Another Look at the Value of Starters vs. Relievers

By Eriq Gardner //

How do you measure an elite closer versus an elite starter in drafts?
For those who see closers as largely one-category contributors, the answer is you don’t. You measure a closer’s stability and job security and make a determination whether that closer is going to produce enough saves to justify picking one in high rounds versus a lesser closer in late rounds. Often that formula yields the conclusion that it’s imprudent to invest much in fickle relievers.
As we tried to show last year, though, closers can contribute just as strongly as starters in ERA and WHIP. 
This topic comes up every year, however, and can lead to a lot of puzzlement. In response to our post last week on safe draft bargains, one reader questioned whether Carlos Marmol should really be ranked ahead of elite starters like Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, and CC Sabathia.
Keep in mind that there’s always a margin of error when it comes to projections. The degree of confidence that the 48th ranked player will best the 49th ranked player in value by the season’s end is small. Still, the question of whether Marmol and Verlander belong in the same ballpark is definitely a valid one. 
Having considered the relative value of a starter’s ERA/WHIP vs. a reliever’s ERA/WHIP last year, let’s take a look at another category in the equation — strikeouts. 
Bloomberg Sports projects Carlos Marmol to have 105 strikeouts (most among closers) and Justin Verlander to have 198 strikeouts (second most among starters) in 2011. Both projections are on the conservative side. Bloomberg cuts 33 strikeouts from Marmol’s 2010 total and 21 strikeouts from Verlander’s 2010 total.
At first glance, Verlander’s 198 projected strikeouts seems to be more valuable than Marmol’s 105 strikeouts, but is that really true? Or stated another way, is a 200-K starter more special than a 100-K reliever?
In a standard 12-team 5×5 league, there will typically be about 60 starters drafted, or about five per team. According to Bloomberg’s projections, the average top-60 starter will have 159 strikeouts. This means that Verlander is projected to have about a 40 strikeout advantage over an average starter. That’s the difference between Verlander and someone like Ricky Romero, both in Bloomberg’s projections and 2010 totals.
How does Marmol compare to other closers? Bloomberg projects that among the 30 players projected with at least 5 saves this coming season, the average closer’s strikeout total will be 64. This means that Marmol is projected to have a 40 strikeout advantage over an average closer. Keep in mind how conservative this projection represents. Last season, Marmol had more than a 60 strikeout advantage over closers like Jonathan Papelbon, John Axford, and Francisco Rodriguez.
But assuming the projections are valid, it means that if you choose Marmol and Romero instead of Verlander and K-Rod, you should end up with roughly the same amount of strikeouts.
Strikeouts are just one category. There’s obviously ERA and WHIP too, though we think it’s been exaggerated to suggest that a reliever who only appears in about 75 innings as Marmol has the last three seasons can’t have as much value as a starter who appears in 200 innings. Not when the ERA difference is a whole run.
Let’s stipulate to the fact that that projecting wins and saves is pretty tough. No pitcher — this goes for both starters and relievers — can control the situational and opportunity factors like run support that influence a season’s win and save totals. But there are ton of starters who get wins. The number of pitchers who get saves is quite more limited. It’s a scarcer commodity, meaning that even 35 saves is typically worth more in a typical year than 20 wins. 
This is hard for many people to stomach. It’s counterintuitive to everything we know about the value of pitchers in real-life baseball. But pay attention to any fantasy baseball player rater during the course of the season and you’ll notice that top relievers rank right up there with top starters. There’s a reason.
For the best fantasy baseball analysis and insight please visit BloombergSports.com

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