A Brief Thought on Nick Punto and Relief Pitchers

A couple of days ago, the Oakland A’s signed Nick Punto to a one year contract that will pay him $2.75 million in 2014 and then either pay him $250,000 to go away or an additional $2.75 million in 2015, so the deal is either $3 million for one year or $5.5 million for two. The A’s are not looking at Punto as a regular player, as they already have Jed Lowrie, Eric Sogard, and Alberto Callaspo as middle infield options, but Punto gives them additional depth and reinforces their bench. He’s a good reserve, capable of playing high level defense and getting on base enough to not be a complete zero as a hitter, but the A’s ideal plan for him likely involves him getting roughly 250 plate appearances next year. If he gets more than that, something probably went wrong.

So, $3 million for a quality bench guy seems reasonable. It’s about what you’d expect given how reserve position players have generally been priced in the free agent market. Last year, similar deals were given to Ty Wigginton, Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, Jack Hannahan, Placido Polanco, and Geovany Soto. This is, essentially, the market rate for an aging bench guy. Even if teams value their contributions, they don’t play enough to really command much more than a few million dollars on a one year deal.

A Major League can expect to send a hitter to the plate about 6,200 times in a season. A bench player who hits 250 times will comprise about 4% of the team’s total number of plate appearances. $3 million for that kind of marginal role seems perfectly fair.

However, we know that the market for relief pitchers is entirely different than the market for bench players. Last year, Rafael Soriano landed a contract for $28 million over two years, even though the Nationals had to forfeit a first round pick for the right to give him that contract. Jonathan Broxton got $21 million over three years, and Jeremy Affeldt got $18 million for the same three year term. A quality relief pitcher is now valued by the market as somewhere in the range of $5 to $10 million per year, and if they have earned the closer tag, the price can run up to $15 million per season with a multi-year commitment.

Relief pitchers, in general, throw about 60 innings per season. A few workhorses will get up around 70-80, but most of the bullpen guys settle in around 60 innings per year if they stay healthy and pitch the whole season. A Major League team throws about 1,450 innings per year, so again, simple division tells us that a relief pitcher will throw about 4% of a team’s innings in a given year.

Relief pitchers and bench players, on average, carry roughly the same relative workload in terms of a team’s total number of plate appearances and innings pitched. Bench players rarely get more than $3-$4 million per season, because it is widely accepted that they just don’t play enough to make a huge impact on a team’s final record. Relief pitchers get paid two, three, or even four times that amount.

There are a few possible justifications for these different valuations.

1. The runs that good relief pitchers save are more important than the runs created (or saved) by good bench players.

This is almost certainly true, and can be demonstrated through Leverage Index. The average Leverage Index for all relief pitchers in 2013 was 1.18, and for good setup men, it was more regularly in the 1.5 to 1.6 range. Elite closers can have an LI of 1.8 or 1.9 if they pitch in a lot of one run games. This means that the runs they prevent have nearly twice the impact on the outcome of a game as an average run. If you replaced an elite closer with a relief pitcher who gave up 10 additional runs while pitching in the exact same situations, it would likely result in two additional losses, not one.

2. That the spread in talent among relievers is larger than the spread in talent among bench players.

This seems likely to be true as well, as there are really good pitchers who are willing to spend their careers pitching out of the bullpen — either for health reasons or because it just fits their personality and skills the best — but there is not the same supply of really good position players who are content to spend their days as a bench player. Good bench players become acceptable regulars, or are at least given that chance; good relief pitchers do not make that same conversion as often. With the best bench players moving out of bench roles, the population of reserve position players are probably less diverse in talent than the population of relief pitchers.

3. Teams are either undervaluing the contributions of bench players or overvaluing the contributions of relief pitchers.

This would be the market inefficiency argument, and would suggest that teams are allocating too many of their “bench” dollars to pitchers rather than position players. Given the different market prices we’re seeing for guys like Broxton or Affeldt compared to Punto or Chavez, I think you can make a pretty good case that the market pays too much for relief pitchers compared to relief hitters.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that I think they should be paid equally. Relievers can be leveraged to maximize the efficiency of their run prevention, and having good relief pitchers to help preserve one run leads is a way that a team can win more games than you’d expect just based on their runs scored and runs allowed. But even with leverage included, it’s basically impossible to argue that a relievers runs saved are more than twice as valuable as a position player’s runs created (or saved). And those relief pitchers get paid a lot more than twice as much as bench players, despite contributing a similar amount of overall playing time.

