Tagged: Relief Pitchers

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

Fantasy Baseball Intelligence, Episode 5

By Jonah Keri

In Episode 5 of Fantasy Baseball Intelligence, Eriq Gardner, Bloomberg Sports writer and founder of the Web site
Fantasyballjunkie.com, talks with Bloomberg’s Wayne Parillo about the
value of choosing quality relief pitchers for your fantasy team.

Here’s the direct link to the podcast. To subscribe to an RSS feed of Bloomberg Sports’ podcast, head here, or check out Fantasy Baseball Intelligence at iTunes.

For more on the value of relief pitchers in fantasy baseball, see Part 1 and Part 2 of Eriq’s series.

For more information on top relievers and other fantasy baseball topics, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit.

True Value of Great Relievers, Part 2

By Eriq Gardner

In the first part of our look into the true value of great relievers, we described why great relievers contribute just as much value in ERA and WHIP as starters.

Simply put, a fantasy team’s ERA and WHIP is a function of the total amount of earned runs, hits, and walks given up over the total number of team innings pitched. What matters most is finding pitchers who will save a team’s ratios from damage by limiting the number of earned runs, hits, and walks allowed.

We showed why the advantage of having great relievers instead of bad relievers is comparable to having great starters instead of mediocre ones, and it’s almost time to explain how one can get a strategic edge by leveraging the full value of relievers.

But first, we need to quickly examine two concepts that also play a role in this discussion.
The first factor is variability.
In Part 1 of the study, we noted that Jonathan Broxton is expected to save eight runs over Leo Nunez, which is not an insignificant number. However, two bad games at the beginning of April where Broxton lets up a couple of unlucky grand slams erases that advantage. Over a long-term period, we can be confident that a player will live up to his skills. But in a small sample size like 75 IP, how can we safely say that Broxton will come close to his projected 2.76 ERA?
We can’t.
As visual proof, here’s two radar graphs which plot ERA vs. xFIP (a measure of what a pitcher’s ERA should be based on peripheral stats such as strikeout rate, walk rate and home run rate). On the left, you’ll see the 20 pitchers who pitched the most innings in baseball last year. On the right, you’ll see the 20 pitchers who gained the most saves last year. On the left, you see a little variability. On the right, you see a lot.

So if we can’t confidently project a reliever’s ERA, should we give up on the idea we should roster them with the expectation they’ll help in the category?
The more relievers that a team has on its roster, the more closely the relievers’ ERA in aggregate will match our expectations. For instance, the average difference between the above starters’ ERA and xFIP was 0.51. For the relievers, it was 0.58. Not that big a deal if a fantasy team is willing to invest in several relievers to get the job done. A couple might underperform. A couple might outperform. In total, they should do what we expect.
Next comes the concept of scarcity.
How much of an investment (via high draft picks) does one have to make on great relievers? And if we need them in bulk to be ensured of having an impact, are there simply too few great relievers out there?
It turns out there are quite a few great relievers in any given year, and as you’ll see below, you don’t need to spend much to build a strong bullpen. Players such as Mike Thornton, Mike Adams, Mike Wuertz, Matt Guerrier, George Sherrill, Ronaldo Bellisario, and Jason Frasor all put up an ERA last season that was more than a run under than the league average.

They are not alone. Yes, not all are closers, but remember that in our expansive view of the value of relievers, we’ve shown that they provide value beyond saves, and thus, it’s fair to consider middle relievers and set-up men too. In fact, anybody who looks at an in-season player rater (on service providers like ESPN) measuring the real value contributed by players will see quite a number of middle relievers near the top of the charts, largely on the strength of contributions in ERA/WHIP. Last year, for example, Wuertz was roughly the 38th most valuable pitcher in 5-by-5 roto leagues, ahead of solid closers like Francisco Cordero and good starters like Ryan Dempster.

Of course, fantasy teams need closers too, because saves do count. So now we start getting into the best strategy for rostering relievers via draft.
When looking at pitchers in general, we want to focus foremost on underlying skills — the ability to strike out batters, the ability to have control and limit walks, and the ability to limit damage by preventing line drives and home runs. A pitcher who displays these skills can be expected to save earned runs, hits, and walks over the long haul.
Some relievers such as Broxton, Mariano Rivera, Joakim Soria, and Heath Bell do all these things extraordinarily well and deserve a premium because of the added contributions they make in the saves category. It’s perfectly reasonable to select them high in drafts because they are providing strong value in ERA/WHIP plus racking up numbers in the scarcest of categories — saves.
There are other closers out there, including Frank Francisco and Chad Qualls, who also sport strong peripherals, but might get discounted because of perceived job insecurity. In the middle rounds, each makes a good target.
Finally, at the end of drafts, there’s a good quantity of middle relievers out there whose value in ERA/WHIP strongly outweighs starters being drafted late. If these great middle relievers contribute more value than mediocre starters, it makes sense to take them ahead of those mediocre starters. (Plus, these are the relievers who are most likely to be promoted to closer during the season — adding the prospect of even greater value.)
Anybody reading closely at this point might wonder about available roster room to gather all these relievers. Rostering depends a lot on context. The more roster spots per team in a given league, the more available room for relievers who will provide help in ERA/WHIP. A smaller bench might mean not as much opportunity to draft a heavy load of relievers.
That said, teams that acknowledge that late-round relievers can provide as much value in ERA/WHIP as early-round starters can use their biggest investments not on starters, but on stable hitters who won’t require back-ups, nor replacements. Having a team built upon stellar relievers saves high draft picks for a killer offense, which then saves bench room for more pitchers.
Relievers also tend to post much higher strikeout rates than starters. A team that relies heavily on reliever
s — mixing in some mid-to-late round starters with great strikeout rates such as Jonathan Sanchez and Jorge De La Rosa — can compete strongly in the category of strikeouts too.
What this all adds up to is the prospect that one can take advantage of a market inefficiency based on the wrongful assumption that relievers don’t contribute much value beyond saves. It turns out they go a long way to helping a fantasy team do extremely well in four of five pitching categories, at an amazingly cheap investment. By correctly leveraging relievers, fantasy teams can relax on starting pitchers and focus on winning five offensive categories. This is extremely enticing. 
What’s the real lesson here? Perhaps it’s that the true value of great relievers lies in the fact that most people don’t recognize their greatness. 
For more information on good pitching options, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit