Commentary

Relief Efforts: Don't look for patterns in save chances

Updated: May 28, 2008, 4:12 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

There is just no way to predict how many saves a pitcher will accrue in a given season. You can study all kinds of metrics and research past performance, and still it won't help. Saves can be consistent or streaky, from year to year, month to month, even week to week.

With the closers on the best teams, their teammates tend to score a ton and win games 8-3. See Mariano Rivera earning "only" 30 saves last season or Jonathan Papelbon falling short of 40. You definitely don't want the closers on the worst teams, because they don't get enough chances. There are exceptions to this, of course, but for every so-called rule about predicting saves, I can show you how that rule is flawed, no matter the year.

Kevin Gregg
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesThe Marlins are in first place, but somehow Kevin Gregg hasn't racked up that many saves.
Francisco Rodriguez leads the majors in saves, and the Angels are a first-place team, having already racked up more than 30 wins. Yet look at the Marlins, who are leading the powerful NL East with closer Kevin Gregg having fewer than half K-Rod's number. Meanwhile, the Giants aren't going anywhere, avoiding last place only because the Padres can't hit a lick, and closer Brian Wilson is being out-saved by only two closers. Good teams, bad teams, it doesn't matter if you're trying to see a theme for save totals.

Don't try to figure it out, you won't get anywhere. Last year, Joe Borowski was a save machine, leading the AL. His team won a lot of games, so maybe you think that strengthens the argument for top teams. Then again, of the top 10 save producers from 2007, a grand total of three of them were blessed to perform in the playoffs.

We can say, with some assurance, that closers on the worst teams are not going to lead the league in saves, but the not-so-breaking news is that the best teams don't necessarily produce the top closers, either. Look at the current crew of closers on the seven teams that began play Tuesday with 30 or more wins. Did you want these guys on draft day? With an exception or two, it sure didn't seem like it.

Troy Percival, Tampa Bay Rays: Drafted 32nd in ESPN average live drafts among relievers. He's allowed nine hits in 20 2/3 innings so far, has a 0.63 WHIP and is on pace for 44 saves. I'm not calling him a sell-high guy, either. The Rays are sticking around in that race.

Kevin Gregg, Florida Marlins: Drafted 23rd on average, as few seemed convinced he could do it again. Well, he's doing it again, though he needs Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla and pals to score less so he can save more. I think it will happen and this fella gets to 35 saves.

Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox: The exception to the rule, as he was drafted first among closers. He has as many wins as walks (two) so far. With J.J. Putz looking mortal, Papelbon is about as safe as can be.

Brandon Lyon, Arizona Diamondbacks: On average, he was selected a few spots after Eric Gagne, outside the top 25, which says something. Lyon doesn't look like Todd Jones anymore, as he has a decent K rate and low ERA. He's actually, surprisingly, legit. Trust him.

Kerry Wood, Chicago Cubs: Fantasy owners were so confident in him they made Carlos Marmol a better draft pick. Wood was taken 31st. He's on pace for 35 saves. Marmol is on pace for six.

Francisco Rodriguez
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesIt's not a surprise that Francisco Rodriguez leads the majors in saves, it's how he's doing it.
Francisco Rodriguez, Los Angeles Angels: The other exception to the rule, though you still wanted Putz earlier. More proof saves are about luck: K-Rod has walked 15 hitters and fanned 21. Of the 36 pitchers with three or more saves this season, Gagne is the only pitcher with more walks than K-Rod.

Ryan Franklin, St. Louis Cardinals: Who thought the Cardinals would be any good? I ended up with Jason Isringhausen on too many teams, and I'm paying the price now, but I did draft Franklin on two teams in which holds count. I'm not getting any holds now, because he's closing. Franklin is the perfect example of how saves are always popping up in shocking places during the season.

So what did we just prove there, and how can you apply this to fantasy baseball? Well, on ESPN.com's baseball page Tuesday, there was a big debate about which team was more disappointing between the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets, each with managers supposedly on the hot seat. Putz has had his season derailed by injury and a bit by performance, and Billy Wagner is doing just fine but not getting enough chances to save games. They were two of the top six closers on draft day but overdrafted based on current performance. The Mariners and Mets were supposed to be good, and who knows, maybe they still will be. But their closers are being held back by the teams, as Wagner is No. 18 among closers on the Player Rater, and Putz is outside the top 25.

