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A Farewell to Arms (and Steals)

Emmanuel Clase

Emmanuel Clase

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the final edition of Saves and Steals. It’s been a pleasure to produce this column over the last nine years. To my recollection, I took over from Eno Sarris in May 2014. The first saved copy on my hard drive is for June 11. The first tier should supply a chuckle:

Tier 1: Elite (5)

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Koji Uehara, Boston Red Sox
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers

Nearly a decade later, only Uehara has exited the professional ranks. He was 39 back in 2014 so it’s no surprise he was the first to go. Holland has bounced in and out of late-inning roles for much of the intervening time. Every time he looks cooked, he bounces back the next April with a new (and temporary) closer role. Kimbrel and Jansen swapped homes and dropped several tiers, but they’re still kicking around as most-of-the-time closers. Chapman could regain that mantle, though the decline he’s experienced this season has been building for several years. I warned you back in March that it could get ugly!

More familiar faces appeared in that June 11, 2014 issue. This spring, Sean Doolittle briefly looked like he’d recaptured the glory days before an injury prematurely ended his season. He was the seventh-ranked pitcher back in 2014. Other active pitchers also appearing in that column included David Robertson, Steve Cishek, Sergio Romo, Trevor Rosenthal, Jake McGee, and Zack Britton (he was “Zach” back then). We think of the reliever landscape as volatile, but the guys who crack the top few tiers tend to endure a long time.

Baseball has changed a lot since I joined Rotoworld. Chapman was an aberration back then. Now, his velocity is just on the fast side of ordinary – especially for a high leverage reliever. This column, until recently, had a Deposed section because teams would actually name a closer, and they usually stuck with him until he really struggled. Without Statcast and other advanced tracking systems, they could only be judged on their results. These days, everything is about committees and fluid bullpens with guys shifting roles based on arcane data points. You can’t be deposed when you were only ever penciled in for “high-leverage opportunities.” Certainly, some of the top guys are still treated like closer royalty and can thus be deposed. Like Kimbrel.

Saves and Steals isn’t just a closer recap, but it’s sure felt like that in recent years. That’s because steals have been in steady decline since I inherited the column. The “and Steals” often took a back seat because, well, there wasn’t much to report. I tried various methods over the years, but none of them ever felt half as helpful as the closer tiers.

If not for Jon Berti‘s escapades, this would have been the first season without a 40-swipe thief in recent memory. I wish I (and this column) could be around for 2023. If Rob Manfred has his way, it’ll mark the beginning of a stolen base renaissance. Bigger bags, disincentives to holding runners, and baseballs that spin less and fly shorter distances are the future. Teams are already developing speedy, contact-oriented role players to take advantage of the new meta.

Out of nostalgia, I reached out to my predecessor and mentor Eno Sarris for comment. From Eno:

Saves and Steals was one of the hardest columns I ever wrote. Not only are they maybe the two most annoying categories in regular five-by-five fantasy play, but this column is meant to be comprehensive in a way that usually took as many as 3,000 words every week. And then there were the tiers to name! I did some of my best and worst work on those tier names. A demanding audience meant you had to get it right. All in all, one of the toughest and most rewarding assignments I’ve ever had.

It’s ironic Eno remembers those tier names. One of the first instructions I received upon taking over the column was that the tier names don’t matter. Name them something generic, I was told. I walked a line between Eno’s approach and purely generic titles. “The Elite,” about as generic a title as there is, has appeared in over 200 editions of this column during my tenure. This year, we also regularly had “Crème de la Crème” and “Pray to the Baseball Gods” as tier-headers. In my opinion, we don’t evoke the Baseball Gods nearly enough.

Eno informed me that he was handed the column when Thor Nystrom went on vacation and never asked for it back. I reached out to Thor for comment as well:

Rotoworld was my first real job coming out of undergrad and an internship. Saves & Steals was the very first column I was ever given. What a sandbox. A beach, really, and I was the guy with the metal detector, looking for value hidden just beneath the surface. If this is the end for Saves & Steals, I would like to thank it for being my beginning. And to the readers who didn’t miss a column - and especially to the ones who would email questions about Jarrod Dyson or Tom Wilhelmsen at 10:45p on a summer Tuesday night and might include an encouraging word about the column - that literally meant the world to me in my mid-20s trying to make it in this industry: You are the real MVPs.

