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Closer Conundrum: What Does Managing Like It's The Playoffs Mean?

"In a 60-game season, managers will approach every game like it's the playoffs."

We've heard that refrain over and over again as we prepare for the 2020 fantasy baseball season. In fact, I think I've written that sentence, or something similar, close to ten times already. But that statement brings up a natural follow-up question: How do managers manage in the playoffs? 

In order to answer that, I looked back through every game in the 2019 postseason to see if I could pinpoint some managerial tendencies that we could act on in this shortened season. Specifically, I wanted to see what "managing like it's the playoffs" means in terms of how teams use their closer. I'll set up each section with a fact that I discovered and then explain how that should impact your fantasy approach. Let's see if we can figure this out together.

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A team's saves leader got 12 of the 14 total postseason saves

Now, this stat is slightly skewed because the Washington Nationals used both Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson as their "closer" for much of the final months of the season; however, that means we knew to treat them as one "tandem closer." (I'll talk more about that later). As a result, it was fairly easy to predict which pitchers would get saves for teams in the playoffs as it was the same pitchers who had gotten the saves for them during the entire season, even if that team used multiple relievers to close games through the longer regular season.

In the case of both saves that were recorded by non-closers, the team's closer had been in the game earlier and blew the save, leaving a save opportunity for somebody who was not the natural closer. So, if you wanted to look at it another way, a team's saves leader was used in every single opportunity where a save was on the line.


A saves leader was used 85% in the 9th or a save situation

The pitchers who led their team in saves were used 41 times in the playoffs, and 35 of those times were in the 9th inning or save situations that began in the 8th inning. Nine of those times, a team's saves leader was used in the 9th inning despite it not being a save situation or even a tie game. While that may not seem significant, it seems to imply that, even if a team is losing, the manager is more inclined to save his most trusted (or best) reliever for the 9th inning.

This is important because I've been reading a lot of speculation that a manager might decide to use his best reliever or most trusted reliever early in games when the team is ahead and thus leave a save situation for another pitcher. However, there is nothing in last year's playoffs that would indicate this is how a manager chooses to manage in a must-win situation.

In fact, last year's playoffs would seem to imply the opposite. Based on specific usage, it would seem that Dave Roberts isn't going to use Kenley Jansen to stop a rally in the 7th and save a potential save situation for Pedro Baez or Blake Treinen. If it's the 8th inning, it's more likely than Jansen would be brought in but that would likely also lead to him being used for the 9th as well to close the game.

As a result, I don't think we have to worry about closers losing save opportunities to teammates unless they are already on shaky ground (Edwin Diaz), have a natural tandem option to pair with them, or have a limited track record of success and begin to struggled (i.e. if Brandon Workman has a rough first two weeks, the Red Sox would likely go to Matt Barnes).


Saves leaders are used earlier when their team loses

Of the six times that a team's saves leader was used before the 9th inning (or a save situation that began in the 8th), five of those times the pitcher's team was losing and would go on to lose. In these instances, a manager turned to his best high-leverage reliever to stop a rally earlier in the game (often the 7th but twice in the 6th). However, since the team went on to lose 83% of the time, that early usage didn't cost the pitcher a save.

In the one instance that a saves leader was used earlier and his team went on to win, there was not a save situation later in the game, so the early usage did not cost the pitcher a save opportunity. Meaning, not once in the playoffs was a closer used earlier in the game to stop a rally, thus removing him from save consideration later in the game.

As a result, this seems to indicate added fantasy value for the 2020 season since a saves leader could be used for more innings than he would have been in a normal season had he just been held back for save opportunities.


Saves leaders are often used for more than one inning

Of the times when a team's save leader was brought on in the 8th inning, 75% of the time it was during a save situation that was extended into the 9th inning. When I say extended into the 9th inning, I don't mean that he pitcher went on to close the game in the 9th; I simply mean that this was a clear intention. Sometimes the pitcher blew the save or his offense went on to score a bunch of runs and the pitcher was removed from the game. However, what this suggests is that managers will not limit their saves leader to just one inning if they see a situation that requires their best high-leverage pitcher.