I know the world probably didn’t need another article saying that teams are paying too much for free agent relievers. That’s a pretty well established belief around here by now. However, I do think it’s interesting that the market continues to place minimal value on quality reserve position players, even as teams make plans to build golden urinals with their new television money.

Maybe if we stopped calling them “closers” and “setup men”, and referred to them as “backup pitchers”, we’d be reminded that relievers are basically just the pitching equivalent of a backup shortstop. Or maybe we should go the other way and invent fun nicknames for bench guys. Instead of a derisive term like “utility infielder” for Nick Punto, I suggest the A’s start referring to him as their “defensive savior”. Or maybe “infield rescue expert”. Maybe, at the end of the day, bench guys just need better marketing gimmicks and their own intro music.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

67 Responses to “A Brief Thought on Nick Punto and Relief Pitchers”

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  1. Eric F says:

    I’m in favor of infield/outfield rescue expert. Same could be said for players like Billy Hamilton last year who do nothing but pinch run in tight games.

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  2. Zach says:

    Dave, you are so *biased* in favor of Nick Punto ;-) But seriously, you really do like him a lot.

    Why don’t teams just start Nick Punto? He’s a 2.5 WAR/600 player. Even if you knock off a bit of that value, because he’d have to hit more, he’s still league average. Am I missing something?

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    • The Foils says:

      Probably his declining productivity with increased playing time.

      Though, if I were constructing a team from scratch, I’d probably start with 9 Puntos. Well, no — 8 Puntos and a Skip Schumaker.

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    • Brandon Firstname says:

      I suppose teams just don’t like below-averagish offense and above-averagish defense guys who have been labeled as utility infielders. There’s nothing sexy about Punto, other than his (probably warranted) status as sabremetric darling.

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    • Johnston says:

      Punto gives the A’s a lot of options and flexibility. My take is thumbs up on signing him.

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  3. jesse says:

    1500 words on nick pinto…. I feel like this just came up yesterday

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  4. Brandon Firstname says:

    We got our article on Nick Punto! I am a happy man.

    I think I might do a data dive on this, and essentially calculate average $/WAR*LI for free agent backup fielders as opposed to relievers (specifically closers/high profile setup men).

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  5. ettin says:

    Dave it may be easier to help the bench guys out by introducing a stat, let’s call it “salvagers” (SLVG), that counts offensive or defensive WPA adjustments of some yet unidentified value that swing the game in favor of their team resulting in 1 SLVG point that is recorded in the annals of baseball statistical history.

    That way they can enter arbitration, free agency, etc. with their SLVG count to use in their contract negotiations!

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  6. payroll says:

    Nobody calls for the GM to be fired when the 14th position player bats .180. They do call for the GMs head after a fluky string of blown leads.

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  7. cass says:

    This was much more interesting that last night’s article, and I had no problems with that one.

    I will note that bench guys do get their own music. All players in baseball get music when they enter a game. Pitchers just get their music played much r because it gets played while they warm up. But, as a semi-regular attendee of Nats games, I can tell you that Chad Tracy’s walkup music was played often enough that it often got stuck in my head. (Unfortunately.)

    Team’s benches seem to make up their own names, but they seem to be team specific. “The Goon Squad” was the term the Nats bench used for themselves, though it was more endearing in 2012 when they were great than in 2013 when they were atrocious. I do think a general nickname for a slugging pinch hitter or a defensive replacement would be good.

    Another Nationals example would be that our 4th outfielder/defensive replacement, Roger Bernadina, was a fan favorite, had his own nickname (The Shark), and even had an accompanying gesture that the fans (and teammates, sometimes) did when he came up to bat or made a good defensive play. Of course, he was unceremoniously cut in the middle of 2013 despite all the fan love and being the franchise’s longest tenured player. Why? Cause he was basically replacement level. And that basically goes back to Dave’s reason no. 2 above. Good bench players don’t stay on the bench.

