Fantasy Baseball draft prep: What to look for in a closer

Edwin Diaz has a lot of upside for anyone looking for a closer to target. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Edwin Diaz has a lot of upside for anyone looking for a closer to target. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Taking closers can be seen as being more a matter of will than skill. The rankings are so convergent that it simply boils down to two questions: do you want to grab at least a pair of closers at all and, if you do, do you want to reach for “elite” ones.

But I think the market is inefficient with closer value. Too much time is spent projecting saves (impossible) and the averages (WHIP and ERA) and not enough on the thing that’s easiest to project: strikeouts.

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In innings capped formats like many Yahoo leagues, the strikeout advantage — as I write every year — can transform an entire staff. The statistic is simple — Ks minus innings pitched. You can use projections or simply extrapolate last year’s numbers yourself. But the net result is that this differential is much more than it seems.

Aroldis Chapman is by far the most valuable closer in fantasy and especially in leagues with any innings caps because he’s about 40 Ks more than innings. That means his K/9 can stay at a winning 9.0 and you just take the rest and spread that over your staff. But 40 Ks, big deal, right? Um, wrong.

What those 40 Ks do is improve the K/9 of the rest of your staff by 1.0 (huge) for 40 times 9 innings, or 360 innings. In other words, it takes 360 innings of 7.5 (average) K/9 starting pitching and turns it into elite 8.5 K/9 pitching. Now what if you team Chapman with another similarly dominant pitcher? According to Yahoo projections, among projected closers, Ken Giles and Kenley Jansen, come in net at 28 and 26 “surplus” Ks, respectively.

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Getting Chapman and Giles, Yahoo’s 2nd and 13th closer, respectively, is very doable. The fact that Giles despite that K dominance is the 13th closer off the board is just a gift for anyone who wants to take it. I know that Giles was shaky last year and lost his job but those averages were not in line with his stuff and the stuff is way more bettable. Taking Giles as the 10th closer is a very minor gamble with huge potential rewards.

The other reliever who could possibly even top Chapman in this stat is Seattle’s Edwin Diaz, who is 10th closer off the board. You can actually execute this strategy very cheaply in rounds 7 and 8 by just taking Diaz and Giles back to back. Diaz last year had 88 Ks in 51.2 innings. That’s just sick. He should pitch 70 innings this year. At that same rate, that’s 119 Ks, or plus 49. Yahoo has Diaz at just 18 Ks minus innings. But even being super conservative gets you 30. Add that to Giles’s projected plus-28 (also quite conservative, I believe) and that’s 58 Ks minus inning for your closers — and that’s the floor. That improves the K/9 of the rest of your staff from say, 7.5 to 8.5 (championship-caliber) for an insane 522 innings. For a baseline, Kershaw’s projection does the same thing for 342 innings (38 more Ks than innings, according to Yahoo).

So getting two of Chapman, Diaz and Giles means that you can pay for Ks with two of your starters, worry about averages (ERA and WHIP) with the rest and win your league on the backs of your dominant closers. It’s the poor man’s Kershaw.

The other guys who are projected to help somewhat here are Kenley Jansen (who is unwisely drafted as the No. 1 closer, generally), Craig Kimbrel, Seung Hwan Oh, David Robertson, Cody Allen and Shawn Kelly. Those guys are each 15-to-30 in Ks minus innings. But getting two of them is only going to create the effect we describe for about 350-to-400 innings. I’ll wager that Chapman and Diaz (or Diaz and Giles) crack 600.

There are nine closers projected to have at least 19 saves while being underwater in strikeouts, meaning they throw more innings than they have Ks. These are the guys you should just avoid not only because they lack the impact we describe but also because their lack of “stuff” that is evidenced in this statistic makes them more likely to falter in the role or struggle in the averages.

These pitchers are, in order of least Ks per innings, Brandon Kintzler, Sam Dyson, Mark Melancon, Huston Street, Ryan Madson, Jim Johnson, Tony Watson, Francisco Rodriguez and Fernando Rodney.