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Base Advances
Fantasy Strategy Ideas from the Guru

A Closer Look
June 24, 1998

One of questions I've been asked over and over again since before the season began relates to the choice of starters vs. closers for your pitching staff. Which is better? What's the best mix? Who will produce the most points?

I'm pretty sure the only "dependable" answer to any of these is "It depends." It depends on how much you have to spend. It depends on what's happened so far this season. It depends on which teams will get hot.

But before totally copping out on this issue, let me at least cite some facts. First, if we look at the 1997 season and score each pitcher using this year's SWP formula, we find that 9 of the top 10 pitchers were starters. Jeff Shaw, at #7, was the only reliever in this elite group, which included starters Clemens, Martinez, Johnson, Schilling, Maddux, Kile, Smoltz, Neagle, and Brown. The next ten were evenly split between starters and relievers, and four of those ranked from #21-30 were closers. Now, I suppose this might be expected, since there are more starters than closers. But of the top 30 pitchers, only one-third were closers.

How do those percentages compare to this season? At first glance, closers might appear to be faring better so far, making up 4 of the top 10 pitchers. However, only 5 of the next twenty are relievers, meaning that there are only nine closers in the top 30 - pretty close to last year's representation.

But I suppose proportionate representation at the top of the list isn't necessarily the best comparison. How about the price efficiency of closers vs. starters?

The top fifty pitchers in total SWP currently includes 17 closers, whose average price (on June 22) is $6.4 million, and whose average total SWP (through June 21) is 1107. This works out to an average of about 173 SWP per million. As a group, these 17 closers have been active for a total of 1219 games, which works out to an average SWP per eligible game of 15.4, or 2.4 SWP per game per million.

For comparison, let's look at the top 17 starters. (For this purpose, I'll exclude any starters who are currently on the DL.) The average price of the top 17 starters is $6.97 million, and the average SWP total is 1268, for an average of 182 SWP per million. The corresponding averages per eligible game are 17.7 SWP, and 2.5 per game per million. Slightly better, but not big differences.

The biggest difference between starters and closers relates to their expected points per outing. The 17 best starters have averaged about 85 SWP per start, and will often post single games well over 100 SWP. Of course, they're are also susceptible to significant swings in the other direction. Meanwhile, closers average only 36 SWP per outing, but with lower variability. (I'm obviously not thinking of the Mariners when I make this statement.) Closers also pitch more times than starters. So, you're more likely to get what you paid for when you own a closer... as long as his team is giving him a reasonable number of closing opportunities. With a starter, you should expect more variability, but that applies in both directions (i.e., upside as well as downside). If you plan to hold a pitcher for an extended period, that variability should even out, but if you expect to own a pitcher for only a week or two, it is a factor worth considering. I suppose the choice might depend on your competitive standing. If you're comfortable with your ranking, owning more closers probably subjects you to less chance for a random drop in your relative standings, but also less opportunity for a big jump upward. If you're trying to catch someone, though, starters might give you a better shot at leaping ahead (although a hot closer can provide similar upside with 3 strong saves per 5 games). And don't totally discount the capability of a good closer to produce a real stinker of a game. Jeff Shaw's recent debacle vs. the Astros produced -98 SWP. So it happens.

I haven't worked up the numbers, but I suspect there are many more low-priced starters than there are low-priced closers. There are some decent starting pitchers priced below $3 million who could really boost your standing if you pick them up at the right time. While there are also a few closers below the $3 million price tag as well, they tend to be on staffs where there are multiple closers, or where injuries have shifted responsibilities. So it may be that you're better off to bargain hunt for starters, while sticking to the "tried and true" closers.

Finally, recognize that in this game's scoring format, there is no distinction between points earned by starters vs. points earned by relievers, so there is no reason to think that there is some optimum split for your staff. As long as the market is reasonably efficient, it's unlikely that either category will be a strong bargain vs. the other. With only 5 pitchers on your staff, I'd recommend you just go with the best values, regardless of role. In the end result, "points is points!"

RotoGuru is produced by Dave Hall (a.k.a. the Guru), an avid fantasy sports player. He is not employed by any of the fantasy sports games discussed within this site, and all opinions expressed are solely his own. Questions or comments are welcome, and should be emailed to Guru<>.

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