Guest Post: Expensive Outs: Why Paying a Premium for Papelbon Doesn’t Make Sense
Tom Holzerman (or TH, if you will) is a wrestling blogger found at a few sites on the web, most prominently at his site, The Wrestling Blog. He also has some things to say about other topics, baseball being one of them. If you have any feedback, questions or angry missives, send them to his Twitter, @tholzerman.
Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, it’s time for a little bit of cost analysis. We’ll be looking at two pitchers, both who are contracted to the Philadelphia Phillies for the 2012 season, but who serve far different roles. In one corner, we have Harry Leroy Halladay III, the indomitable ace, fantasy zoo companion and rock upon which the starting rotation is built. The workhorse of the rotation signed a contract that was valid from the start of this past season until the end of the 2013 season with a vesting option for 2014. For all intents and purposes though, we’ll only count the guaranteed years, which are worth in aggregate of $60 million. In the other corner, it’s recent Bostonian import and new closer Jonathan Papelbon. This past offseason, he signed a four year contract worth $50 million.
On the surface, the Phillies now have two of the elite pitchers in the league at the same absolute dollar amount. If anything, Papelbon, who right now is at the very least the second best closer in the game after Mariano Rivera, has been gotten more cheaply than Halladay, not only in total, in average as well. Papelbon’s $50 million is spread out over four years instead of three. That would be fine and good if both pitchers had similar roles in the game, which they clearly do not. As established before, Papelbon is a closer, Halladay a starter. Closers pitch in one inning per game on average, whereas a top line starter like Halladay will average seven with a healthy sprinkling of complete games mixed into his season. With that knowledge presented, the amount of innings that Halladay will pitch over the length of his contract, even with the year of shortfall compared to Papelbon, will dwarf his 9th inning counterpart.
Over his career, Halladay’s full season average for innings pitched stands at 240, while Papelbon’s is at 66. Assuming those averages stand for the entire lengths of each pitcher’s contract (and yes, I’m aware that Halladay already pitched a season of his contract, but just bear with me here), the cost per out for each pitcher stands at about $27,000 for Halladay compared to $63,000 for Papelbon. Papelbon’s individual outs more than double Halladay’s. To put things in perspective, the average per capita income for Philadelphia County is a shade over $16,500.
That, of course, operates under the assumption that every out in a baseball game is equal. From a cold, hard statistical standpoint, yes, that ends up averaging out to be true over the long haul, but there are situations where some outs are probably worth more. For example, getting Matt Kemp out is definitely a tougher task than Yuniesky Betancourt. That being said, over the long haul, both Halladay and Papelbon will more than likely have relatively equal distributions of how hard their outs are per inning pitched, so it feels moot. Arguing from an intangible standpoint, there does seem to be a lot more pressure in the 9th inning. Even though there are plenty of arguments that suggest this is a myth, let’s pretend the closer mentality is real.
Papelbon will undoubtedly pitch more 9th innings than Halladay, but he’ll do so with a whole game’s rest. Halladay completes an above average number of games per season; in the last five years, he’s averaged over 8. He obviously enters the game in similar situations, where the game is still pretty close (in blowouts either way, he’s probably out of the game for someone mopping it up for him), with the added strain of having recorded 8 innings worth of outs. Even though Papelbon will have worked on average five to six times more 9th innings than Halladay would have, Halladay’s final frames would almost invariably have a far greater degree of difficulty because of arm strain and fatigue. That gives a little perspective into how “elite” a closer can seem in the face of a real elite pitcher.
So, with that all being presented, maybe all outs should cost the same. If that’s the case, then what should an out cost? If they all cost what the Phillies were paying Halladay, then Papelbon’s contract would be slashed from the $50 million down to $21.3 million. If every out was valued at Papelbon’s costs, then Halladay’s contract balloons up to $136.1 million, the average value of which would make him the highest paid player in the league by far and more expensive than some teams’ entire payrolls. The most galling thing is this is only comparing the elite level of pitchers. My guess is if we compared the lower tiers, the costs would become even more outrageous.
This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten on my horse to decry the overvaluing of the closer position, but at the same time, when the Phillies are going to have to pay valuable dollars to players who’ll have more total value to the team than Papelbon like Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels and Hunter Pence, and when they have holes in the lineup at positions like left field and first base, it just looks silly that there’s so much money tied up into a guy who impacts less than five percent of the regular season. If Hamels ends up in Yankee pinstripes, or the Phillies have the ultimatum in front of them of whether they keep Pence or Victorino in future offseasons, the blame can be placed almost solely on the rash spending on what is a luxury position.