are rolling out five guys instead of six.
  2. When you are drafting all of your closers and setup guys the other players in your league are taking guys like Dexter Fowler and Josh Rutledge... and even some non-Rockies.  (Just kidding...  What I'm talking about are the high-upside late round picks that you won't be getting.)
  3. Your offense will lack flexibility since you are using a chunk of your bench for pitching.  This is a pretty big deal, actually.
  4. You can't miss on one of your offensive starters because you won't be able to replace them on the wire as easily as you would with, say, a 16th round draft pick.
The strategy is probably a more advanced one and can be hard to pull off.  I have also been convinced over the years that the impact of relievers on statistics other than saves is just not important.  The difference is innings pitched...  The denominator on the fraction is just not high enough.  Wouldn't you rather have 200 IP at 3.28 ERA than 60 IP at 2.85 ERA?

Look above at the difference in ERA, K's, and especially WHIP.  In our example, we're talking about 0.13 in ERA and only 0.02 in WHIP.  And, only 50 more K's which is only a 4.3% increase.  Nothing to write home about.

Sure, you dominate saves but you only get small improvements in those other three categories and actually take a small hit in wins... all the while having fewer rotational offensive players and less margin for error.

Yes, again, all true.  But I did say that I've come full circle on relievers.  I am now to the point that any edge I can get in qualitative pitching statistics is huge.  And, listen, WHIP is the most deceptive stat there is.  A bump of .02 is really pretty big when you look at the way the WHIP standings are spread out at the end of a typical season.  .02 could move you up three or four spots in WHIP, incredibly enough.

And 0.13 in ERA can take you from ordinary to significantly above average really quickly.  50 strikeouts could move up up a couple of spots too, though it probably serves to offset your lower wins total in the standings.  Still a good thing, though.  So, if you move up three points in WHIP, three points in ERA, and three points in Saves with the other two cancelling each other out you've got a net of nine more points in the standings.  It really is the small edge that leads you to victory in fantasy baseball.

The big trick here is to ensure that you hold the line on the offensive side while picking up these bonus points in pitching.  I'd recommend some offensive players with positional flexibility like Martin Prado and Ben Zobrist to really make this strategy sing.  The rationale is that those players can move around your roster and fill in on off days so you don't need quite so many offensive players.  Either that, or you'll need a long bench to accommodate the needed flexibility.

Go back and look at where you finished the season last year and add nine points to your total.  Not too shabby, huh?  And, if you really want to get crazy look at the detailed standings from the end of the year and apply improvements to your stats of 50 K's, .02 WHIP, .13 ERA, and 30 Saves while subtracting three Wins.  Then, recalculate.  Not a bad improvement, is it?  Especially for something you can do with what is basically a free resource in top-notch setup men.