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  8. JG says:

    Perhaps part of the disparity is that you’re comparing PAs to IP. A more accurate comparison would likely be PAs to PAs against or Outs recorded. Clearly the % relative to the team total doesn’t change, but it seems a more accurate gauge.

    I think it’s fairly accepted that a pitcher has more direct impact on the game (in which he pitches) than a position player and the only thing which keeps the power dynamic fairly balanced when talking about starting pitchers and everyday position players is that an SP only pitches once every five days. This balancing dynamic doesn’t exist when comparing relief pitchers to part time position players.

    Using the PA against (ie ~3x IP) and accounting for the high LI many relievers have, it seems to make sense that they draw 3x the salary (or more in some cases).

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  9. Justin says:

    I jokingly wondered on Eno’s chat yesterday how long Dave spent at his computer trying to decide if he had to write about Punto signing with the A’s. And now here we are.

    This is the deadest time of the year for a baseball fan.

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  10. will says:

    Deciding payroll based on percentage of playing time is nonsense. Kendrys Morales had the same amount of at bats as Miguel Cabrera, and nobody would propose paying them the same salary. Star relief pitchers have ERAs under 2. Put their production over 200 innings and many would be Cy Young winners. Nick Punto hits .240.

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    • cass says:

      Dave covered this under item 2.

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      • YX says:

        Somewhat, but Dave’s point was that the difference in relievers are bigger, so you have to pay for the good ones. However, an extension to the point is that top relievers has better rated performance than starters while bench players do not, and that impacts their values.

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    • BaseballSplits (Twitter) says:

      …we’re on FanGraphs in the year 2013 and still consider batting average a useful metric for measuring hitting performance, huh?

      By the way, you forgot to bring up Punto’s most recent RBI total…

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    • Bip says:

      And if they could put up 200 innings with the same effectiveness, then they would deserve to get paid like Cy Young winners. However, as long as they are not able to do that, why should they get paid for the value they’re not providing?

      Obviously you factor in both playing time and effectiveness. Half season of Miguel Cabrera is less valuable than a full season of Miguel Cabrera.

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  11. YX says:

    I think some part of is that good relievers tends to have better production than starters on a per inning basis (we know that pitchers perform significantly better on short stints, which is what drive reliever usage up), however it is generally not true for hitters.

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  12. tz says:

    A spare tire is valuable because it lets you safely drive your car to the shop to get a replacement.

    A guy like Punto lets the A’s plug in any holes in their infield should someone have a short-term injury, without having to give up any valuable assets. He’ll be a downgrade in the lineup, but you at least get credible, non-Plouffian defense at a key position.

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  13. BurleighGrimes says:

    I suspect a reason for the market inefficiency is not just the gimmicky stats or intro music or whatever, but the centrality of the pitcher in our baseball viewing. They are the man we stare at, and it *feels* like the game is in their hands; neither of this is true for the backup MI. The leverage index captures that, but so does the reality that relief pitchers feel like they become as important as starters the second they come into the game. Anyway, they’re way overvalued, I agree.

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    • Bip says:

      That could also explain why we overvalue power hitters with lots of RBIs. The power hitter can change the game with one swing, and that is what we remember, even if the high-OBP guy actually has created more runs by getting on base. However, the run doesn’t count until it’s driven in, so we remember the event of driving it in, even though getting on base to be driven in is just as important.

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  14. Nick Punto says:

    Get money, Get paid!!!

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  15. Cardinology says:

    I wonder if the likelihood that the “backup” position player’s playing time is less certain than the reliever’s innings at least partially effects teams’ choices. In other words, if you sign Joe Nathan this offseason and he stays healthy, you know he’s pitching 60-75 mostly high leverage innings. However, Punto could get far fewer than 250 abs if Lowrie and Donaldson stay healthy and a second baseman emerges and eats all of the playing time there.

    Of course, those guys could also get hurt and Punto could get way more than 250 abs, so you probably should pay as if he will get around 250, but I wonder if teams overestimate the likelihood that their “plan A” works out just as they hoped and they barely need a guy like Punto.

