Last Year’s Reliever Market As A Cautionary Tale

There has been some talk about the Phillies signing a veteran reliever to bolster what was a lackluster bullpen for much of the 2012 season. After marquee signing Jonathan Papelbon, the Phillies relied on a corps of young arms and seemed to always have the revolving door to the bullpen spinning. Although the contract given to Papelbon was, from every perspective, too rich and too lengthy — the largest contract ever given to a closer — they still got the performance they expected. Papelbon finished the year with a 2.44 ERA in 70 innings, continuing to be one of baseball’s best and most reliable closers.

Talk of the Phillies’ off-season plans tend to take on an open-and-closed tone. Many urge that the Phillies should add a “veteran eighth-inning guy” as if it is A) easy to pick out the ones who will give you what you pay for; and B) a wise allocation of resources. Last year’s reliever market is a great illustration of why the relief pitcher market is more or less a roulette wheel.

25 relievers signed deals with an average annual value greater than $1 million. Five of them signed multi-year deals. The results were… mixed. First, the multi-year deals:

  • Jonathan Papelbon, PHI (4/$50M): 2.44 ERA, 70 IP, 38 SV
  • Heath Bell, MIA (3/$27M): 5.09 ERA, 63.2 IP, 19 SV
  • Joe Nathan, TEX (2/$14.5M): 2.80 ERA, 64.1 IP, 37 SV
  • Frank Francisco, NYM (2/$12M): 5.53 ERA, 42.1 IP, 23 SV
  • Javier Lopez, SFG (2/$8.5M): 2.50 ERA, 36 IP, 7 SV

Three were quite good, two were very bad, and one did not even play in the Majors. In total, the six relievers combined to earn in $120.4 million over 15 total years, an average annual value exceeding $8 million. Of course, that is a bit top-heavy towards Papelbon, but a 50 percent success rate is less than impressive.

Here is a look at how the other relievers fared on one-year deals:

Player Team Amount ($M) ERA
Jose Valverde Tigers $9.00 3.78
Ryan Madson Reds $8.25
Francisco Rodriguez Brewers $8.00 4.38
Jeremy Affeldt Giants $5.00 2.70
Matt Capps Twins $4.75 3.68
Francisco Cordero Blue Jays $4.50 7.55
Darren Oliver Blue Jays $4.50 2.06
Jonathan Broxton Royals $4.00 2.48
Jason Frasor White Sox $3.75 4.12
Octavio Dotel Tigers $3.50 3.57
Jon Rauch Mets $3.50 3.59
Kyle Farnsworth Rays $3.30 4.00
LaTroy Hawkins Angels $3.00 3.64
Kerry Wood Cubs $3.00 8.31
Fernando Rodney Rays $2.00 0.60
Takashi Saito Diamondbacks $1.75 6.75
Todd Coffey Dodgers $1.30 4.66
Chad Qualls Phillies $1.15 5.33
George Sherrill Mariners $1.10 27.00

Of the 19 relievers listed, only four can be considered to have had great seasons: Affeldt, Oliver, Broxton, and Rodney. Eight finished with an ERA in the 3.50-4.50 range. As with the multi-year deals, it was more or less a coin flip with the expensive one-year deals — not much better than if GM’s had randomly picked names from a hat.

To look at it from another perspective, look at the 2012 ERA leaderboard for relievers and count the number of names that weren’t acquired via free agency. In particular, pay attention to the young players like Craig Kimbrel, Wilton Lopez, Jake McGee, Ryan Cook, Kenley Jansen, and so forth. Why gamble millions of dollars on players when your rate of success doesn’t significantly improve compared to relying on younger, cost-controlled players? Recently, I explained why the Phillies should rely on their young bullpen again, and this is part of the reason.

Veteran players such as Jeremy Affeldt, Octavio Dotel, and Ryan Madson are being cited as potential targets for the Phillies, but they can take a similar gamble for significantly less money and without unnecessarily taking on a multi-year contract. Four Phillies relievers posted a SIERA (Skill Interactive ERA) below 2.80 in 2012: Papelbon, Antonio Bastardo, Jeremy Horst, and Raul Valdes. Dotel and Affeldt had a 2.65 and 3.06 SIERA, respectively. SIERA has been shown to be an accurate predictive tool. Probabilistically, you likely will not be getting significantly better performance out of either veteran compared to the youngsters either.

In other words, the upside of relying on the younger players is that they pitch well and they help you save money, which you can then allocate elsewhere. The downside is that they fail — as they did in 2012 — but at least you aren’t stuck with expensive, lengthy, unmovable contracts. Why would a team that opened 2012 with a $172 million payroll care about a few million here or there? They may not reach the luxury tax threshold in the off-season, but the extra financial flexibility could allow GM Ruben Amaro to make another one of his typical mid-season trades to bring in a quality player (the utility of which is an entirely separate discussion).

To sum it up briefly, signing relief pitchers to multi-year and/or multi-million-dollar contracts is just about the most inefficient, ineffective way for a team to spend money, and it can effectively hamstring them in other areas. The Phillies, who brazenly backed up an armored truck full of money in front of Papelbon’s house last off-season, would do well to recognize this and focus their attention and resources in other, more important areas. A veteran reliever would be nice, but such an asset is far down on the list of priorities.