- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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The saves market is somewhat predictable.
Stop me if you've heard this one: Incumbent closer struggles, loses job, hotshot youngster gets tabbed the new closer, becomes hottest pickup in fantasy.
It's the nature of the position. Whoever is getting the saves is immediately scooped up, and whoever is not is dropped quicker than you can say Jonathan Broxton. It's for that reason that saves speculation is somewhat predictable; the best advice when filling the position on the cheap, following ESPN's trade deadline, is to pick up whoever has been officially named his team's closer.
But that doesn't mean saves is a category lacking in speculative value. Sometimes the smartest moves you can make to fill that column are the ones just before a pitcher's formal closer announcement.
Much of it is guessing, yes, but some of it is rooted in individual player skill.
In today's "Relief Efforts," let's take a look at five relievers in the available-in-at-least-70-percent-of-ESPN-leagues group who might warrant your attention:
San Francisco Giants
Jeremy Affeldt, San Francisco Giants: Probably he only reason he's not owned in more leagues is that he's a co-closer and, oddly, fantasy owners seem to think it's smarter to own a full-time closer even if the ERA/WHIP are worse. How else can anyone explain how Frank Francisco (74.9 percent owned), John Axford (73.3 percent) and Heath Bell (53.9 percent) reside on more than three times as many rosters?
Affeldt has two advantages over the shaky-closer group: He is an extreme ground-baller, his 61.1 percent rate since joining the Giants in 2009 is the third-highest in baseball (900-plus batters faced), and as the average ground ball has resulted in a hit only 23 percent of the time during that time span, the risk to his ERA/WHIP is low. He also has an extremely balanced split between right- and left-handed hitters; righties manage .247/.325/.365 triple-slash rates and lefties .204/.307/.291 during his Giants career, and his .689 OPS allowed to righties ranks 20th out of the 89 lefties to have faced at least 500 right-handed hitters.
Sure enough, Affeldt has a 2.69 ERA and 1.26 WHIP as a member of the Giants, further illustrating his three-category contributions. Though chasing saves might seem like a one-category thing, don't underestimate the value of a ratio-helping closer, even if he's unlikely to pace the league in saves.
Besides, this is a pitcher who could handle the full-time closer role for the Giants, if they desire. Though Sergio Romo is the right-handed half of this partnership, the Giants have shown a situational approach to Romo's use in recent seasons; he's rarely left in to face a significant number of left-handed batters. That makes Affeldt the stronger bet to emerge with the bulk of the saves.
Wilton Lopez, Houston Astros: The Astros are a bad team, there's no denying that. They've won a major league-worst 39 games for the season, and have wins in only seven of their past 44 contests. And if there's one thing we know about saves, it's that you cannot save a loss.
That's why Lopez's low ownership percentage is understandable but it might be time to capitalize. He has been the Astros' most effective reliever, his 2.35 ERA and 1.02 WHIP easily the best on the team, and is one of the best relievers in the majors overall. This is the third consecutive season, in fact, that Lopez has kept his ERA beneath 3.00. With a track record like that, at worst you'll get an ERA/WHIP helper. At best you'll get a pitcher who, in addition to his healthy contributions in the ratio categories, might chip in 8-10 saves.
Lopez's strength is his pinpoint control; both his 0.98 walks-per-nine innings ratio and 2.8 percent walk rate (calculated as a percentage of total batters faced) pace all qualified major league relievers. And, like Affeldt, Lopez is an extreme ground-baller, his 62.7 percent rate this season 10th-most among qualified relievers. Don't forget about him simply because of his poor supporting cast.
Vinnie Pestano, Cleveland Indians: Among the "setup men who might eventually close" class, you can't ask for a higher-upside choice than Pestano. Despite his not having notched a single save this season, he's the No. 31 relief pitcher on our Player Rater, which shows how valuable his contributions in terms of ERA, WHIP and strikeouts thus far.
What has made Pestano one of the better relievers in baseball this season has been his performance against left-handed hitters. They have managed .191/.287/.287 triple-slash rates and have missed on 22 percent of their swings against him thus far this season, after posting .280/.350/.462 rates and a 16 percent miss rate in 2011. Oddly enough, this doesn't appear to be the addition of a new pitch; it's entirely about location. To illustrate, take a look at the two heat maps below: These represent the areas of the zone to which Pestano most frequently throws against left-handed hitters. They represent a substantial shift in approach.
If Pestano is now capable of handling hitters from both sides, he has overcome the primary obstacle standing in his way of developing into a top-flight closer. Consider these lefty-righty splits between him and current closer Chris Perez:
Pestano: .191/.287/.287 vs. LHB, .140/.221/.221 vs. RHB
Perez: .202/.255/.337 vs. LHB, .268/.299/.390 vs. RHB
It's for that reason occasional blips by Perez, like his back-to-back blown saves on Aug. 5 and 7, warrant such concern. Perez has nine saves in 12 chances with a 5.65 ERA and .283 batting average allowed in 16 appearances since July 1, and with any further missteps he might yet turn the gig over to Pestano.
Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers: Manager Ron Washington has been true to his word. He said a week ago that he'd use closer Joe Nathan only in save chances, and in Nathan's two appearances since then, on Aug. 7 and 8, indeed he entered in save opportunities, converting both. But if Washington has stamina concerns about his closer, might fantasy owners be wise to snatch Nathan's handcuff?
Ogando has both successful saves that didn't go to Nathan since the All-Star break, making him seem the smarter choice to Mike Adams going forward. It makes sense, being that Ogando throws more than 5 mph faster than Adams; his fastball has averaged 96.8 mph to Adams' 91.3 this season. Ogando also has a higher strikeout rate, 8.82 per nine innings and 25.0 percent of his total batters faced, than Adams (7.58 and 19.5%), as well as higher K-to-walk ratio, 4.00 to 3.20.
Don't read too much into Ogando's poor outing at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, when he surrendered two home runs while recording only two outs. Seven of his eight appearances around those were scoreless, and he should be expected to struggle at a bandbox like Yankee Stadium, being that he's an extreme fly-baller. Fortunately for Ogando, the Rangers are done with Yankee Stadium games after Thursday, so at least that won't hinder him. He'll be a bit greater risk in ERA/WHIP being that he calls Rangers Ballpark his home, but there's a chance he might yet sneak in a few more saves or all of them, if Nathan gets hurt.
Stephen Pryor, Seattle Mariners: He's your prototypical closer of the future, possessing a mid-to-high 90s fastball -- his has averaged 96.4 mph in the majors this season -- and biting slider, both of which have helped him strike out 10 of the 20 batters he has faced in four appearances since his recall from Triple-A Tacoma.
That's not to say that the closer role is in Pryor's immediate future. As with any "closer of the future," his future could arrive tomorrow, next month, next season or never. This is sheer speculation, and with that come the usual risks of waiting. Pryor's propensity for strikeouts, though, plus his status as a Mariners pitcher -- the old Safeco factor -- makes him worth a look at least in AL-only leagues. He had 20 scoreless innings for Tacoma this season, and a 1.16 ERA in 28 appearances combined between 2011 and 2012 for Double-A Jackson. Between those two levels, Pryor whiffed 71 batters in 58 2/3 innings.
Current closer Tom Wilhelmsen has been fine in the role, converting 16 of 17 save chances with a 1.24 ERA in his past 27 appearances, so don't count on a change in the ninth inning imminently. But there might finally be a wise handcuff for Wilhelmsen owners, and his name is Stephen Pryor.
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.