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.

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30 comments

  1. JM

    October 25, 2012 08:08 AM

    The on disagreement I have with this is that if you take a $1-2m flier on a reliever, you’ve gambled only 1-2% of your payroll. I hated the Qualls signing, but at $1.15m, you take that shot. Relivers are a gamble, so you look at their overall body of work. Madsen is the only guy I would bring in from outside, since we know his track record. Will he be a $1-2m guy? No. But, he has been consistant at the back end for several years (not counting that disaster of a year they tried him in the rotation). Give him $4m for 1 or 2 yrs. Take the pressure off the young guys and let them develop. Get the 2nd yr slump out of the way, and build from there.

  2. BradInDC

    October 25, 2012 08:16 AM

    The young crop of relievers plus at least one more promising guy in the minors, (as long as he doesn’t break his hand at a pool party or something), they’re sitting in a good position to find a gem in the bunch. I’d be content to scour the trade-deadline market for a veteran reliever in the midst of a good season than wind up with another waste of a contract. Bet though that if Rube finds someone he “likes” he’ll go for the signing and call it a move for “stability” and “veteran leadership”.

  3. JM

    October 25, 2012 08:16 AM

    On the subject of relievers, what are the odds that sone of the Phils plethora of lefties could be moved for prospects or a decent corner guy? Isn’t there always a HIGH demand for a lefty arm in anyone’s pen? I mean we have like 5 decent left arms out there?

  4. AGH

    October 25, 2012 08:59 AM

    Bastardo’s 2012 was morbidly fascinating. His walks were slightly up from 2011, but his strikeouts were up even more.

    Was Bastardo simply the victim of BABIP? I remember he had a ton of IF pop-ups in 2011–was that an anomaly that normalized last year?

  5. Bill Baer

    October 25, 2012 09:18 AM

    I wouldn’t call Bastardo a victim of BABIP so much as he was a benefactor in 2011 and it simply regressed in 2012, .179 to .306. I think his true talent BABIP is in the .260-.280 range. He also gave up a lot more line drives and fewer fly balls, which would explain a good portion of the BABIP spike — assuming that the batted ball distinctions between LD and FB are reliable, which is arguable.

    His SIERA was 2.47 in 2012 and 2.93 in 2011, so there’s definitely some hope for the future.

  6. Richard

    October 25, 2012 10:32 AM

    Looking at Bastardo’s breakdown a little further:

    his LD% did spike, from 15.9% to 22.3%
    his IFFB% was stable, 18.9% to 17.9%
    but his infield hit rate jumped from 3.1% to 16.1 %

    And yet! Looking at the actual numbers and you realize what ridiculous small samples we’re talking about. That infield hit jump means he had 5 infield hits in 2012 vs only 1 in 2011. And 25 line drives vs. 20. And 4 fewer IFFB in 18 fewer FBs overall. At least according to the stringers. (Also just one more HR, but again, in those 18 fewer FBs. So the rate jumped from 8.1% to 12.5%.)

    Just one more index, I think, of the volatility of relievers. Not only do their actual performances vary from year-to-year, but their results can appear to vary even more wildly based on the fortune of just a tiny number of batted balls here or there.

  7. pedro3131

    October 25, 2012 11:57 AM

    How come nobody has been talking about Rodney this year? Kimbrel and Chapman have been posting some pretty historic numbers, but when’s the last time a closer went a full year of an under 1 ERA and Whip?

  8. Ryan

    October 25, 2012 12:41 PM

    I agree with you 100%, Bill. I would only take someone like Madson if I could get him on a very low–say three million or less, one year contract. Otherwise, I’m fine giving Tony NoDad an opportunity to bounce back and take a chance that one or more of our top prospects matures into a late inning capable guy–DeFratus, Lindblom, and Stutes followed by Aumont are the best bets to succeedin my mind. Because we have Papelbonger as closer, all that we need is for two or so of the young relievers to have good seasons which I don’t think is unrealistic.

  9. clint hulsey

    October 25, 2012 12:51 PM

    to be fair, tsuyoshi wada was signed out of Japan and was expected to be a starter. He had Tommy john and that is why he didn’t pitch in the Majors. The article implies he spent the year in AAA

  10. Bill Baer

    October 25, 2012 12:55 PM

    @ bharring and clint

    Yeah, he only pitched 2.2 innings there, so that implication is wrong. Thanks for the heads-up.

  11. bharring

    October 25, 2012 01:18 PM

    Can we see the SIERA stats for these guys, or does it not significantly differ from ERA? I’m trying to figure out how to create a similar table on FanGraphs, but I don’t see an API, only a sortable leaderboard.

  12. Bill Baer

    October 25, 2012 01:47 PM

    Use the ERA leaderboard link from the article. At the bottom, you’ll see a space for a “custom leaderboard”. Type in the last names of the players you want individually, then click the button below the field.

