Relief pitcher tiers for Draft Day 2014
Let's get one thing straight from the get-go: We're talking about closers here.
I understand some well-intentioned formats allow a recently converted starting pitcher to carry his relief pitcher eligibility over to the following season, as if he's a shortstop moving to second base, and that in those formats those pitchers have great value for the amount of points they can accumulate relative to closers.
Tiers are designed to deliver the most efficient draft possible by
using player rankings to reveal the distribution of talent at each
position. A new tier begins whenever the next player down in the
rankings has a vastly different projected outcome from the one
preceding him. Reducing a position to five or six tiers instead of
30 or more individuals gives you a blueprint to follow as your
league's draft unfolds. Naturally, the position to target is the one
whose active tier is closest to completion. -- SW
But in more traditional formats, the way you approach a pitcher who pitches the first inning vs. one who pitches the ninth is so vastly different that I'd rather not intermingle them here. For a list of SPARPs (starting pitchers as relief pitchers), consult the starting pitcher tiers. They're the ones with the asterisks next to their names.
As for the closers, the role has undergone a transformation of sorts. More and more teams have begun manufacturing their own, turning the ninth inning over to their most talented relievers instead of just signing a guy with experience in the role.
The result is a distribution of talent that has become surprisingly top-heavy, with Greg Holland and Kenley Jansen joining in Craig Kimbrel -like production.
The Near-Elite: Koji Uehara , Trevor Rosenthal
The Next-Best Things: Joe Nathan , Jason Grilli , Sergio Romo , Glen Perkins , David Robertson , Ernesto Frieri
The Fallback Options: Jonathan Papelbon , Grant Balfour , Addison Reed , Rafael Soriano , Steve Cishek , Jim Johnson
The Last Resorts: Joakim Soria , Casey Janssen , Fernando Rodney , John Axford , Huston Street , Jim Henderson , Nate Jones , Tommy Hunter , Bobby Parnell , Jose Veras
On the Horizon: Aroldis Chapman , Rex Brothers , LaTroy Hawkins , J.J. Hoover , Jesse Crain , Josh Fields , Chad Qualls , Jonathan Broxton , Matt Albers
So how does the changing closer landscape alter your approach on Draft Day? Well, for starters, the age-old mantra of "never pay for saves" no longer applies. With those four, you're not just paying for saves, but strikeouts. All were in the neighborhood of 100 last season, putting them 30-40 ahead of the typical closer. Those who go without one of The Elite or The Near Elite at the position will have trouble making up that gap with starting pitchers alone.
But of course, you pay for those strikeouts, with some from the first tier going as early as Round 5 or 6 in Rotisserie leagues. If I feel I'm lacking in strikeouts at that point in the draft (perhaps because I missed out on The Elite at starting pitcher), I'll more likely hold out for Rosenthal, who had 108 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings last year but belongs to a lower tier since he's still unproven as a closer. Uehara exceeded 100 strikeouts last year as well -- and with a record-setting 0.57 WHIP -- but at age 39 and with a history of injuries, he's not as safe as The Elite.
If I have strikeouts pretty well covered or can't get one of the 100-strikeout club at a value I deem appropriate, I'll default to never paying for saves, taking whichever two or three of the 30 closers happen to fall to me. Sometimes, I'll luck into one of The Fallback Options who slipped through the cracks, but I'm not any less confident in The Last Resorts -- not enough to pass on something else of value, anyway. Yeah, Jones and Hunter haven't technically secured ninth-inning duties yet, but their teams are just doing their due diligence. We all know the way they're leaning. No need to play coy here.
In Head-to-Head points leagues, I wouldn't even bother with the 100-strikeout club. Strikeouts are worth just half a point each, making saves still the ultimate determinant of a closer's value. Case in point: Johnson had half as many strikeouts as Jansen last year but still outscored him thanks to his league-leading 50 saves. Soriano had the fewest strikeouts of any returning closer with at least 60 innings but still ranked seventh at the position in terms of Head-to-Head points.
Of course, how many saves a closer gets, assuming good health and a steady role, is mostly random, giving you little chance of predicting how they'll finish. So I'd rather not try on Draft Day, when the cost of doing so is typically several rounds. I still tier the position like any other, emphasizing job security and raw ability, but it's mostly for appearances. My honest approach to the players in line for saves is to lump them into one big tier ... unless I'm going for strikeouts in a format where they actually make a difference.
Notice I changed the name of the last tier at this position from The Leftovers to On the Horizon. Yeah ... they'll either matter, or they won't. They're technically in the mix for saves right now, so I don't want to overlook them, but they're far too risky to draft except in an emergency situation. The Rockies seem to be leaning toward Hawkins over Brothers at closer, but it's a Brandon League - Kenley Jansen situation if there ever was one. Brothers will overcome Hawkins in time, so if you can afford to stash him on your bench for a month or two, you can get him at a nice discount.
With Broxton beginning the year on the DL, Hoover looks like the favorite for saves in Cincinnati while Chapman recovers from a facial fracture. I'd like to see Crain claim the closer gig in Houston given his 0.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 38 appearances last year, but he'll have to bounce back from biceps surgery first. Good luck with Fields, Qualls and Albers in the meantime.