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  16. Evan says:

    It might be worthwhile to look at the average service time for the players filling these various roles. If a team believes it can get 1.0 WAR from a pre-arb player and 1.5 WAR from a veteran utility guy then it might be only willing to pay League minimum + 1/2 of the dollar amount it assigns to each WAR (or whatever system it uses to evaluate player value), because that’s how it values the marginal contributions of the player

    If the trusted reliever pool is generally more experienced than the back-up position player pool then it will be able to command higher compensation because of the nature of CBA.

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    • rusty says:

      It looks to me like this is exactly what the Rockies are doing — filling bench spots for hitters with prospects and former-prospects, rather than league-average veteran FAs, but signing relief pitchers mostly at market rates (for non-closers).

      And as we can see from the past couple seasons, they’ve had one of baseball’s worst benches, with many negative-WAR contributors. Although I’m sure the team is justifying it internally from the perspective of player development, it’s resulting in a significant shortfall compared to league-average guys like Punto.

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  17. What happens when you look at the outcomes as a spread of possibilities, rather than as an average?

    It seems to me that the average bench player has the opportunity to have a greater or lesser impact on the team’s win total than a relief pitcher.

    Say the A’s lose some dice rolls and have some bad health. Nick Punto gets 500 ABs, ~8% of the team’s at bats. The value of him over the replacement player is much larger than expected. Of course, if the A’s are lucky and have no injuries, he could only get 2%. Relief pitchers, on the other hand, don’t have the ability to stretch out. If a starter goes down, rarely does someone signed as a relief pitcher step in to fill those innings in. Of course, the variance there is on leverage… a middle reliever signed expected to pitch in 1.3 LI situations might end up in 1.8 LI situations, due to injury. It would be interesting to look on the variance on these: if anything, my guess is that position bench players end up taking a more important than expected role more often than relief pitchers.

    There are also interaction effects between players: a good bench bat can increase the average value of at-bats by their starting counterparts, as long as there is some variation between how they hit certain types of pitchers. Lefty/Righty is the big platoon, but there exist possibilities of matchups based on finesse/power or grounder/fly balls, the last perhaps depending on a matchup based on defense than the pitcher (e.g., putting in a BG bench hitter when playing the Tigers). All probably marginal impacts, but impacts I think are more important for bench hitters than relief pitchers (which, of course, have matchup interaction effects, too).

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  18. Ben says:

    Maybe if we stopped calling them “closers” and “setup men”, and referred to them as “backup pitchers”, we’d be reminded that relievers are basically just the pitching equivalent of a backup shortstop.

    That is utter nonsense. Your average starting shortstop plays the whole game, and almost every game. Starting pitchers pitch two-thirds of the game, and that’s if they’re good. That, combined with the fact that the innings they pitch are more leveraged, makes relief pitchers more valuable.

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    • Bip says:

      Dave acknowledged that closers and set up guys have a role that is more than just “backup pitcher”, but for the majority of relievers, that statement is pretty much accurate.

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  19. A's Enthusiast says:

    The Punto signing came from this chain of causes. The A’s didn’t have many middle infield options within their organization to start last year. They traded Tyson Ross (who blossomed) and a double-A middle infielder for Andy Parrino (a minor league defensive specialist). They signed longtime Hanshin Tigers shortstop Hiroyuki Nakujima from Japan, but he failed to make the roster. Their bench options to start the season were Eric Sogard (an offense first four-A player) and Adam Rosales (another offense first but versatile four-A player). Rosales turned in a below replacement level performance and was DFA’d in favor of giving prospect (but probably four-A player) Grant Green a shot, who was abysmal both defensively and offensively, and was soon traded for…bench depth in the form of Alberto Callaspo. Don’t get the A’s wrong, they would love to have a guy in their organization like Punto such that they didn’t have to purchase him on the open market, where he is worth $6M over two seasons, but they had to admit that the backups to a guy that can’t really play short in Jed Lowrie in their organization is a 19-year-old who has played three games in his professional career above single-A. They had a high need for something a lot of organizations have in spades, and they paid through the nose for what a lot of organizations don’t have to pay more than the major league minimum for. This wasn’t a case of finding hidden value in a player; it was a case of having because of circumstances to overpay for a limited utility…infielder.

