by Dave De Wit
Saves is the one category in fantasy baseball where a player’s value is completely dependent on his role. Unless you’re in a holds league, mediocre closers rank much higher than more talented non-closers simply because they are earning saves. Meanwhile several non-closers go undrafted despite their strikeout rate, ERA and WHIP being top-notch. If these elite non-closers ever got a shot at the ninth inning gig they would quickly become top relief pitchers in fantasy.
It’s a little difficult determining who the skilled relievers are because of how volatile their stats can be. Since they typically pitch just 50 to 70 innings, it only takes a few extra home runs in a year to inflate their ERA, so I like to use strikeouts per nine (K/9) and walks per nine (BB/9) as my guide. To set the standard, over the past three years closers with at least 20 saves in a season have averaged 9.55 K/9 and 3.19 BB/9. Using those averages, it’s safe to assume that any non-closer who bests those numbers would be a top-notch closer if given the job.
Here are a few elite relief pitchers that have never had a real shot to close. They’re already guys to target in holds leagues, but each has a chance at earning the closing job at some point this season as well, which makes them interesting in all leagues.
Sean Doolittle (OAK)
After his dominant debut out of the bullpen last year, it’s hard to believe that just three years ago Sean Doolittle was a top prospect for Oakland as a first baseman. Injuries forced him back to the mound, where he had thrived in college, and after the lefty threw a mere 26 minor league innings he was called up to the majors.
In the show, Dootlittle was a strikeout machine with 60 K in 47.1 innings, good for 11.41 strikeouts per nine. He also showed excellent command, walking only 11 batters in the majors (2.09 BB/9). Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Papelbon were the only closers with a K/9 over 11.00 and a BB/9 under 3.00 in 2012; Doolittle’s in good company.
As for his path to the closer job, Grant Balfour and Ryan Cook look to be his main competition but both were removed from the role at different points last season. Meanwhile Doolittle was eased into high leverage situations and proved he was capable of it by posting a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than his main competitors. If Doolittle can repeat the skills he show last year and earn the closer’s role, he’d launch up to the top of the closer rankings.
David Hernandez (ARI)
If you can’t trust Doolittle’s limited track record, then David Hernandez is your guy. Since being traded to the Diamondbacks two years ago and switching to the bullpen, the 27 year-old flame thrower has been one of the most reliable set-up men in the league. Last year he posted a massive 12.91 K/9 (up from 10.00 K/9 in 2011) with 2.90 BB/9 (down from 3.89 BB/9 in 2011) and limited opponents to only four home runs in each of the past two years, despite pitching half his games at homer-friendly Chase Field. He has skills for days, but his path to saves is a little mirky.
Current D-Backs closer J.J. Putz has been just as consistent as Hernandez for the past few years, but Putz has an extensive history of nagging arm injuries. He’ll be 36 this season, but his arm is even older as shown by the fact that his fastball velocity has dropped each of the past two years. If Putz were to hit the DL or just lose his effectiveness, Hernandez would have to compete with recent acquisition Heath Bell. After Bell’s terrible performance in Miami and his two-year trend of declining skills, it wouldn’t be a shock if Hernandez took the job and ran with it.
David Robertson (NYY)
Looking all the way back to early May 2012 when Mariano Rivera tore his ACL, it’s hard to remember that David Robertson was actually named the closer before Rafael Soriano. Unfortunately Robertson was dealing with a strained oblique and only had two save opportunities before heading to the DL, allowing Soriano to take the job.
Despite missing his chance to close, the Yankees’ set-up man had a fantastic season. His ERA was not quite as amazing as his flukey 2011, but his skills actually improved. Robertson chopped his walk rate down from 4.73 BB/9 in 2011 all the way to just 2.82 BB/9 in 2012 and was able to keep his strikeout rate above 12 K/9 for the third time in the past four years. Now that Soriano is out of the picture and Rivera is a bigger question mark than he’s ever been in his career, this could finally be the year the David Robertson takes over as the Yankees’ closer.
Others to Keep an Eye On
Kenley Jansen (LAD)
Jake McGee (TB)
Sean Marshall (CIN)
Steve Delabar (TOR)
Koji Uehara (BOS)
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