At this late stage of the season, tight races in individual categories often hold the key to winning a championship.
As the ABs and IPs add up, it can get very difficult to influence a qualitative category like BA, ERA, or WHIP. One category that does provide ample opportunity for late-season management is saves.
Saves is a category that can stratify relatively early in the year, as teams with 0, 1, 2, or 3 closers quickly rise and fall to their own levels. But, as trading opens up and closer jobs change hands around the major leagues, the category standings can tighten again.
So, if you find yourself in a battle for every save through August and September, here are a few points you should keep in mind:
The Rule of TOG is now the rule of tOg: As the season winds down, Opportunity is king in the search for saves. Back in April, every fantasy leaguer had his favorite "sleeper" source of saves. But regardless of how your early speculation turned out, the key point for now is that the time for speculation is over.
By September, MLB teams will officially be lumped into two categories: those in pennant races, and those with eyes on next year. The contenders will be very unlikely to change closers so late in the season. And while those teams looking to the future may start auditioning new candidates for their closer job, such decisions will be grounded in managerial preference and organizational priorities. Those motivations are not easily measured, nor do they necessarily correspond to skill sets.
"Safe" middle relievers are no more: With so little time left in the season, small sample sizes can create unpredictable results relative to projected performances. Given that a typical reliever will pitch roughly 10 innings per month, a single bad outing can mean the difference between a 3.00 ERA and a 6.00 ERA in September. How can you use this to your advantage? Simply put, don't stay married to your middle relievers, even the ones who have held your ERA and WHIP down all year. If there's a slightly more "dangerous" reliever available who has more possibility of getting you much-needed saves, make the move.
In most cases, the upside of gaining a handful of saves is probably worth the incremental increase in ERA/WHIP risk (except for those involved in the tightest of ERA/WHIP battles). With weeks left in the season, the cumulative effect of a reliever struggling for a few weeks has roughly the same impact of a single bad start.
Consider defensive action: Even if your team is not part of a tight pack in the saves category, you may have a vested position in how such battles shake out. Teams immediately ahead of you or behind you in the overall standings may be battling for saves points while you watch safely from an "island" in that category.
If this is the case, a trade of your saves source to another team locked in that battle can have the exact same impact as you moving up the category yourself. If you can extract near-fair value in the deal, or receive in exchange a player who can help you in another tight category, that is simply a bonus. But helping those who are battling your rivals is a victory in itself.
In conclusion, when locked in a critical battle in the saves category, one needs to look at matters from a different perspective late in the year. Whether you are trying to determine whether you hold a safe position in the category, or trying to project whether you can pick up a few much needed points, ask yourself some hard questions before acting.
How reliable are your relievers for the stretch drive? What about your opponent's save sources? Are there pickups or trade targets who can affect the outcome of the category? Depending on the situation and players involved, a 4-save lead in a category could be quite safe, or quite tenuous. So look beyond the category standings for a more accurate evaluation.
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