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    • nolan says:

      I do believe that is the first time I’ve seen Eric Sogard and “offense-first” in the same sentence.

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    • BaseballSplits (Twitter) says:

      Ummm….

      A) Lowrie was one of the best offensive SS in baseball in ’13 and more than makes up for his defense with his bat.

      B) League-average hitters at middle infield positions are quite scarce (particularly at SS).

      C) Callaspo is one of the better contact hitters in the game and would start for many teams full-time, or at the very least in a platoon role.

      D) The A’s already had at LEAST average middle infield depth before signing Punto. And that’s not even factoring Addison Russell in.

      E) As the article stated, if the signing doesn’t work out in ’14 or if he’s no longer necessary, Punto only costs $3 million.

      What else do I need to counter out of this paragraph? lol

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  20. KB says:

    It seems quite possible that the cost differential is due to supply. There appear to be more quality bench players than quality relievers. This alone could account for the higher salaries of relievers.

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  21. Rule of Law says:

    Fuck yeah Nick Punto.

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  22. Gabe says:

    What about buying for certain skillsets is easier for position players (especially bench players) than pitchers in general? The only one I can think of for pitching is a lefty specialist. But for a successful bench player there are a slew of individual skills you can buy for:

    Defense, either in skill at a singular position or the ability to play multiple different positions decently (a la punto)

    Pinch-hitting success

    Power

    Speed

    Splits vs. LHP/RHP

    Contact rate

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  23. nada says:

    Isn’t this pattern just a reflection of the fact that pitchers are generally overpaid (relative to position players) according to fWAR?

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    • Brandon says:

      Mostly, but we need to factor in the leverage that relief pitchers are going to be receiving. Just straight-up comparing WAR isn’t good enough, something like WAR*LI is needed (I’d prefer WAA*LI for this, just because the “units” of LI are in “average” and not “replacement”, but whatever). When evaluating talent LI should of course be ignored, but when looking at value added to a team the LI of that player’s use should be considered.

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  24. me says:

    this analysis completely ignores lower end relief pitchers. half a teams relief pitchers make close to league average. a team carries 7 relief pitchers. if you’re thinking an average of 3 million per spot that’s 21 million. of course you are going to give a greater share of that to your elite guys.

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  25. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Since there are at least 4 PA’s in an inning and often more, isn’t 4% of PA’s closer to about 1% of IP in terms of offensive equivalency?

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    • BaseballSplits (Twitter) says:

      Why would there be least 4 PAs in an inning? Wouldn’t it be 3?

      Also, no. Cameron took the percentage of a team’s total PAs and the percentage of a team’s total IP, which makes it apples-to-apples. You’re attempting to compare an apple to an orange.

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  26. gabriel says:

    One thing that should be mentioned is that backup position players aren’t interchangeable, and this ought generally to mean that the markets for the backup hitters are thinner and hence, more expensive. Every team needs a backup catcher. With few exceptions, they need a backup infielder who can play shortstop. Most need a backup outfielder who can play centre. Plus, every team has particular weaknesses, or somewhat fragile regulars. Finding a left-handed bat off the bench who can also back up 3rd and first isn’t an easy task, but (expecially with the smaller benches) teams need to try to fill multiple roles with a single player.

    Whereas, relief pitchers are nearly indistinguishable. You have two or three lefties and four or five righties, and when you lose a guy (or don’t sign a free agent) nearly all it means is that the guys below the injured player on the totem pole get shifted up in leverage, and someone from AAA is called up to get the mop-up innings.

    You would expect a market for hard-to-find pieces would be more expensive than the one for interchangeable pieces, but it isn’t.

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  27. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Isn’t comparing IP to PA a bit of an odd thing to do, even when accounting for %? Any reliever is going to give up a hit or a run, ergo those 4% of IP would not be comprised of 3 batters faced per IP, while the position player is measured by his plate appearances, which already includes the data of how many times he strolled up in the lineup on any given day.

