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Pitching by the Numbers: Special-K Closers

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

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Aroldis Chapman helps supplement a fantasy rotation with Vitamin K. (USAT)

The select few strikeout-dominant closers are too cheap in our game. The tremendous impact that they can have on the overall pitching staff in Ks seems too discounted given how the coming off the board now, even in expert leagues.

I’ve always said that relievers are like french fries in that they are only good when they’re hot – and they don’t stay hot for long. But if you can bet on anything with them, it’s strikeout rates.

So when I look at closers, I mainly see their surplus Ks over innings pitched because I want to take that surplus and add it to my starters’ strikeouts. The math is simple. For every strikeout my reliever is over innings pitched, I get to add one full strikeout for nine innings worth of pitching from my starters. This is critical of course in leagues like many on Yahoo that have innings caps, essentially turning the strikeout category into a K/9 category.

Here’s an example: I roster Ernesto Frieri, who is viewed as a middle-of-the-road reliever because he lacks job security. In fact, I did this recently in the Yahoo experts mock draft at the cost of an 11th-round pick. He was the eighth reliever off the board. Few (any?) have him that high. But I like to make broader points in these mocks and did so in my comment that accompanied that pick. I wasn’t really buying saves, though, of course, I want them. I was buying the 29 more Ks that Frieri had than innings last year.

Even after I take these strikeouts away from Frieri, he still has a K/9 of a solid 9.0 – a winning number today even for a closer. When building my staff, I add those 29 Ks to the starters I’ve drafted. So even if I ignore the bettable high K starters because they cost so much and I’d rather take hitting (which I did in the Yahoo mock), I get a leg up in building a good K/9 staff anyway. Last year, the league average K/9 was about 7.5. So even if I pick guys who are below average (say 7.0 K/9) for their WHIP, etc, and stay below average in Ks (despite my projections) I have turned 264 of pedestrian 7.0 K/9 innings into pretty solid 8.0 K/9 innings. It’s fantasy accounting magic!

Earlier in that same draft, I took Kenley Jansen for the same reason. Had I done this research before the draft, I would have taken Aroldis Chapman instead of being scared off by stubborn questions about how he’ll be used. Look at Chapman on the chart below and see how he added a K/9 last year to 435 innings worth of starting pitching while still giving you a solid K per inning himself. That’s mind blowing. Will he do it again? Maybe not but he’ll come close. So if my Yahoo mock relievers are as dominant as last year in Ks, I’ve boosted the K/9 of my staff by a full 1.0 for 573 innings. Plus I get the saves, which in my mind are basically a bonus. By that I mean I have no interest really in projecting the number of saves a reliever is going to get (as if that's possible). Here are all the relievers, closers and non-closers, who last year would have impacted 100-plus innings via their strikeouts minus innings pitched (SP IP impact is the number of starter innings that the reliever increases by 1.0 K/9):

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Would I roster these non-closers in mixed leagues? Probably not in standard mixers and only in the reserve round if I did. But the non-closers on this list should all be put on watch lists because, unless like Perez they are risks to blow up with their control, they are closer worthy.

In-season pick ups of hot strikeout relievers is the cheaper way to supplement your staff with quality innings (remember, these guys are very likely to help you in ERA and WHIP, too, though the former especially is much less bettable than the Ks). I find that by the middle of May and definitely by Memorial Day, the relievers who are piling up monster K rates are likely to remain dominant. Of course there are many exceptions individually but generally the odds are better than 50 percent and probably closer to 75 percent.

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