The role of a "closer" is perhaps not quite as cut and dried in modern baseball.
In the past, elite pitchers held down the ninth inning. From Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley to Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera, the best closers had a certain aura and gravitas every time they entered the game.
There are certainly still some marquee closers in the game. Aroldis Chapman and Kirby Yates are among those who still possess some extra moxie. However, with the increased usage of "openers" and "super relievers" (think Josh Hader or 2016 Andrew Miller), the notion of having a lockdown "closer" at the back end of the bullpen is less of a formality.
Yet, having an elite closer in fantasy baseball can anchor a pitching staff for team owners.
Most fantasy leagues place a premium on the "saves" category, and some alternate between strikeouts and strikeouts per nine inning. Regardless, having a power pitcher who routinely converts save chances can sometimes swing the balance between winning and losing an individual matchup, or making your way up a rotisserie leaderboard.
With all these things in mind, let's take a look at some potential sleeper closers to look out for as your navigate the waters of a fantasy baseball draft.
Top 10 Relief Pitchers (does not include SP eligibles; via ESPN):
1. Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
2. Roberto Osuna, Houston Astros
3. Liam Hendriks, Oakland Athletics
4. Nick Anderson, Tampa Bay Rays
5. Kirby Yates, San Diego Padres
6. Taylor Rogers, Minnesota Twins
7. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
8. Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
9. Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals
10. Will Smith, Atlanta Braves
Ken Giles, Toronto Blue Jays (Pos. Rank 32, Ovr. Rank 299)
The mercurial Giles had a huge bounce-back season for the Blue Jays.
Giles converted 23-of-24 save opportunities, finishing the 2019 season with a 1.87 ERA and a career-high 14.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
Now that Toronto retooled their starting pitching staff in the hopes of being more competitive in 2020, Giles should see more save opportunities. Most importantly, he has rediscovered some of the tendencies that made him successful with the Houston Astros.
Giles previously had his best success when he was able to use his wipeout slider in any count. However, he threw that pitch just 40 percent of the time in 2018, and opponents teed off on his four-seam fastball. But Giles adjusted in 2019, throwing both his slider and four-seamer 49 percent of the time, per Baseball Savant.
By keeping opposing hitters off balance, Giles' fastball had the highest whiff rate to date despite a decrease in velocity and spin rate. Meanwhile, hitters batted just .124 with an expected slugging percentage of .166 against the slider, per Baseball Savant.
Giles has the tools to reestablish himself as an elite closer with strikeout stuff. Plus, he is still just 29 years old. Considering his ranking, fantasy owners would be wise to keep tabs Giles.
Will Harris, Washington Nationals (Pos. Rank 56, Ovr. Rank NR)
Sean Doolittle might be the closer for the defending champion Washington Nationals on Opening Day, but there is reason to believe Harris will have every opportunity to take the ninth inning.
Harris had a tremendous season for the Astros in 2019, posting a 1.50 ERA and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings in an even 60 innings of work. He also had a 0.933 WHIP and traditionally allows weak contact. Harris ranked in the top six percent of all pitchers in terms of average exit velocity against in 2018, per Baseball Savant.
The other reason Harris figures to be that much more valuable in the later innings is his reverse-platoon splits. Left-handed hitters had a minuscule .490 OPS against Harris, per Baseball Reference. There is a reason that enhances Harris' value.
Thus, it might make more sense for Harris to have a flexible role in Washington's bullpen, and that might include pitching at the end of games. Right-handed hitters torched Doolittle last season, but Harris' effectiveness against both lefties and righties makes him invaluable.
Aroldis Chapman, New York Yankees (Pos. Rank 24, Ovr. Rank 239)
It is pretty hard to sleep on Chapman.
The imposing left-hander paces all relievers in fWAR since 2011, according to FanGraphs, and he ranks third in saves during that span.
Chapman is coming off another dominant season in which he notched 37 saves to go along with a 2.21 ERA and 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Yet, he is pretty low on ESPN's rankings.
In fact, Oakland Athletics rookie Jesus Luzardo ranks above Chapman, and Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen ranks well ahead of Chapman despite the fact Jansen is coming off a pair of rather mediocre seasons.
Thus, while it might be hard to consider Chapman a legitimate "sleeper" because of his past success and consistency in recent seasons, perhaps some fantasy owners will overlook the veteran in favor of other arms.
Do not be that owner. Chapman figures to have immense value, wherever he might be drafted.