Everyone thinks they know who the best and worst teams are going to be before the season, but who expected the Rays and Marlins to do this? Weren't the Tigers going to be good, as well as the defending NL champs in Denver? Don't draft, or trade, based on which teams are supposed to be the best. It seldom works out that way, and the best teams don't necessarily get the most save chances anyway. A year ago, the Washington Nationals led baseball with 73 save opportunities. That pretty much says it all.

Now let's get to the rest of the ample fantasy news coming from major league bullpens.

Buying low

Reliever Rankings

Salomon Torres moves way up with a big week as Milwaukee's closer.

(Last week's ranking in parentheses)

1. Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox (2)
2. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels (1)
3. Joe Nathan, Twins (3)
4. Mariano Rivera, Yankees (4)
5. Brad Lidge, Phillies (5)
6. Billy Wagner, Mets (7)
7. Bobby Jenks, White Sox (6)
8. Takashi Saito, Dodgers (8)
9. Joakim Soria, Royals (9)
10. Jose Valverde, Astros (11)
11. J.J. Putz, Mariners (10)
12. Brandon Lyon, Diamondbacks (12)
13. Huston Street, Athletics (13)
14. Francisco Cordero, Reds (14)
15. George Sherrill, Orioles (15)
16. Matt Capps, Pirates (16)
17. B.J. Ryan, Blue Jays (17)
18. Kevin Gregg, Marlins (23)
19. Kerry Wood, Cubs (18)
20. Troy Percival, Rays (19)
21. Trevor Hoffman, Padres (21)
22. Brian Fuentes, Rockies (22)
23. Brian Wilson, Giants (20)
24. Todd Jones, Tigers (26)
25. Jon Rauch, Nationals (25)
26. C.J. Wilson, Rangers (24)
27. Joe Borowski, Indians (35)
28. Ryan Franklin, Cardinals (32)
29. Salomon Torres, Brewers (40)
30. Carlos Marmol, Cubs (27)
31. John Smoltz, Braves (31)
32. Jason Isringhausen, Cardinals (30)
33. Joba Chamberlain, Yankees (28)
34. Rafael Betancourt, Indians (34)
35. Manny Acosta, Braves (33)
36. Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers (36)
37. Eric Gagne, Brewers (29)
38. Scott Downs, Blue Jays (38)
39. Rafael Soriano, Braves (39)
40. Doug Brocail, Astros (NR)
Billy Wagner, Mets: As bad as things are for the Mets, it's not like the season is over, you know. Wagner has pitched very well this season, though he's made more headlines with his mouth, rather than with his left arm. The Mets are underachieving, especially in May, but don't expect this to continue. Wagner's top save months over the past three seasons are July and August, and the Mets are going to be contenders all season. It's a perfect time to find a Wagner fantasy owner who thinks the Mets are imploding and pry away this top-10 closer on the cheap.

Selling high

Brian Wilson, Giants: The last few times I've watched this guy pitch, his results really haven't been very good. The Giants don't score much, so when they win, they tend to get this guy a save opportunity, but I doubt this guy is going to continue at this pace of 46 saves. He's walked four hitters in his last three outings, covering 2 2/3 innings, and while it's a small sample and Wilson should keep the closer role all season, I'd see about turning him into a Wagner-type who is better, but has considerably fewer saves. Try to convince that guy save totals are actually a matter of skill. They're not.

Who's next?

Doug Brocail, Astros: When Jose Valverde got nailed with a line drive in the head over the weekend, I got curious as to Brocail's availability in my leagues, just in case. I was surprised to see him gone in most of my leagues. Then again, my leagues are pretty deep. Valverde stayed in the game and earned the save, and Brocail wiggled out of a jam the next day to get his second save of the year. Valverde doesn't particularly worry me, even though he can be erratic at times. Brocail seems on his way to 25-30 holds, and would be the next Ryan Franklin, with a better K rate, if Valverde implodes.

Meaningless save of the week

Freddy Dolsi, Tigers: Ya gotta love that three-inning save rule. Dolsi is a 25-year-old Dominican who has pitched in six games, and five of them were losses. In this game in which he saved, he entered in the seventh with a 9-2 lead and retired all nine batters he faced. It counts the same as a closer entering with a one-run lead and bases loaded, no outs in the ninth. Really. Dolsi's performance earned him important innings in his next outing, though he was charged with the lone run in the 1-0, 12-inning loss to the Angels. Dolsi doesn't figure to unseat closer Todd Jones anytime soon, and Aquilino Lopez is probably next in line for saves, but Dolsi can say he has more saves in the past week than quite a few closers. By the way, we know Todd Jones isn't a strikeout guy, but this is ridiculous: He entered Wednesday with one strikeout in all of May.