I haven’t had the pleasure of working with Thor, but I can surely echo his sentiments. I too received late-night emails about Jarrod Dyson and the like as well as plenty of friendly encouragement. This being the internet, I also heard my share of critiques – often because this or that closer were ranked too high or low. In some cases, I discovered the commenter was on to something – I had missed some essential detail. Other times, we had a good laugh about it later when my prognostications came true.

Well, I suppose we should get on with it. By tradition, the final Saves and Steals of the season is a recap of who actually thrived. The process I use places a dollar value on every standard fantasy category including pitcher wins. Thus, some of the top fantasy relievers aren’t among the saves leaders.

The Saves Department

The Elite (3)

Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Guardians
Ryan Helsley, St. Louis Cardinals
Edwin Diaz, New York Mets

They each reached the top tier in a different way. Clase led the league in saves and WHIP while also ranking among the best relievers in ERA. However, he notched only three wins. By comparison, Helsley’s nine wins were a big boost to his managers. He contributed a premium ERA and WHIP. Diaz also performed well in the ratio categories, though his WHIP was closer to “great” than “incredible.” Strikeouts were his top category. He led all relievers by a large margin – 22 not counting the final day of the season.

Very Good (6)

Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Scott Barlow, Kansas City Royals
Kenley Jansen, Atlanta Braves
Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
Evan Phillips, Los Angeles Dodgers

Already, we have our first mostly non-closer. Phillips polished off just two saves, though he also won seven games and led the league in ERA. Bard and, to a lesser extent, Barlow, were misses for this column. In Bard’s case, I still believe we followed a good process and received a bad result. Trusting historically inconsistent relievers to survive a full season at Coors Field is a fool’s errand. Fools sometimes profit in the short run. It might not feel like it, but one season certainly qualifies as “the short run.” As for Barlow, he didn’t exactly dominate in any one category and had to split closing duties for the first half of the season. In retrospect, he should have spent more time ranked in the second tier.

Romano was right on the cusp of joining the top tier all season. Hendriks, despite some blips, was ranked among the top five relievers for most of the season. Jansen’s dollar production depended on a heady saves total. Without that, he’d rank much lower. Of the top 30 relievers, only he and Ryan Pressly had a negative dollar value for their ERA.

Also Good (9)

Paul Sewald, Seattle Mariners
Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Alexis Diaz, Cincinnati Reds
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Felix Bautista, Baltimore Orioles
Clay Holmes, New York Yankees
Jason Adam, Tampa Bay Rays
A.J. Minter, Atlanta Braves
Camilo Doval, San Francisco Giants

Sewald entered 2022 as the obvious choice to close for the Mariners, but it took several months before he was regularly called upon in the ninth inning. Expect similar treatment next season as the club ponders bumping the more traditionally dominant Andrés Muñoz to the top spot. Erik Swanson also looked like a plausible closer this season.

Williams, a regular first non-closer off the board, finally got his day in the sun. He shone, as expected. Diaz, brother to Edwin, would have ranked higher in the tiers if the Reds a). won more games and b). didn’t stubbornly use Hunter Strickland in high leverage work. Pressly’s season was interrupted by knee and neck issues, both of which should be considered chronic threats. I’ll be working to sell my dynasty shares of Pressly before injuries erase all of his value.

Bautista is older than you think, and there’s a decent chance the Orioles will attempt to push him back into a setup role ahead of an acquisition like Jansen. We’ll see how the offseason shakes out. Holmes has Clase-like attributes, though he ran into some health and performance speed bumps in the second half. Adam quietly emerged as the top-performing Ray in their omnipresent committee.* While on the topic of Rays, hat tip to J.P. Feyereisen for posting a 0.00 ERA in24.1 innings, a modern record. Minter, once considered a closer candidate, finally posted a full elite season (the COVID year excluded). It must be nice to have such a potent reliever available in any inning.

*The Rays also had a committee back in that initial June 2014 column. Jake McGee and Joel Peralta were sharing saves.

Remember back to draft season when Doval was ranked among the top closers? Then the Giants announced they were going with McGee and others instead and Doval’s value cratered. I gleefully jump in on that crash and profited handsomely. Look for similar opportunities in the future. Not with Doval specifically. Sewald, Bautista, Jhoan Duran, and Seranthony Domínguez strike me as a few plausible candidates for this treatment.

