The prevailing theory is that closers on bad teams will be the ones to easily accrue saves. The logic is that while terrible baseball teams will not win many games, they will at least win 60-70 (at minimum) and since the team itself are not very good, most of those wins will be by narrow margins (the bad team will only win by 1-3 runs) so that the closer will be given ample opportunity to accrue saves.
Well, I don't buy it.
I have a two prong test when it comes to which relief pitcher will generate saves.
The first prong is that the pitcher has to be good and has to be able to convert save opportunities. This idea is obvious but needs to be stated because I feel like this gets lost in translation. No matter if a reliever is on a good team or on a bad team or a mediocre team, if that reliever is not good enough to get outs to keep his team from retaining the lead and winning the game, nothing else matters. I am not under the belief that you need to have closer "stuff" or a "closer mentality" but if a pitcher is not good enough to nail down saves then he obviously is not good enough to accrue saves.
The second prong, and the most important prong because it is my hypothesis, is that: Closers on good teams, specifically on good teams with good pitching and bad offenses, are the ones to rack up a lot of saves.
My theory goes like this. Ultimately if a relief pitcher is in the game that means his team is up in the last inning and if the relief pitcher successfully converts the save opportunity that means his team has won the game. Teams who win a lot of games and win a lot of them by close margins are more likely to generate save opportunities (as well as generate them more consistently which is always nice for fantasy owners) than bad teams.
The prevailing theory assumes that bad teams win games by close margins but good teams do not. But that is just not true. There are plenty of good teams that win close games. Plus, bad teams can and do win games by high margins. The more a team wins, the greater the odds are that those wins can come from a successful converted save opportunity than teams who do not win games. Obviously I am not saying that bad teams can not have closers who accrue a lot of saves, that most certainly happens. However, what the prevailing view overlooks is the rest of the closers of good teams far outweighs the closers on bad teams.
Let's look at some data:
2011 Leaders In Saves Player (Team) [# of saves]
1) Jose Valverde (DET) 
2) John Axford (MIL) 
2) Criag Kimbrel (ATL) 
4) J.J. Putz (ARI) 
5) Mariano Rivera (NYY) 
The top five leaders in saves last year came from teams with over .500 records and if Atlanta had won the last game of the season then the top five leaders in saves would have also been on teams that went to the playoffs.
2010 Leaders In Saves Player (Team) [# of saves]
1) Brian Wilson (SF) 
2) Heath Bell (SD) 
3) Rafeal Soriano (TB) 
4) Joakim Soria (KC) 
5) Francisco Cordero (CIN) 
5) Neftali Feliz (TEX) 
*For the purposes of this article I am excluding Matt Capps who had 42 saves but was traded mid-season from the terrible Washington Nationals to the really good Minnesota Twins which just would end up confusing everything.
Let's break this down further. Between 2008- 2011 I looked at forty closers- the top ten in each individual year (again, the only one I excluded was Matt Capps in 2010, see: above). Here is how that breaks down:
- 65% of closers were on a team that finished over .500
- 35% of closers were on a team that finished under .500
- 45% of closers were on a team that had 90 wins or more
- 55% of closers were on a team that had 89 wins or less
- 45% of closers were on a team that made it to the playoffs
- 55% of closers were on a team that missed the playoffs
Let's break these numbers down even further to just the top five closers in terms of saves between 2008 - 2011.
- 80% of closers were on a team that finished over .500
- 20% of closers were on a tam that finished under .500
- 65% of closers were on a team that had 90 wins or more
- 35% of closers were on a team that had 89 wins or less
- 65% of closers were on a team that made it to the playoffs
- 35% of closers were on a team that missed the playoffs
At minimum there is no proven correlation between how terrible the team versus how many saves that team's closer gets- at least at the elite level. If anything, these stats help prove my point.
Let's now look at some players.
- In the past four years, Brian Wilson had a career year in saves and save opportunities in 2010. That was only year (in that time frame) in which the San Francisco Giants made it the playoffs (and also won the World Series). The Giants won 92 games that year. The Giants were 9th in the NL in runs scored but 1st in the NL in earned runs allowed.
- In the three years that Heath Bell has been closing for the San Diego Padres he also had a career year in 2010 in both saves and save opportunities. The Padres won 90 games in 2010. They only won 71 games in 2011 and 75 in 2009. In 2010, the Padres were 12th in the NL in runs scored but 2nd in the NL in earned runs allowed.
- In 2008 Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) set the MLB record for most saves by a player in a single season with 62 saves. His Los Angeles Angels won 100 games that year. The Angels were 10th in AL in runs scored but 3rd in the AL in earned runs allowed.
- Between 2003-2010, the top three years for Francisco Cordero in terms of save opportunities was, respectively: 2004 (54 opp), 2007 (51 opp), and 2010 (48 opp). Those three years just happen to be the three years in which the team that he was closing for finished with over 82 games (a +.500 record). In 2010, his Reds won the division and 91 games. In 2004 his Rangers won 89 games.
- I'm not going to look up exact stats but every year Mariano Rivera is awesome and collects saves like E.T. collects Reece's Pieces and every year the Yankees go to the playoffs- or at least go over .500.
What does all this mean? Does everything I've mentioned 100% prove my point? Absolutely not. Is this post mostly (if not completely) filled with anecdotal data? Yes. I don't know or claim to know how to do regression models and actual hard calculus-like analysis, but what I do know and what I do believe is that, in terms of saves, I want players who are on good teams. I am more actively seeking out closers on teams who will win lots of games and will win those games with pitching and defense.
Like I said earlier, the most important important characteristic I want out of a relief pitcher- at least in terms of fantasy value- is skill set. These opportunities mean nothing without underlining skills. And in fantasy the best relief pitchers are not necessarily the ones who rack up the most saves. Drew Storen was the 3rd best relief pitcher last year even though he was not in the top five in terms of saves just because he had a low ERA and WHIP and collected a lot of strike outs. Mariano Rivera, especially in recent years, will rack up a lot of saves but will do it with a relatively high ERA and WHIP and relatively low strike out totals compared to his elite counterparts.
I just hope I changed your mind about the correlation between low win totals and save opportunities.Or at least have you questioning the prevailed norm.
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