Fantasy Baseball

2021 Fantasy Baseball Relievers and Save Opportunities Trend


Welcome to this week’s 2021 Fantasy Baseball trend article, where I’m going to dive into relievers and save opportunities

I’ll start this like I did last week – if you don’t want “strategy talk”, please do both of us a favor and go check out the rest of our site’s content. It’ll save you some of your sweet, precious time and it’ll save me the headache of reading why you hated the article. Win-win! (Also, if you hate low-effort conditional formatting…)

Last week, I discussed starting pitchers and how the changing landscape of the league is affecting our fantasy rotations. Almost immediately after that article, I started researching my next topic regarding relievers, specifically ones with save opportunities. I was initially wondering where value can be found in relief pitching in fantasy drafts across the board, but this opened a huge can of worms that I couldn’t ignore regarding how today’s teams manage the ninth inning relative to the previous decade.

Of course, the study wasn’t perfect as the shortened 2020 season and a fresh 2021 season forced me to focus more on 2011 through 2019 than I wanted to. In any event, I found my 2021 Fantasy Baseball relievers and save opportunities trend results quite enlightening and hope that it provides some value for you as well!

2021 Fantasy Baseball Relievers and Save Opportunities Trend

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Method to the Madness

To start, I would like to give props to Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs for having the data that I needed to complete this study. I feel like they never receive as much praise as they should for letting all of us geek out over baseball through their data inventory and analysis.

I also wanted to point out a couple of issues I ran into while doing this project. The first issue was accounting for relievers that got hurt or traded. I started trying to go down the rabbit hole, but it was NOT worth it after just a few tries.

The second issue was the calculation of “save opportunities” as saves plus blown saves. We know that not all blown saves are created equal, but this was the best I could do to determine how many chances there were for each team in each season. It’s not an exact science, friends!

With some caveats out of the way, let’s get to some numbers.

Total Relievers by Year

2021 Fantasy Baseball Relievers Save Opportunities

If you are wondering why you are having to know more reliever names than ever before, this table says it all! Between 2011 and 2019, the total number of distinct relief pitcher seasons increased by 35%. Yes, you read that correctly. In the shortened season of 2020, there were 599 relievers employed between all teams, which is more than any full season before 2017. I would expect 2021 to see the highest number of total relievers used by a long shot relative to the last decade.

The rest of the table shows the count of relief pitchers to reach each inning amount shown as the column titles. (For example, 458 pitchers in 2019 threw at least 10 relief innings.) The rest of the chart definitely puts that total relief pitcher appearance number into context. The upward trend continues for each IP threshold until you get over 50 relief innings. From there, it’s about the same number of relievers going 60 or 70 innings each year.

As a quick aside, something of note here is that you can definitely see the influence of the opener for the Rays in 2018-2019. Tampa had ten pitchers surpass 60 relief innings in either 2018 or 2019, which is more than any other team.

Save Opportunities by Season

2021 Fantasy Baseball Relievers Save Opportunities

The typical team will have about 61 saves (plus or minus five) in each season. Okay, so it looks like the league save opportunities are fairly stable on an annual basis. However, when looking at the minimum and maximum values, my brain started to storm. I wanted to know what the driving force behind this was and, as most people would have done, I started with the team winning percentages.

2021 Fantasy Baseball Relievers Save Opportunities

The “Win % Category” was an easy way for me to place teams into buckets. (For example, all teams with a winning percentage north of 55% were placed in the “56% & above” category.) This gave me four subsets that had just about an equal number of teams.

As seen in the chart, there was an easy correlation between winning teams and save opportunities. It is a commonly used strategy when attacking closers in the draft, but it is still nice to see a chart like this for confirmation. The lower quartile for a winning team is the same as the upper quartile for a team with a winning percentage of less than 45%. Drafting closers on losing teams is always a dangerous game. (Plus, they are likely to get traded into situations where they are no longer the top dog.)

Allocation of Save Opportunities

The table below shows the percentage of save opportunities that went to the team’s “closer” and “first-in-line to closer”. I hate those terms, so I used “RP1” to denote the reliever with the highest save opportunities for a team and “RP2” to highlight the reliever with the second-highest opportunities.

Apparently, teams now hate the label of “closer” too. The percentage of save opportunities for a team’s top saves-getter has decreased significantly over the last decade. I honestly was expecting to see that number be higher in 2020 just because there were fewer trades and injuries in the shortened season, but it hit an all-time low!

(It’s too early to gather anything for the 2021 numbers as there has only been three weeks’ worth of save opportunities so far. I’ll monitor this and come back to it at a later date.)

Additionally, the team’s top two saves-getters are seeing a dramatic dip over the last ten years. I did this to see if I could eliminate some outliers where relievers got hurt or traded away. However, this followed the same basic trend as the RP1 column.

Team Relief Performance

So, teams love using committees to close out games now. Why is that? Are teams deciding to use their best relievers in higher leverage situations? Are they emphasizing the handedness of batters coming up to take advantage of platoon situations? Or are they trying to lower the number of saves for a reliever because that stuff still (somehow) comes up in contracts?

Well, it cannot be because of this table, which shows the number of saves the league has converted versus the save opportunities (as I have them defined) they had. Converted save percentage has decreased quite a bit over the last few years with 2021 looking shaky in the early going!

This also looks like it correlates with the “juiced ball era”. League ERA generally increased over that time, so it makes sense to see the performance in save opportunities go down. You can really talk yourself in circles with the league stats in this timeframe. Thanks a lot, MLB!

Final Thoughts

With this entire study in mind, I wonder how relievers should be approached in future drafts. We saw the draft value for elite starters skyrocket in 2021 because of new league strategies. The case can be made for those elite “closers” on winning teams to start seeing higher ADPs.

Looking at the table that shows the top two relievers and their opportunities, it makes me wonder what a study like this for saves+holds would look like as well. Perhaps for another article…

Thanks for reading! If you want to engage in friendly discussion regarding this topic or have any ideas for future trend articles, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@therealwody).

Check out the rest of our 2021 Fantasy Baseball content from our great team of writers.

About Tyler Thompson

Follow me on Twitter at @therealwody. For all the latest news and best advice out there, like us on Facebook, Google+ and Instagram.

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