“Don’t Draft Closers Early” | Fantasy Baseball Strategy Analysis

You’re sitting in the fifth round of your fantasy draft where you have to start making real decisions about how you want to shape your fantasy team.  Mariano Rivera is available and you think about taking him but remember that old adage that you should never draft closers early so you draft Alex Rios instead.  Rounds go by and you keep reminding yourself not to waste a pick on a closer.  Suddenly, there’s a run on closers and, next thing you know, you’re stuck with Brad Lidge and all of the cheese curds have been eaten. Sad times indeed.  You take a moment and think back to your Alex Rios pick and wonder if you should have just taken Mariano Rivera or even just snatched Huston Street when you could have.  Did the old adage steer you wrong?

In points-based leagues, the decision is less perplexing as you just need to consider your league scoring and let that guide your decision.  In roto leagues, the decision also includes the fact that you have to consider how much value a reliever’s ERA, WHIP and K’s bring to the table.  But, for both leagues, you have to consider to volatility of the position and wonder if the closer you draft will still even be closing by the end of the season.

Drafting Closers Early

The closers who were being drafted “early” last year (before the 100th pick) were Jonathan Broxton, Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Heath Bell or Joakim Soria.  Only three of them really returned positive value (you can take a guess on which three) but volatility can be expected at any position as you could have wasted an early draft pick on outfielders that didn’t pan out like Jason Bay, Grady Sizemore or Adam Lind.  So, to not draft top closers just because some of them fail is not the best advice.  The real question at hand is whether there is better value in other positions at that time.

Those top closers went from about the 70th pick to the 100th pick in drafts and there were a total of 34 players within that draft range.  The average WERTH roto value for those 34 players was 0.46 points for your team.  Interestingly, the average for closers in that range was 0.34 points while non-closers averaged 0.48.  So, while drafting a closer wasn’t the optimal value, it wasn’t a disaster by any means.

If you didn’t draft a closer, you were mainly drafting a SP, OF or corner infielder in this range.  In looking at the 10 best players you could have taken, only one of them was a closer. While in the worst 10 picks you could have made in this range, three of them were closers (though Nate McClouth, Carlos Beltran and Josh Beckett were by far the worst). This range has a lot of hits and misses with closers not being any different.  They’re just as unpredictable as any other pick you could make here but their potential ceiling is a bit lower than others.

If you waited on closers last year, the best time to take them would have been between picks 130 and 160.  This is where four of the top five closers were found and you weren’t missing out on too much from the other positions.  There were 31 players in that draft range and they averaged -0.78 roto points among them with closers averaging 0.26 points and non-closers averaging -1.21 points each (side note: SP’s were actually most valuable as they averaged 0.74 a piece here).  So, this seems like a safer time for closers given that the 9 closers in this range were nearly as valuable as the 7 top-drafted closers and given that the rest of the crop of players were worse by nearly two roto points a piece on average.

Value of ERA, WHIP & K’s for Closers

How important is it to have a great closer instead of plugging in mediocre guys who happen to generate saves?  Well, the main difference between a the best and worst fantasy closer is simply their ERA, WHIP and strikeout numbers.  Generally, you can expect 60-80 innings out of a closer in a season and the best of the best will give an ERA under 2.00, a WHIP under 1.00 and maybe 80 to 100 strikeouts.  Getting two of the best closers in the league would get you about 140 innings of that type of pitching, which is certainly valuable.  While having two mediocre closers might give you an ERA above 3.50, WHIP around 1.40 and maybe 50 to 70 strikeouts.

Based on WERTH roto values here, the top five closers in the league would be worth nearly a full roto point of ERA, half a roto point of WHIP while costing you about a half point in K’s (in comparison to any pitcher in your rotation’s contributions towards total strikeouts).

Billy Wagner
Heath Bell
Rafael Soriano
Brian Wilson
Carlos Marmol
Top 5 Avg

Meanwhile, the lower-end closers in the league obviously have much worse value in all three categories.

David Aardsma
Octavio Dotel
Jonathan Broxton
Bobby Jenks
Matt Lindstrom
Bottom 5 Avg

While a top-tier closer will generate a few more saves over the course of a season than a low-end closer, the main difference in value is the ERA, WHIP and strikeouts that they produce. Having two of the higher end closers versus two lower end closers could represent a total difference of nearly 5 roto points in your standings in these three categories alone.


Drafting one of the top closers in a draft isn’t the best strategy you can take on but it wouldn’t completely ruin your draft either.  The difference between having good closers and bad closers is pretty significant throughout a season so choosing wisely is the most important part.  Last year, the best time to grab closers was around the 11th to 13th round in 12-team leagues and that could be the case this year as well.  But, you can still pick the wrong guys in that range as these were a lot of duds there too.

When deciding who to draft at this position, try not to rely on a small sample size as many relievers can produce extremely well over 60 innings in a year then produce horribly over 60 innings in the next year.  Looking at a span of hundreds of innings for a reliever is the best way to really decide who you want.  Also, don’t rely only on the number of saves as that’s variable from year to year as well.  Pitchers with good ERA, WHIP and K’s will keep their job as closers so target them first and foremost and just cross your fingers.

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