What is Rafael Soriano's value without the closer's job?
Rotisserie baseball is hardly perfect when it comes to rewarding statistical performance. In some cases, it emphasizes opportunity, role and/or strength of team, rather than an individual's skills.
Perhaps there's no greater example of that than the saves department. Saves have a specific set of rules in order to be awarded, and it's up to the manager to determine who has the opportunity to accrue them. In some cases, the most talented relief pitcher on the roster is not the one getting those chances; sometimes it comes down to who got the most recent one, or who has the most on his résumé.
Let's state up front that Mariano Rivera doesn't fall into the latter group. He's not only the New York Yankees reliever who got the team's most recent save (Game 1 of the 2010 American League Championship Series) and has the most on his résumé (559), he's also the most talented relief pitcher on their roster, if not on any roster in Major League Baseball.
Unfortunately, this season, Rivera has competition for the honor of "best Yankees reliever," as former Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano signed a three-year, $35 million contract with the team in January. Statistically speaking, Soriano was actually a better reliever in 2010 than Rivera; Soriano had more saves (45-33), a lower ERA (1.73-1.80) and a lower WHIP (0.80-0.83).
But none of that matters now, because for as long as he's active and healthy, Mariano Rivera owns the ninth in New York, and that means until Rivera retires -- presumably after his two-year deal expires following the 2012 season -- Soriano must settle for setup work in the seventh and eighth innings.
Meaningless setup work, if you ask most fantasy owners.
Why is it that setup men have such a stigma in fantasy? The general baseball world is coming around to these underappreciated contributors; three setup men -- Evan Meek, Arthur Rhodes and Matt Thornton -- were selected to the 2010 All-Star teams, and six projected 2011 Opening Day setup men were signed to free-agent contracts worth $12 million or more this winter, Soriano included in that group.
Maybe it's time we appreciated them, too.
That's not to say that I'm projecting Soriano to finish anywhere near his 2010 fantasy value: He was the No. 2 relief pitcher, No. 8 pitcher and No. 31 player overall on the Player Rater. What I'm saying is that Soriano, who is probably an afterthought in the majority of standard ESPN mixed leagues (10-teamers), absolutely has draft value in those formats.
Let's examine a few of the reasons
Mariano Rivera's age
Handcuffing your most valuable closers is a popular strategy in fantasy baseball, and while it seems blasphemous to suggest Rivera needs a handcuff -- consider that he has never had a season in which he could have been termed an all-out bust comparative to his draft-day price -- 2011 might be the first time the tactic is smart. Rivera has been so good for so long, it's easy to forget that he's now 41 years old, and with each passing year the prospects of a breakdown increase.
History isn't exactly on his side. Only three relievers in the history of baseball managed 20 or more saves in a season beyond their 41st birthday; two of them are Hall of Famers (Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm) and the other almost assuredly will be (Trevor Hoffman). Eckersley's performance had already regressed before his 40th birthday and he was finished at 43. Wilhelm pitched until he was almost 50, but he was also a knuckleballer who was almost age-proof. Hoffman, meanwhile, serves the eeriest comparable; his performance utterly collapsed during his age-42 campaign of 2010, only one year older than Rivera is.
In addition, only 11 pitchers in history have had multiple seasons of a 3.0 WAR or better -- Rivera's exact WAR in 2010 and a number he has exceeded on 12 occasions, a record for a reliever -- after their 40th birthdays. No reliever has ever done it twice after turning 40 years old (Rivera has once).
To be clear, the prospects of such a Rivera collapse are small, and hardly the strongest argument in Soriano's favor. But they're also not zero.
Mariano Rivera's workload
This goes somewhat hand-in-hand with the previous point, and one of the reasons Rivera's risk of collapse is small is that the Yankees have been brilliant at preserving him as the candles on his birthday cake have exceeded 40. One thing you might not have noticed: Rivera is being utilized for extended outings, multiple innings or on consecutive days, less often as he has aged.
Rivera has thrown 25-plus pitches in 14.9 percent of his career appearances. He threw that many or more only 11.5 percent of the time in 2010.
Rivera has thrown on back-to-back days -- or in both games of a doubleheader -- in 28.6 percent of his career outings. In 2010, he did it only 23.0 percent of the time.
A whopping 91.8 percent of Rivera's games in 2010 were an inning or shorter, compared to 79.5 percent the past five seasons combined (2005 to 2009).
Rivera faced three batters or fewer in 54.1 percent of his appearances in 2010, but he faced that few only 37.8 percent of the time from 2005 to 2009.
Has anyone ever considered this: Maybe the Yankees didn't sign Soriano intending only to use him in the eighth inning; maybe they signed him because when Rivera needs a night off, they wanted a proven alternative to close.
Perhaps those "off nights" won't amount to enough for Soriano to save in double digits, but between the chance of such saves and any potential Rivera injuries is it really that absurd to think Soriano might push 10 saves in 2011?
Simple Roto mathematics
This is the underrated part of the debate, the part that dictates that, even if Soriano offers you a big, fat doughnut in the saves department, he can still make a worthwhile contribution to your ERA and WHIP.
Using Player Rater numbers, had Soriano notched zero saves in 2010, yet maintained all of his other pertinent Rotisserie numbers, 191 players would've vaulted ahead of him, resulting in a No. 221 ranking for the right-handed reliever or still above the cut in a standard ESPN mixed league. He'd have been the No. 97 pitcher overall, and the No. 36 relief pitcher.
Now, let's take a look at what a pitcher like Soriano might do to a team's ERA and WHIP in a standard mixed league: We've got him projected for 69 innings of a 2.74 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 71 strikeouts, all of those very fair for a pitcher who has career 2.73/1.00 ratios and a 9.62 K's-per-nine ratio.
A standard mixed-league team should accrue approximately 1,300 innings from its nine active pitching spots, or approximately 145 per spot, and about a 3.65 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Adding Soriano's statistics in place of an average pitcher -- 145 innings with those ERA/WHIP numbers -- results in a 3.60 team ERA and 1.24 WHIP, which depending upon the league could mean as little as zero points in either category, or as many as 2-3 in ERA and 1-2 in WHIP.
And that's going only by team averages, as opposed to the instances in which Soriano would be replacing a higher-ERA/WHIP starter, or being used in daily matchups in order to bolster your team ERA and WHIP when your starters and/or closers aren't scheduled to pitch. Maximizing your daily lineups could give you all of Soriano's 69 projected innings, not to mention any of those Rivera's-night-off saves.
Ultimately, Soriano's 2011 fantasy value is tied entirely to the format, and while he's obviously a worthwhile pick in AL-only formats due to his next-in-line-for-saves status as well as the prospects of vultured saves, the case can be made he's a viable selection in ESPN standard mixed leagues, too. In a weekly-transaction mixed league? Perhaps Soriano deserves to be beneath the cut, being that two-start pitchers become all the more valuable in that format.
But thanks to the ability to tweak lineups daily, slotting in Soriano on days where your starters aren't scheduled to pitch or you're displeased with your other pitchers' matchups, he's absolutely a worthwhile asset in our leagues.
He's a pitcher I'd be happy to pick late, and keep stashed on my bench.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.