- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Saves today, gone tomorrow.
It is the nightmare fantasy owners of well-paid closers face come trade deadline time: An untimely trade can, in an instant, render your pitcher worthless.
That is the nature of the save. It is a statistic that can be recorded by only one man in any given game, one on the winning team, one whom the manager deemed worthy enough to be the last man to toe the hill. Simply put, if either your reliever's team loses, or his manager doesn't pick him to close, he's not giving you a save.
It is also one-fifth of your scoring in a standard rotisserie league.
This is why the past two weeks have been so maddening, as two of the better performers in the save category suffered an instant drop in value as a direct result of trades. Brett Myers, who at the time of his July 21 trade ranked 12th in the majors in saves (19), was dealt by the Houston Astros to the Chicago White Sox, and Jonathan Broxton, who ranked eighth in saves (23) when he was dealt July 31, was traded by the Kansas City Royals to the Cincinnati Reds.
Combined, Myers and Broxton total the third-most season-to-date saves (42) traded in the month of July in the past 10 seasons; there were more moved in 2003 (93) and 2010 (47). But considering that Matt Capps (26), one of the two closers traded in July 2010, kept his job with his new team, it could be argued that this was the most painful July trade season in nine years.
In truth, July, historically speaking, hasn't been nearly as rough a month for fantasy save-seeking as might be the public perception. Cobbling the list of pitchers with at least 10 saves in the given year, who at the time of their July trade were the closers for their teams, here is the damage report in the past 10 seasons:
2011 (23 saves before, 0 after): Francisco Rodriguez (23 saves before, 0 after)
2010 (47/17): Matt Capps (26/16), Octavio Dotel (21/1)
2009 (20/1): George Sherrill (20/1)
2008 (17/1): Jon Rauch (17/1)
2007 (27/0): Eric Gagne (16/0), Octavio Dotel (11/0)
2006 (15/18): Bob Wickman (15/18)
2005 (6/10): Kyle Farnsworth (6/10)
2004 (0/0): None
2003 (93/9): Ugueth Urbina (26/6), Mike Williams (25/3), Armando Benitez (21/0), Scott Williamson (21/0)
2002 (0/0): None
Totals: 248 saves before, 62 after
Capps (2010) and Wickman (2006) were the only two of those 13 never to surrender their jobs during their team transitions, while Farnsworth (2005) quickly captured the gig with the Atlanta Braves and Urbina (2003) did the same late in the year with the Florida Marlins. But a whopping eight relievers managed zero or one save with their new teams, and four of those did so after saving 20-plus pre-trade. For the most part, being traded is not a good thing for a closer.
Most certainly it's not for Broxton, and Myers' early usage with the White Sox confirms it wasn't for him, either. In Broxton's Reds debut on Wednesday, he pitched a clean eighth inning for a hold; Sean Marshall manned the seventh for a hold of his own, while Aroldis Chapman remained in the ninth and notched the save. Myers, meanwhile, has pitched the eighth inning in three of his first seven games for his new team, while Addison Reed is 3-for-3 in save chances since Myers' arrival.
The biggest reason this is bad for Broxton and Myers was discussed in the June 28 "Relief Efforts": Neither one misses enough bats to make the kind of impact necessary for a middle reliever to help a fantasy team's ERA/WHIP/K's. Broxton's 6.38 strikeouts per nine innings is 25th-worst out of 153 qualified relievers, while Myers' K's per nine is 6.03, 22nd-worst. Calculating strikeouts as a percentage of total batters faced, Broxton's 16.9 percent rate ranks 28th-worst, while Myers' 15.5 percent rate ranks 14th-worst.
The major league averages by relief pitchers in those two categories are 8.31 K's per nine, and a 21.7 percent K rate going by batters faced.
To put into perspective the fantasy relevance of either Broxton or Myers, try sorting Player Rater relief pitcher returns by individual categories. Broxton is the only one of the two who cracked the top 50 in either ERA or WHIP, and he did so with the No. 40 ERA. That means that Broxton's 2.21 ERA in 36 2/3 innings represents only the 40th-most valuable ERA contribution among relievers, and neither his WHIP nor Myers' ERA/WHIP ranks among that class. And if neither pitcher ranks among the most productive sources of ERA or WHIP, nor has strikeout potential even within range of the league average, let alone the game's elite, neither is likely to help in a setup capacity.
Now, the Farnsworth and Urbina examples above illustrate how ex-closers can sometimes return to relevance post-trade, within the same season, which provides both Broxton and Myers some hope as handcuffs. Both represent next-in-line candidates for saves behind Chapman and Reed, respectively, and either injury or extended struggles by the men ahead of them could restore them to the ninth inning. But here's the counterpoint: Couldn't it be argued that, at least in shallow mixed leagues, if you cut Broxton and Myers today, you'd stand an excellent chance of finding them still available as free agents on a potential future day that they recapture closer roles?
It's a chance worth taking. Consider both cut-worthy.
TOP 75 RELIEF PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 75 relief pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
What's left behind in Kansas City?
Wednesday's game gave us every bit of the insight we need about the Royals' new closer: Only 24 hours after earning the endorsement of his manager, Ned Yost, Greg Holland pitched a perfect ninth inning to record his first save.