This is important because many of these teams used multiple players to close games in the regular season; however, they seem to favor one main arm in the playoffs, even if that meant multiple innings. The Astros used Roberto Osuna for a few outs in the 8th multiple times in the playoffs despite having a strong bullpen, and the Rays, who used more pitchers to close games in the regular season than any other team, used Emilio Pagan twice in the 8th inning and attempted to have him pitch into the 9th. He simply blew both of those opportunities.


Tandem closers become more firmly entrenched

Admittedly, this section is focused on one team since the Washington Nationals were the only team in the 2019 postseason that really featured a clear left-right tandem to close out games. What is clear, based on last year's playoffs, is that those roles became even more firmly entrenched when every game mattered. In seven games, one of either Daniel Hudson or Sean Doolittle was used prior to the 9th inning, and three of those times they were brought in in the 7th inning for at least a few outs. Obviously, in either case, it was because of the handedness of the batters scheduled to hit.

What this says to me is that teams that have a natural left-right closer tandem could be harder to predict saves for this season. That's potentially bad news for Taylor Rogers with Trevor May and Tyler Duffey in town. It could also mean problems for Josh Hader if Corey Knebel proves that he's healthy or Alex Colome if the White Sox want to use Aaron Bummer against a lefty-heavy section of the order. Other natural tandems could be Ryan Helsley and Andrew Miller, Nick Anderson and Jose Alvarado, Will Smith and Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Tyler Rogers, Brad Hand and James Karinchak, and Zach Britton and Adam Ottavino (until Chapman returns).

This cuts closer committees down to two people, as I suggested in an earlier article, but does ensure that each pitcher should be used often, which provides a good opportunity for innings and ratios. However, it does cut into the potential ceiling for closers like Taylor Rogers and Nick Anderson, who have been going early in drafts.


Closing tandems may favor right-handed pitchers

This one is even more speculative, but at the end of the 2019 postseason, Hudson finished with four saves and Doolittle had two. This seems to be a natural conclusion when understanding that there are more right-handed hitters in lineups, which would mean the 9th inning is statistically more likely to feature right-handed batters, and thus a manager is statistically more likely to save his right-handed closer in order to face them.

Now, I'm not suggesting you go out and draft Trevor May over Taylor Rodgers, but I do think this could be important when looking at pitchers like Mark Melancon, who is going after Jose Leclerc and un-reported Keone Kela, and only going 15 picks ahead of teammate Will Smith despite a potential platoon advantage on a team many think will be one of the best in baseball. Similarly, Sean Doolittle is currently being drafted 162 and Daniel Hudson is going 243 despite Hudson receiving twice as many saves in the playoffs last year.



Looking back at last year's playoffs has made me believe, even more, that the value of clear-cut closing options is even higher this year than in a normal season. A pitcher who has the clear trust of his manager and no obvious opposite-handed tandem in his bullpen becomes even more valuable for their likely reliability. This means I would prioritize coming out of a draft with at least one of Roberto Osuna, Ken Giles, Kenley Jansen, Hector Neris, Liam Hendricks, Raisel Iglesias, and Hansel Robles. Kirby Yates has a natural tandem partner in Drew Pomeranz and could be traded, but I still think he could be included in the above list, and Edwin Diaz's name could be added too if he starts the season looking like the 2018 version of himself since the Mets don't have a natural left-handed tandem partner for him.

Once you get beyond the above list, there are reliability concerns for most other relievers in terms of saves. Obviously, Josh Hader and Taylor Rogers could still provide you tremendous value in ratios, K/9, and wins if they have to split closing duties, but from a pure saves perspective, they do come with some risk.

This also means that unquestioned closers on mediocre teams, like Joe Jimenez and Ian Kennedy, may provide more value, again from a strictly save perspective, than a potential committee closer on a better team, like Ryan Helsley or Mark Melancon.

Personally, I am trying to get one of the reliable guys from the aforementioned list and then waiting and taking relievers who will be part of a committee or help with my ratios and maybe chip in a few saves here or there. However, I think it would be a mistake to de-value saves as a category all together since it seems that we can identify a few players who should give us a clear advantage over our competition.

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