    It seems to me like it would be most logical to compare batters faced to plate appearances and see what % you get then. No idea how that changes anything.

    I’d guess a few reasons for this are:

    1. High priced relivers will put up more WAR, before leverage index, compared to your average bench player. Using 1.5 WAR as a nice round number and a maximum of 266 PA (I would have used 250 AB, but Dioner Navarro had 1.7 WAR and 266 AB, so it felt fitting to include him), only 4 players with 266 or less AB reached that WAR total. Dioner Navarro (Benc player), Ryan Braun (Obviously not a bench player), Jarrod Dyson (Started most of his games, but was in a platoon, would probably be a bench player on higher end teams but a platoon starter on Royals-esque ones) and Scooter Gennett (Who was a young guy called up to see if he can start, so IDK if he’d be “bench).

    By comparison, there were 17 relievers who reached that mark and reached the 60 IP threshold the article states. The average among relievers vs. bench players, when examining 1+ WAR, is also better (17 with 266 or less PAs vs. 37 with 60+ IP, or over double). In other words, the most valuable relievers (Which people who are spending top dollar are obviously projecting them out to be). Broxton is actually pretty reasonable for a reliever if they feel he would keep up his 1.2 WAR (7 mil per year, or a little over 1 win) and would have been more valuable than most bench players if he did so. If anything, it’s either the frugality of relievers or, more likely in my opinion, poor scouting of relievers.

    But the short reason would be that paying for the upper end of relievers is usually more likely and valuable than the upper end of bench players, who tend to not earn much compared to their reliever counterparts (Possibly for many reasons, including IP are worth a bit more than PA). Note that this does not include leverage: If you do something like WAR*LI to see their value, things slant way further for relievers.

    2. You need more relievers than bench players.

    To my knowledge, most teams have 3-4 bench position players and around 7 relievers, give or take league and such and so. Because of this, there are more people trying to get top relievers and ergo the price is more likely to rise, driving the price up some. In addition, there will simply be more relievers signed, driving up the price some. You could also argue that it is more valuable to have a good “up and down” bullpen compared to a bench, given the WAR differences and leverage such and so.

    3. Bench players are more specific.

    For now, relievers have maybe 4 categories: Closer, Setup, General Reliever Guy and Leftie Specialist. Maybe long working guy would count, but they tend to fall into General Reliever Guy. In addition, every team that is trying to win will want to have someone good there.

    By comparison, bench slots are more strictly defined, since maybe you need a backup infielder, or a backup outfielder, or want specifically someone who backs up 1st/3rd (Since a guy with SS/2B hitting skills tends not to “profile” well there), maybe you only want a center fielder backup because the other corner starters can’t play CF, maybe you specifically want a platoon partner or offense first partner, and so on.

    Because of this, the market for any one bench player is less than any one reliever, as even the best bench infielder ever isn’t going to mean much to a team that already feels they’re fine at bench infield. By comparison, as long as you have a reliever spot open or a bad reliever, a reliever will always be a good idea because their positions are more easily changed. For example, Nick Punto would only get offers from teams with a specific middle infield need, while a higher end reliever would likely be approached by everyone except rebuilders.

    4. Better bench players tend to become starters, better relievers do not.

    And finally, I feel this is important. When your average bench player has a big season, they usually end up getting a shot at a starting gig, be it at the same place or elsewhere. Hell, even Nick Punto has been a started (And I don’t think it’s a bad idea). This is because, barring certain circumstances (like injury), pretty much any bench player will have the ability to transition into a starting job attempt.

    By comparison, elite relievers will usually stay relievers because one thing or another means they don’t have the skills to be a starter (Most commonly, stamina). Because of this, an elite reliever will stay at their position, and thus always be signed as one, while someone who was an elite bench player is likely to get signed by a team to a starting job to test them out (Or, if they’re a building team/the player is a vet, to try and trot out a vet who doesn’t suck out with their rebuilding cast and plug holes). While this is obviously not true of all bench players, most notably platoon players, I imagine it would account for some discrpenacy.