It was the right decision by Yost; consider this a time in which a major league manager made the correct call both statistically speaking as well as skills-wise, in a situation in which there were as many as three viable candidates. Holland has been the Royals' reliever who has been most lights-out in recent weeks; he has a 2.10 ERA, 12.06 K/9 and nine holds in 35 games since returning from a rib injury on May 12. Only five times during that span has he been scored upon, and in his past 12 appearances he has issued just three walks in 12 2/3 innings.
That's not to say that Holland wouldn't quickly face competition for saves if he falters at any point. Aaron Crow, his most likely setup man, has made tremendous strides polishing his arsenal to counteract left-handed hitters; they have .129/.206/.210 triple-slash rates against him in 2012 after .311/.381/.538 in 2011. Tim Collins, meanwhile, has become a valuable multi-inning asset in the Royals' bullpen, his 11.77 K/9 second-best on the team. If you're looking for holds and the primary handcuff, Crow's your choice.
Holland is the premium pickup for fantasy owners, however, and he'll surely rank among the week's most-added players. He's already up to 37.2 percent ownership in ESPN leagues, a number that might be close to 100 percent by week's end. If he's somehow still available in yours, grab him now.
What's left behind in Houston?
In a word: Ugliness.
Chalk this managerial decision -- at least the initial one -- up as the wrong one, as Brad Mills first selected veteran closer Francisco Cordero as his ninth-inning choice, on the heels of the Myers trade. This despite Cordero's career worsts in terms of losses (8), ERA (7.55), WHIP (2.01) and batting average allowed (.340), plus three blown saves in five opportunities with his previous team, the Toronto Blue Jays, earlier in the year. Cordero promptly "rewarded" Mills with three consecutive blown saves, each time allowing multiple runs.
That forced Mills' hand, and he announced earlier in the week that he'd grant the next chance to Wilton Lopez, the team's most valuable relief pitcher and second-most valuable pitcher overall (check the WAR), albeit one who has battled his share of injury issues this season. Lopez is in the midst of a third consecutive season with a sub-3.00 ERA for the Astros, and his control is impeccable; he has a 1.65 lifetime walks per nine innings rate, and 1.14 this season.
The question, however, is exactly how often will the Astros even have a save chance? Backers of the "bad-teams-can-have-good-fantasy-closers" argument always point to Bryan Harvey's 1993 as their evidence, but more recent studies have shown that closers for truly awful teams -- think contenders for an all-time loss record -- do suffer in terms of saves. Part of the reason, of course, are the individuals closing like, say, Cordero continuing to blow games had the Astros kept him in the role the remainder of the year.
Grab Lopez if he's available in your league and you're digging deep for saves. But would anyone be shocked if the Astros as a team don't tally more than five saves between now and October?
Other names affected by deadline-day news
Brandon League: He had already lost his closer's job with the Seattle Mariners, so his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers merely confirms that he won't -- barring an injury to Kenley Jansen -- be saving any future games. League has pitched better since being demoted from the closer role, posting a 2.96 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in his final 25 appearances for the Mariners, but that elevated WHIP and 5.40 K/9, seventh-worst among qualified relievers, show that he's probably even more poorly equipped to help in ERA/WHIP/K's than either Broxton or Myers. League might be one of the worst "name value" players in whom to sink your stashed FAAB (Free Agent Acquisition Budget) dollars/high waiver position.
Tom Wilhelmsen: With League gone, Wilhelmsen has the Mariners' closer role all to himself. Considering how well he has pitched since taking over, however, was there really any doubt? He's 15-for-16 in save chances with a 0.92 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and 10.43 K/9 in his past 25 appearances, with seasonal FIP/xFIP numbers that back up his performance as legitimate and a home ballpark that is awfully forgiving with mistakes. The Mariners' poor win potential is an obstacle, but Wilhelmsen clearly belongs among the top 20 at his position now.
Edward Mujica: Though his 66.5 percent left-on-base rate hints that he has been somewhat unfortunate in the ERA department (4.28), Mujica's rapidly plummeting strikeout rate is perhaps behind his down year. He has a 5.85 K/9; he managed more than a K per inning as recently as 2010. Still, he's a worthwhile pickup for the St. Louis Cardinals, who have a way of turning struggling relievers into handy ERA/WHIP helpers. Fantasy owners might not want to pounce -- Mujica's prospects for saves were greater with the Miami Marlins -- but he could enter the NL-only ERA/WHIP/K's conversation in time once he shows whether his strikeout decline is legitimate.
Josh Lindblom: He's an interesting pickup by the Philadelphia Phillies, and considering their many issues in middle relief this season, could quickly force himself into the eighth-inning picture ahead of Antonio Bastardo. A converted starter, Lindblom has a 2.90 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 8.34 K/9 in 76 career big league appearances to date. If there's anything bothersome about his move east, it's that he's a fly ball pitcher -- he has a 46.2 percent lifetime rate -- moving to a smaller home venue in Citizens Bank Park.
Tristan H. Cockcroft discusses closer situations now that the non-waiver trade deadline has passed.