In addition to my baseball responsibilities, I’m also a football writer. So it’s only natural for me to compare the two.
This might seem like a reach, but I see a distinct parallel between kickers in fantasy football and closers in fantasy baseball. Stay with me here. Pittsburgh’s Mark Melancon led MLB in saves last year while Minnesota’s Blair Walsh led the NFL in field goals. Melancon has certainly been productive, but most would agree he’s a tier below the elite class of MLB closers. Similarly, Walsh is a solid real-life kicker but nothing special. So what gives?
It actually makes perfect sense. The Pirates are a good team, but not a dominant one. They play a lot of close games, which has afforded Melancon a high number of save opportunities. This might explain why the Rays led the American League with 60 saves despite finishing under .500 while the Blue Jays earned the second-fewest despite leading the league in run differential (+221).
The Blue Jays’ NFL equivalent would probably be the Cardinals. Arizona finished second in the NFL in scoring but tied with Cleveland for 13th in made field goals. The Cardinals’ offense was so efficient they rarely needed to settle for field goals, the same way Toronto scored so many runs that closer Roberto Osuna barely had any work to do in the ninth inning last year.
Editor's Note: Dave "CheeseIsGood" Potts has won not one but TWO $1 million prizes playing daily fantasy baseball. Get ready for Opening Day on FanDuel by checking out his RotoGrinders column on "Transitioning from Season-Long to DFS MLB."
Are Melancon and Walsh the best at their respective positions? Probably not, but they don’t have to be. In fantasy, it’s all about volume. Remember that when you go to pick a closer this spring. Enough chitchat, you came here for another round of Over/Under, so let’s do it.
Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals
*Consensus Projection: 36
At first glance, 36 saves would seem like an ambitious projection for Davis, who has never saved more than 17 games in a season. Then again, Davis didn’t become a full-time closer until late last year. After leading Kansas City to its first World Series in 30 years, the only question that remains is why the Royals didn’t make the move sooner. Davis was in the starting rotation as recently as 2013. He’s been lights out since his move to the pen, compiling a ridiculous 0.97 ERA over his last two seasons. His ERA shrinks to 0.88 if we include the 20 postseason appearances he’s made during that span.
There’s more. Davis has allowed a grand total of 15 earned runs over his last two seasons including seven in 2015. Four of those came in the month of August when he recorded an out-of-character 3.27 ERA. If allowing four runs in a month is considered a catastrophe, you’ve set the bar pretty high for yourself. If we take away August, Davis’ season ERA falls from 0.94 to 0.48.
Opponents hit just .120 against Davis in the second half last season. Three of the 11 hits he gave up went for home runs, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Overall, opponents have hit just .148 against Davis with 187 strikeouts over his last two seasons (12.08 K/9). This is the portrait of an unstoppable force of nature. Add in the fact that Kansas City is a near lock for 90 wins and you’ve got one heck of a fantasy closer. What’s his projection again? Who cares—he’ll beat it. Prediction: Over
Jeurys Familia, New York Mets
Like Davis, Familia is new to closing. He’s also very good at it. Mets fans watched Familia blow hitters away all season but the rest of us had to wait until October to see him perform on a national stage. He didn’t disappoint. Though he somehow managed to blow three saves (they were all in the World Series), Familia delivered a postseason for the ages, shutting down hitters to the tune of a 0.61 ERA and a 0.48 WHIP.
What’s remarkable is Familia looked like he was fading down the stretch with a 2.60 second-half ERA compared to 1.25 before the All-Star break. It was equally strange to see Familia’s strikeout rate improve (11.16 K/9 after the All-Star break compared to 8.93 in the first half) while his ERA got worse. Here’s another Easter egg—Familia posted a 2.59 ERA at home last year compared to 0.61 away from Citi Field. The Mets’ home stadium is widely considered among the most pitcher-friendly venues in baseball (it ranked 28th in park factor last year). Yet for some reason, Familia pitched better when he wasn’t there.
Familia has a lot going for him. His fastball routinely touches triple digits and batters can’t hit a lick against him—he posted a .207 BAA last year including .159 with runners in scoring position. And we certainly can’t accuse him of being a one-year wonder—his combined ERA over the last two seasons is a tidy 2.03. Never mind that he’s the gatekeeper for arguably the best starting rotation in all of baseball. Only the Rays, Cardinals and Royals created more save opportunities than the Mets last year.
Familia lost his setup man when Tyler Clippard signed with Arizona this offseason. That shouldn’t be a problem, though. Addison Reed enjoyed the best stretch of his career after the Mets acquired him late last season and he should do well as the bridge to Familia. Reaching 38 saves is no small feat but neither was 43 and that’s how many Familia finished with last season. Mark him down for at least 40. Prediction: Over
Craig Kimbrel, Boston Red Sox
Let’s start with the bad news. 2015 was unequivocally Kimbrel’s worst year. The 39 saves he recorded were his fewest since 2010 when he was merely a September call-up. His 2.58 ERA was a career-worst while his 1.04 WHIP was his highest since 2011. Kimbrel’s strikeout rate (13.20 K/9) was still incredible but even that was down from previous years (14.55 career K/9). Even Petco Park, a stadium known to give pitchers an advantage, couldn’t work its magic on Kimbrel. He posted a 2.73 ERA there in 34 appearances.