    EDIT: Here’s the link

  13. bharring

    October 25, 2012 02:35 PM

    Here ya go

    Interestingly Valverde is worse that Qualls!

  14. pencilfish

    October 25, 2012 08:19 PM

    With a 3.98 bullpen ERA and a 8th-inning ERA of 4.89, I don’t think a GM who wants to remain a GM should rule out anything, even signing up relievers to multi-year or multi-million contracts. The 2012 bullpen blew 19 saves (11 more than 2011) and lost 27 games, the fifth worst in MLB. The bullpen was a
    major factor the Phillies are not playing in the post-season. That’s the real downside of young unproven relievers on a team filled with aging and expensive veteran players. One or more experienced (and effective) relievers would have helped.

    I’m sure you would point out experienced (and costly) relievers is no guarantee of post-season play. True, but neither was
    the 2012 bullpen, so then why not take some gambles to increase the chances the 2013 bullpen will be *BETTER*?

  15. jauer

    October 25, 2012 09:19 PM

    Cue the “then you’re saying we need to grossly overspend on relievers in order to hide the glaring deficiency that is Charlie Manuel’s bullpen management” arguments!

  16. LTG

    October 25, 2012 10:47 PM

    jauer seems particularly jaded right now. We should have an intervention. We can show Utley clips and talk about how his devilish grin can carry us through the dark days.

  17. EricL

    October 25, 2012 11:25 PM

    pencil, I don’t you’re totally getting the point of the post.

    It’s that YOU CANNOT KNOW which expensive free agent reliever will have a good season because relievers are, by their very nature, unpredictable. When you say, “why not take some gambles to increase the chances the 2013 bullpen will be *BETTER*,” the answer is that if you do that, you’re NOT increasing your chances that the pen will be better. You have just as good a shot at constructing a good pen from the guys currently in the organization as you do signing most available free agent relievers.

    So, the logical extension is that if you cannot know which expensive veteran relievers on the free agent market are going to have a good year, then you should not waste those funds by trying to guess, and should instead construct a bullpen full of young, cheap players who are just as likely to succeed or fail.

    This strategy works especially well for a team like the Phillies who have a plethora of young bullpen arms from which to construct such a pen. If your organization lacks that kind of ML-calibre bullpen relief, then perhaps taking a shot at an expensive, more established guy might make a little more sense, but that’s not the case in Philadelphia. Really, the problem with the Phillies wasn’t that their bullpen wasn’t good enough, it was that it was used improperly and ill-staffed for the first half of the season.

  18. pencilfish

    October 26, 2012 10:26 AM

    Jauer,

    Yes, that’s I’m implying too. So what? The goal is to get in the playoffs, right? So what if we have to overcome Charlie’s BP management issues?

    Eric, I do get the point of the post. MY POINT is that we don’t know which reliever will succeed, whether expensive, cheap, young or experienced. If that’s the case,then you want to get as many arms as possible, in hopes that a few will be effective. Why rule out experienced (and expensive) relievers from the outset? I’m saying “leave no stone unturned as one seeks to build an effective bullpen and hope you are lucky.”

  19. hk

    October 26, 2012 11:16 AM

    pencilfish: “If that’s the case,then you want to get as many arms as possible, in hopes that a few will be effective. Why rule out experienced (and expensive) relievers from the outset?”

    I think the answer lies in the opportunity cost of this approach. First of all, assuming there is a limit on how much the team is willing to spend and also assuming that the team will spend close to their limit, since veteran relievers are going to cost more than young ones, the money spent on the veteran could be allocated to fill other holes. Secondly, since there’s a limit on how many pitchers a team can carry on the 25 man roster, finding out if the veteran is worth the investment costs you the chance to find out if the young, cheap pitcher could have produced the same results.

  20. pencilfish

    October 26, 2012 12:00 PM

    HK,

    If you want to prioritize OF, 3B, BP in that order, I have no issues with that. Let’s just
    not rule out BP help. 19 blown saves and 27 losses in 2012 are just too hard to ignore.
    I also think going with young and cheap arms is the right way to go, but having a backup
    plan would be nice.

  21. Phillie697

    October 26, 2012 12:25 PM

    @pencil,

    I’m of the opinion that spending bushels of money just so that we can feel like we did something and feel better about ourselves when in reality it doesn’t increase the likelihood of us ACTUALLY being better is, well, a waste.

    The odds of you winning the lottery by spending $10 on tickets vs. $1000 on tickets is not appreciably greater, and most people would consider the second option ridiculous. But even in that scenario, the person spending $1000 increased his odds of winning by 100 times!!! Yes, his chance of winning is STILL less than the chance that he’d get hit by a car tomorrow, but at least he can claim he increased his odds. In your example, you don’t even get to claim that. You LITERALLY want to spend money to make yourself feel better and nothing else. I whether spend that money to buy Chase Utley even more medical care, or maybe donate it to charity, than to spend it to make myself feel better.