Holding on

Javier Lopez, Red Sox: You know the top lefty in the Boston bullpen, Hideki Okajima, but it's Lopez who has three holds over the past seven days. Lefties aren't generally big holds guys, and the Red Sox now boast two of the top southpaws in the category. Unlike Okajima, Lopez isn't asked to do much more than retire left-handed hitters. He's actually faced more lefties than right-handed hitters. But if you need holds, chances are this guy is still available in your league.

Whatever happened to?

Bob Howry, Cubs: While Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood -- in that order -- were the top Cubbies relief pitchers on draft day, Howry also found his way to quite a few teams, as manager Lou Piniella floated rumors back in February that Howry was in the mix for saves as well. Anyone who drafted Howry surely lost patience with him in a brutal April, as his ERA was 8.03 and batters hit .358 off him. Howry has turned things around, sporting a 1.98 ERA in May and stabilizing himself away from Wrigley Field, where he's season numbers are far better. I don't think Wood is going to lose this job anymore, and if he does, Marmol would surely be next, but Howry has rebounded to pass Michael Wuertz in the Chicago pen.

Bullpen to watch

New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera is safe at the back end, but someone is going to have to step up and replace Joba Chamberlain in the setup role, and it's times like these we remind you Rivera is not the youngest fella. I chuckled when I saw Tuesday's Yankees-Orioles game, the homerfest that had a long rain delay, and New York scoring in the 11th to take the lead. Rivera had already thrown two innings. It's LaTroy Hawkins time! Predictably, he had nothing, allowing five baserunners and recording one out to get the loss. Still, Chamberlain is going to be starting soon, and the Yankees are transitioning him to the role with longer relief outings, which is unusual. While Kyle Farnsworth is second on the team in holds, the last time he actually held a game (statistically, officially) was three weeks ago. It appears bespectacled 27-year-old Edwar Ramirez is being trusted the most lately, and why not, as he has yet to allow a run in 14 innings. Ramirez earned a win against the Mariners last week, and seemed like one of the few pitchers who didn't permit a home run on Tuesday. Farnsworth remains ahead of Ramirez for the eighth inning, and Hawkins was a desperation move Tuesday, but Ramirez is the name to watch. By the way, with Ross Ohlendorf getting pounded now, why don't we see Chris Britton recalled again? I think he should be a major league relief pitcher, but the Yankees don't seem to agree.

Briefly

The Indians weren't having much luck with either Rafael Betancourt or Masa Kobayashi closing, but with Joe Borowski back the point is moot. Interestingly, Betancourt hasn't allowed a run in his past four games. Maybe he's just more comfortable setting up and now will help fantasy owners in ERA and WHIP. ... Salomon Torres has looked good in the closer role, though Eric Gagne has pronounced himself ready to close again once his DL stint ends. Brewers fans might want that DL stint to last longer. ... Texas lefty C.J. Wilson went more than two weeks between saves, and there was that Everyday Eddie Guardado sighting, but Wilson has saves in his past two outings. ... Jason Isringhausen is on the DL with a hand laceration of his own doing, but his problems are probably more mental than physical. Ryan Franklin is doing a nice job, and youngster Chris Perez is one of the most added pitchers in ESPN leagues, but Izzy is still likely to get the closing role back in June. ... The Braves showed how much they trust Manny Acosta and pals when they left Tim Hudson in Tuesday's game with a 2-1 lead and bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning at Milwaukee. It didn't go well. Acosta, incidentally, pitched the sixth and seventh innings Monday to earn a win. John Smoltz has been feeling shoulder soreness, and there is talk he'll share the closer role with Rafael Soriano upon his return. This would make me worried if I expect Smoltz to get 25 saves. Soriano isn't any safer, however, even though he should be back first. ... There's little need to own Aaron Heilman in fantasy. There were rumors he might be sent to the minors, actually, since his ERA is near 6. Duaner Sanchez has usurped his eighth-inning role. ... Former Royal Joe Nelson was called up by the Marlins, and he's pitched well, but he's little threat for saves. Matt Lindstrom is safe as the eighth-inning option, ahead of Justin Miller again.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer

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