Mostly, Kimbrel just had a really bad first two months. Opponents hit .254 over that stretch as Kimbrel watched his ERA balloon to 4.50. He settled down after that with a 1.60 ERA the rest of the season, which is pretty much on par with his career average (1.63). Hitters struggled to a .152 average against Kimbrel from June on with 39 strikeouts in 92 at-bats. Now that’s more like it.
It’s not hard to figure out where Kimbrel went wrong last season. He was traded to the Padres hours before Opening Day. It took Kimbrel a few months to adjust to his new habitat, but by midseason, he looked like himself again. Of course, just when he was starting to find his mojo, the Padres sent him back to the east coast in a five-player trade with the Red Sox. Fortunately, Kimbrel had most of the offseason to settle in. The Red Sox beefed up their starting rotation by adding David Price while Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are both players on the rise. Boston should improve on its win total from last year, giving Kimbrel plenty of save chances. The Red Sox recently lost Carson Smith to a flexor strain but veteran Koji Uehara shouldn’t miss a beat as the new setup man. Look for Kimbrel to get back on track with 40-plus saves this year. Prediction: Over
Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh Pirates
I may have undersold Melancon earlier when I said he wasn’t elite. He’s logged 100 saves over his last three seasons with a 1.85 ERA in that span. Melancon might not be a household name like Kimbrel or Aroldis Champan, but at this point, he should be.
Last year was Melancon’s best year yet with 51 saves in 53 chances. He worked hard to get there by throwing a career-high 76 2/3 innings. Among pitchers, only the Cardinals’ Kevin Siegrist appeared in more games last season. The fatigue started showing up in the second half as Melancon’s ERA slipped from 1.47 in the first half to 3.21 after the All-Star break. Melancon actually held hitters to a lower average after the break so maybe he was just unlucky. These things happen in the topsy-turvy world of fantasy baseball.
Melancon’s fastball is losing some of its steam. Last year, his heater crossed home plate at an average speed of just 91.5 mph. That was easily a career-low for the right-hander. That’s definitely a concern but as I alluded to earlier, Melancon couldn’t be in a more perfect situation. The Pirates have become a perennial 90-win team but they rarely win in blowouts. They played in 53 one-run games last season, which accounted for almost a third of their schedule.
People forget how important the eighth inning is. If the setup man can’t hold the lead, there’s nothing for the closer to do except watch as a potential save slips out of his reach. This scenario rarely unfolds in Pittsburgh thanks to the quiet brilliance of Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. Those two combined for a 2.09 ERA and 62 holds last year. Neftali Feliz is also a capable late-inning arm, even if his stats didn’t show it last year (6.38 ERA in 48 appearances). I don’t see Melancon cracking 50 again, but 40-45 saves seems reasonable. I know I’m supposed to say under once in a while, but I make the rules here, not you. Prediction: Over
Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis lost the Rams this year but at least they still have perhaps the most consistent baseball team of the 21st century. Albert Pujols left for Anaheim after the 2011 season and most rational-thinking humans expected the St. Louis dynasty to follow him out the door. Instead, the Cardinals have made the playoffs four years in a row while averaging 93.75 wins per season. Last year’s 100-win campaign was the high-water mark and they couldn’t have done it without Rosenthal.
To quote the great Dave Chappelle, Rosenthal spits hot fire. His fastball averaged a thoroughly unhittable 97.6 mph last season. Compare that to fellow flamethrowers Ken Giles (96.5 mph) and Dellin Betances (97.0) and you’ll see that Rosenthal is in a class by himself. There’s a caveat though. While Rosenthal’s strikeout rate was off the charts (shocker), opponents actually made pretty good contact against him. This was particularly true of right-handers, who batted .270 across 152 at-bats in 2015. That didn’t stop Rosenthal from posting a career-best 2.10 ERA last season, but it shows he still has some rough edges. This is the part where you say, “Wait, so that closer who throws a million miles an hour with 93 saves over the last two years still has room for improvement?” I know. I’m scared too.
If you can believe it, the Cardinals actually played more one-run games than Pittsburgh last season. So don’t worry about save chances. Rosenthal will have plenty of those. And if that’s not enough to make you put all your eggs in the Rosenthal basket, just think of how good he could have been if he hadn’t snoozed through July and September last year. He posted a combined 5.75 ERA in those months. The rest of the year, his ERA was 0.56. Opponents hit .348 against Rosenthal in July and September (weird months to go on hiatus, don’t you think?) while batting .181 in the other four months. Even if Rosenthal doesn’t take the next step, what’s his floor—40, 45 saves? There will be no unders this week. You broke me, Rosenthal. Prediction: Over
*Compiled by FantasyPros