Jonathan Papelbon recorded his 300th save Tuesday -- coming 17 days after his 299th -- and in the process lowered his ERA to 1.48, 20th-best among qualified relievers and sixth-best among current closers.
Though it might not seem it, Papelbon is one of the more reliable, consistent closers in fantasy baseball. Consider that he ranks 16th among pure relievers on our Player Rater, after having placed 23rd, sixth, 10th, 11th and 10th working backward from 2013. No other reliever has managed a top-25 Player Rater finish in each of the past five seasons. Papelbon also has 27 more saves than any other player since the beginning of 2006, and he is the only pitcher to have saved at least 25 games each year since 2006 -- not to mention he's on pace to finish the 2014 season with 37.
Papelbon's example is the one of erroneous perception. His declining strikeout rate -- dropping in each season since 2011 and a career-worst 20.2 percent (of total batters faced) this season -- explains his modest Player Rater placement, and he's the closer for a Philadelphia Phillies team on pace for just 68 wins this season after the team won only 73 in 2013. Still, as the owner of a contract with more than $20 million remaining over the next year and two-thirds, and another $13 million in 2016 should he finish an additional 80 games between this and next year, Papelbon has one considerable advantage over his brethren: job security.
Job security is a big thing for a closer in the Nos. 11-20 range these days, because this season has exhibited (predictable) volatility in that group.
Jim Johnson (No. 11 reliever in terms of preseason ADP) and Grant Balfour (No. 16) were both demoted to the middle innings due to poor performance. Jason Grilli (No. 13) and Casey Janssen (No. 17) both spent time on the disabled list. Addison Reed (No. 14) and Ernesto Frieri (No. 18) both have ERAs that rank among the highest among current closers, 3.99 and 4.18, respectively.
Now, consider some of the names that grace the Nos. 11-20 on the Player Rater of the (pure) reliever group: Fernando Rodney (No. 11), who signed with the Seattle Mariners just days before spring training camps opened; Sean Doolittle (No. 12), a lefty reliever whom the Oakland Athletics initially seemed to regard no higher than fourth in the closer pecking order; Jean Machi (No. 13), a setup man with two saves but a sparkling 0.32 ERA; Wade Davis (No. 15), a failed starter turned dominant setup man; Mark Melancon (No. 17), Grilli's stand-in but otherwise an eighth-inning guy; Zach Britton (No. 18), another failed starter who is now closing games for the Baltimore Orioles; and Kenley Jansen (No. 20), who -- wait a second -- wasn't he supposed to be an unquestioned top-10 fantasy closer?
Papelbon and, to a lesser extent, Rafael Soriano have enjoyed a reliable year in the 11-20 range in their own right and have sneaked in there as "old reliables" -- if there is such a thing among closers. Fantasy owners have chased the elite arms -- the Craig Kimbrels, Aroldis Chapmans and Greg Hollands -- this season, with good reason, but these two veteran finishers illustrate that there is a lower-tier market for saves. Look at the rankings below; that they reside in the same range as players like Janssen, Doolittle and Francisco Rodriguez is testament to their consistency, whereas it's pitchers like the other three who belong there for their potential.
This is what makes it so difficult to rank and project relievers in fantasy baseball, not only within the position itself but also comparative to the overall player pool. Relief pitcher value is context-dependent, the saves alone the goal in many instances, the ERA/WHIP/K's help meaningful usually in deeper formats. In addition, it's the one position at which skill and opportunity don't always coincide.
Let's compare the top 10 in ADP to the top 10 in the Player Rater standings, again using only pure relief pitchers. Kimbrel (No. 1 ADP, No. 6 Player Rater), Holland (Nos. 3 and 7), Koji Uehara (Nos. 7 and 4), Sergio Romo (Nos. 8 and 2) and Glen Perkins (Nos. 9 and 8) are common to both, meaning half of the top 10 preseason closers have performed as such today. A sixth, Chapman (No. 4 ADP) would, at least on a per-game basis, reside within the top 10 if not for his unpredictable injury. The case could be made that Steve Cishek (No. 20 ADP, No. 5 Player Rater) and Joakim Soria (Nos. 32 and 9) now also warrant top-10 consideration. It's the primary reason my top 11 relievers rank among the top 110 players overall.
But beyond that group, value is more fluid, the overall rankings serving as the example of how you can let your personal preferences drive. Here, I'll help by picking out three specific examples:
Joakim Soria: Though I've already mentioned that his is a compelling case for a higher rank, let's not forget that he's the closer for a disappointing and seemingly snake-bitten Texas Rangers team. If his team slips further in the standings, that could result in his being shopped nearer to the trade deadline. Granted, that's a minimal chance as things seem to stand, but Soria's injury history is also enough of a question that it's difficult to pay top dollar to secure his services. In his defense, he could be this year's Uehara, a pitcher whose injury risk never came to fruition in what was an extraordinary 2013.
Casey Janssen: He's my No. 13 relief pitcher but No. 127 overall, and if we could assume he'd stay healthy all season, he would make a compelling case for top-10 status. Janssen made his 2014 debut on May 12; his 11 saves since that date are two more than anyone else, and he has a 1.42 ERA and 0.87 WHIP to go with them. If your approach to the saves market is that you would prefer to acquire the player performing at an elite level today and worry about a potential absence later, I could make you the case that Janssen is worth every bit as much to you as Romo (my No. 8 relief pitcher going forward).
Sean Doolittle: The hesitation with ranking him higher centers around track record, track record, track record. Doolittle had but four saves in his first 132 career appearances -- despite a ridiculous 0.99 WHIP (and an oddly high 3.19 ERA) -- and it seemed like the Athletics planned to wait forever before recognizing the left-hander was their most complete, consistent reliever. I'm warming to the fact that this job is his for an indefinite period of time. If I had a promise of it, he would be my No. 8 reliever, ahead of Romo. The upshot: If you need to make the trade at lower cost with the highest going-forward statistical upside, Doolittle is your guy, even over Cody Allen.
Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 250 going-forward rankings
For a detailed rankings breakdown by position, click here.