  22. hk

    October 26, 2012 12:30 PM

    The Phils bullpen was 22-27 with a 3.94 ERA with 42 saves and 19 blown saves. The average NL bullpen was 23-24 with a 3.75 ERA with 42 saves and 19 blown saves. Take away Chad Qualls and the rest of the bullpen was above league average. In addition to adding a CF, I would prefer to see them go cheap and short-term at 3B, go with what they already have in the bullpen and add a starting pitcher in free agency if there’s one worth signing in the $36M / 3 year range.

  23. Phillie697

    October 26, 2012 12:41 PM

    To put it in another way, applying that logic to Phillies bullpen, this is what could happen.

    I think it’s probably not wrong to assume that the Phillies will only carry X number of relievers; you only have 25 roster spots, and so you’re not going to carry, say, 20 pitchers. So signing expensive veterans doesn’t “add” our chance of succeeding, since it’s not like we can throw 69 relievers out there. All that happens is you replace taking risks on a young pitcher with taking risks on an old and expensive one.

    One of two things could happen:

    1) The old and expensive pitcher works out. In which case, we will NEVER find out whether the young pitcher he replaced would have worked out or not. So we paid a significant amount of money to have a young pitcher sit around not helping the team. Does anyone remember how that worked out for us last time? (See Brown, Domonic)

    2) The old and expensive pitcher doesn’t work out. In which case, we a) had to endure his suckiness for X number of games, which could have cost us Y number of games in the standings, and b) have to now take a chance on some young pitcher, which is what we would have had to do had we NOT sign the old and expensive pitcher in the first place.

    Either way, we’re either inefficiently using our players or inefficiently using our money, without really increasing the likelihood of the bullpen doing better, even in the best scenario. Plus there is ALWAYS still the argument how much to spend is reasonable. Say I can clone Papelbon. Would you pay another $50M to have a REALLY good 8th inning guy like my Papelbon clone? Is that worth the money to you?

  24. Ryan

    October 26, 2012 12:45 PM

    @hk

    Agreed. Value, value, value, and more value please. There will be a good value for CF out there somewhere because of the buyer’s market, so it makes sense to allocate funds there. If Youkilis is available at the right term and amount, I’m OK with that. If David Wright or Chase Headley has a reasonable price in a trade(not likely), I’m OK with that. If there’s a starting pitcher, experienced reliever, or corner outfielder that’s a good deal and will be a significant improvement, I’m OK with that. If we only get a CF and save some money to use in a trade, I’d rather do that than spend the money just to spend it without getting the right amount of bang for the buck. Paying more than what you want to pay for longer than you want to pay it is stupid unless it’s getting a Cliff Lee type talent or better at a premium position of need. I don’t think that this type of home run free agent exists this off season, so value is the way to go.

  25. Pencilfish

    October 29, 2012 10:07 AM

    HK,

    You forgot to consider another aspect, and that is the young and inexpensive pitcher struggles. Just look at Bastardo. He did great in 2011, and then struggled in 2012. What’s plan B if one or more of the young pitchers struggle? Keep shuttling them back and forth from the minor leagues, like we did this year?

    Also, having an average or slightly above average bullpen is not good enough. If you have the kind of starting pitching and the financial commitment the Phillies have in 2013, why do you want to go cheap in the bullpen? I think all options should be on the table. You used the extreme example of cloning Papelbon. I am not suggesting that. I’m saying we shouldn’t rule out signing any experienced RP if the deal makes sense, both in terms of $$$ and need, but you are suggesting we should rule out any kind of relief pitching that costs any significant $$$. That’s short-sighted in my view. What happens if the Phillies can’t trade for or sign power OF’s and/or 3B?

  26. hk

    October 29, 2012 10:59 AM

    Pencil,

    If you were GM, which experienced reliever would you sign? How much would you pay? Now, the big question…what makes you so sure he’s going to perform better than an inexperienced one, especially when the inexperienced ones are generally at the ages at which players improve while the veteran might not (depending on his age).

  27. Pencilfish

    October 29, 2012 01:02 PM

    Can’t answer your first 2 questions until I know who’s available. Teams and potential FA’s can negotiate exclusively until the 7th day after the WS, so I will have a better idea of who’s available next week.

    I absolutely have no idea if the veteran RP will perform better than the inexperienced player. You cannot guarantee if the reverse will be true either, but I can increase my chances of winning the lottery if I buy more tickets, or in this case, more arms. That was the assumption I stated all along.

  28. hk

    October 29, 2012 02:02 PM

    Pencilfish,

    I hear what you are saying, but I just believe that the opportunity cost of buying more arms (or buying more lottery tickets for that matter) is too great to make it worthwhile. If we are talking about $5M, I think that such an amount would be better served improving another position of need or being held to use as part of a trade to buy a salary during the season. We can agree to disagree.

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