Cromulent (12)

Rafael Montero, Houston Astros
Brock Burke, Texas Rangers
Raisel Iglesias, Atlanta Braves
David Robertson, Philadelphia Phillies
Adam Ottavino, New York Mets
Jorge Lopez, Minnesota Twins
Jhoan Duran, Minnesota Twins
John Schreiber, Boston Red Sox
Anthony Bass, Toronto Blue Jays
Andrés Muñoz, Seattle Mariners
David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates
Matt Bush, Milwaukee Brewers

Montero had to step in for Pressly on a couple occasions and did so admirably. Surprisingly so, to be honest. We’ll see if he’s signed as a closer this winter.

Burke deserves attention for his accomplishments even if they don’t seem particularly repeatable. His 1.97 ERA was one of the best among all qualified relievers, and he led the league with 82.1 relief innings (excluding the final day of the season). This combination of outcomes merits applause. Bear in mind, ERA-estimators believe he’s a mid-3.00s ERA reliever.

Iglesias will almost certainly take over as the Braves closer following the 2022 postseason. Jansen is headed back to free agency, and the Braves have more efficient ways to use their payroll. Robertson is destined for the open market, though he could be coaxed back to Philadelphia for a third stint. Ottavino is also ticketed for free agency. He’s a candidate for a multi-year contract as a leverage reliever.

The rest of this group, with the possible exception of Bass who has a club option, are club-controlled for 2023 and beyond. Lopez struggled in his brief visit to Minnesota. He’s now a non-tender candidate. His teammate, Duran, had an incredible rookie campaign. Schreiber adopted a sweeping slider and broke out as a result. The Red Sox seem poised on the edge of a rebuild - which might bode well for Schreiber. Munoz is a relief horse. A monster, truly. Bednar would have ranked higher if not for missing time with an injury. Last up, Bush had his best season since 2016. Milwaukee has a knack for getting the most out of their pitchers.

Other Notables (10)

Taylor Rogers, Milwaukee Brewers
Josh Hader, San Diego Padres
Gregory Soto, Detroit Tigers
Craig Kimbrel, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kyle Finnegan, Washington Nationals
Tanner Scott, Miami Marlins
Corey Knebel, Philadelphia Phillies
Mark Melancon, Arizona Diamondbacks
Lou Trivino, New York Yankees
Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks

These are the remaining pitchers who provided a dollar or more of value in the saves category. Rogers, Hader, and Soto managed positive value overall – just barely. Kimbrel and Finnegan checked in at just under $0 of value. From there, it gets ugly. If you used Scott or Knebel all season (why would you have?), you’d be stuck with around negative $5 for both of them. Melancon was around negative $8 while those desperate enough to use Trivino and Kennedy were saddled with negative $10. Of course, if you timed Trivino just right, you could have banked a tidy profit.

The Steals Department

There’s no need for so thorough a treatment among the base thieves. We all know how to sort a leaderboard by steals. That said, I would like to take a quick moment to acknowledge a few surprising performances among the thieves.

Berti’s season-leading outburst wasn’t entirely without precedent. The same can’t be said for Jorge Mateo who checked in with the second-best stolen base total. Although he was a negative contributor in every other category, he still offered his fantasy managers positive value. A few spots down the list, Bobby Witt Jr. made an impactful debut. He was a positive contributor in four of five categories, falling just short of a helpful batting average. He’s a huge breakout candidate in 2023.

Adolís Garcia and Julio Rodriguez were among the best draft day bargains this season, largely because they stole a bunch of bases while also supplying coveted power and run production. Marcus Semien rebounded from a truly atrocious start to his season while stealing a career-high 25 bases. J.T. Realmuto also set a career-high of 21 steals while experiencing an in-season rebound on par with Semien’s. In Arizona, Josh Rojas and Jake McCarthy quietly contributed to more than a few fantasy championships via their base-thievery.

Let’s not forget fantasy man numero uno, Aaron Judge. Although he didn’t rank among the top thieves, his 16 stolen bases easily rank as a career-best. He led the league in home runs, RBI, and runs while coming fifth in batting average. I know I had a couple rosters dragged kicking and screaming into the winner’s circle by Judge.