What Most Fantasy Baseball Closers Have In Common
The attributes required to profile as a major league closer are as follows: one dominant pitch, a second plus pitch, plus command and plus-plus makeup.
That’s according to the scouting profile presented in our Prospect Handbook, which spells out which tools and attributes are prioritized at each position.
But there’s a fifth attribute that a vast majority of big league closers have in common: rotation pedigree.
Roughly four out of every five big league closers worked as a starter in pro ball, even if only briefly or only if exclusively in the low minor leagues.
While saves may not be the best indicator of overall reliever quality, they are a vitally important category in most fantasy formats. Saves account for 20 percent of pitcher value in the typical 5x5 league.
Therefore, acquiring closers is critical to building a well-balanced fantasy team, and speculating on pitchers who might one day accumulate saves is a worthwhile endeavor.
You can increase your odds of landing a future closer if you keep one thing in mind. Pitchers with a background in the rotation—however brief—tend to become more stable closers than those who don’t.
Baseball America studied all the big league pitchers to amass 10 or more career saves since 2014. We found that 81 out of the 108 pitchers (75 percent) had worked as a starting pitcher in pro ball. Forty-one of them (38 percent) even made starts in the majors.
Seven of the closers in our sample converted from field positions to the mound after turning pro—Kenley Jansen, Joe Nathan, Rafael Soriano, Blake Parker, Pedro Strop, Mychal Givens, Matt Bush—thus diminishing their chances to be developed as starters when they were in the minors. (Note that Nathan and Soriano did in fact work as starters and even reached the majors in that role. Things were different in the early 2000s.)
Sean Doolittle is the ultimate gray area. Drafted as a first baseman, he spent his first four pro seasons as a position player before moving to the mound in 2011. Yet, Doolittle played both ways at Virginia and made 30 college starts—so he is classified as a true pitcher rather than a conversion guy because of his background.
Removing the seven converted pitchers from the closer sample yields 79 closers out of 101 (78 percent) who worked as starters in pro ball. This group can be viewed as the modern closer archetype. They signed as starting pitchers but for a combination of reasons—lack of a third pitch, poor control, questionable stamina or trouble holding runners—shifted to the bullpen in pro ball and ultimately found success as major league closers.
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Most of the closers in our sample started between one and 75 games in the minors. However, no correlation exists between the number of minor league starts and the quality of major league career. In fact, eight of the top 30 most accomplished closers started zero games as a professional, including No. 2 Craig Kimbrel, No. 5 Cody Allen, No. 6 Mark Melancon and No. 10 David Robertson. (Note: I made an effort to remove rehab appearances from my count of pro starts.)
Breaking down the top 30 closers in terms of saves, we see an even distribution of college (12) and international (11) signees, but few from high school (four) or junior college (three).
Among the closers with zero minor league starts are Kimbrel (194 saves since 2014), Allen (151), Melancon (145), Robertson (129), AJ Ramos (99), Huston Street (90), Sean Doolittle (87), Steve Cishek (77) and Corey Knebel (57). All these examples are college—or in the case of Kimbrel—junior college pitchers. Of the group, only Allen and Doolittle were working primarily as starters when drafted. The others were on reliever tracks from the get-go.
On the flip side of the coin, the following accomplished closers worked as starters in pro ball: Aroldis Chapman (172 saves since 2014), Fernando Rodney (153), Zack Britton (144), Francisco Rodriguez (133), Greg Holland (130), Wade Davis (129), Roberto Osuna (128), Jeurys Familia (123), Edwin Diaz (121), Trevor Rosenthal (118), Alex Colome (105), Santiago Casilla (105) and Ken Giles (101).
Of this group, just Chapman, Holland and Giles were shifted quickly to the bullpen and fast-tracked in that role. The others spent multiple seasons developing as starters.
This group leans heavily toward international free agents and high school starters-turned-pro relievers. The only collegian in the group is Holland—who ironically worked only as a reliever at Western Carolina—while Rosenthal and Giles come from the JC ranks.
Even 5-foot-10 Kirby Yates, who signed as a nondrafted free agent out of Yavapai (Ariz.) JC, worked as a starter through low Class A.
So what this means for fantasy players is that choosing a future closer candidate on which to speculate is often as simple as choosing one with a starter’s pedigree in pro ball.