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  28. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Also, can I just say I continue to love Nick Punto articles? I dunno why I like him so much.

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  29. Kruegere says:

    TLDR: Its harder to hit than it is to pitch.

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  30. Benjamin says:

    Wouldn’t pinch hitters tend to face a higher LI as well? I mean, backups also get spot starts and may play in blowouts, which could offset this, but even a “late-inning defensive replacement” implies the guy is going to play with the game on the line, similar to a reliever.

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  31. IDontThinkSo... says:

    Honestly, this article has left me more then a tad surprised and confused.

    Relievers making the money we are talking about will play in most of the high-leverage games a team sees, seeing all his batters faced exclusively during what is then the most important time of a then winnable game. These relievers are generally in the Top 3-5 range for best pure-talent pitchers on your team, they just cant do it for long stretches like starters can. When they come in you know they are very unlikely to allow a run, again, in the most important portion of the game; and you use them accordingly. Their main purpose is to flat out stop the other team dead in their tracks – and that is exactly what they do many more times then not.

    On the other hand, Bench Players are generally around mainly to give your better players days off, playing in games mostly because you need to use them, not because you want to. They get their playing time during the entire game, regardless of the leverage, and are even likely to be pulled for a better hitter (if one is available) when the game is truly on the line. Or if your team plays in the NL, they could be anywhere from 1st to 4th in line to pinch-hit for a pitcher, where not watching the pitcher hit is the main objective.

    It seems to me that a better comparison for a Bench Player would be a more classical Swingman or modern-day spot-start capable Long-Reliever – a guy you generally don’t want to start or see eat many innings, but are often forced to. He is around not because of his pure ability (as the relievers in question are) but because the season is extremely long and there is a lot of playing-time to fill.

    So yeah, sorry, but I just think this article started on the wrong track and its conclusion is completely off because of it

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    • BaseballSplits (Twitter) says:

      He acknowledged that better relief pitchers are used in more important situations (point #1) and therefore they should be paid more. I think his point was that they shouldn’t be paid so disproportionately more, considering the limited number of innings most of them throw. Also, I think most people underestimate how inconsistent RPs generally are. For every Koji Uehara, there are about five Heath Bells. Plus pitchers are injured more often.

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      • IDontThinkSo... says:

        Yeah, I realize what he did touch on (and downplayed a bit too much, I feel personally) but no where is the drastic talent difference touched.

        These top-relievers, despite often times having a shorter life-span (as you point out), are also usually some of the better pure-pitchers you can find. Bench hitters? Well, not so much…

        That is why I said a better comparison would really be a Swingman/Long-Relief guy – in a comparison there, you have a more direct comparison of talent relative to actual starters and similar need for/likelihood of use; two things which are apples to oranges in the Set-up Man/Closer to Utility Infielder comparison outlined in the article and steer the entire thing way off track from its start.

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  32. Mac says:

    Ruki hit it on the head in point 4 of the wall of text above:

    The best relievers are elite players. They have a specialized skillset that is very effective over short stints (1-2 innings) but that doesn’t translate into longer workloads.

    There are very few examples of “elite” bench players. The occasional NL pinch-hit specialist, the A’s attempt at pinch-runner specialists in the 70′s. It’s just not done. Most every sufficiently talented bench player will push his way into a starting role.

    This is the context we must place Dave’s observation above into. A bench player can impact 4% of a team’s offensive (and defensive) output, a reliever can impact 4% of the pitching.

    Left unasked in the original article: how much variation is there in this 4% impact? Just how good can an MLB bench be? And how much can money improve it? Clearly, a team can make rather drastic increases in RP production*

    *Another important point about pitcher signings. A pen is 7-8 guys. When you bring in a new elite closer, he’s bumping the 8th guy out of the pen, so you’re replacing the worst production of your pen with much better quality.

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  33. Mac says:

    Part of the genius of the A’s was the realization that all those 4% bench players on your team – the four or five of them – add up to a rather significant part of overall offensive production. Better bech players = better team. It’s an underutilized part of an MLB roster. The A’s took advantage of this by using platooning and position diversity to construct a highly mutable 12-13 rotating position plate team. It’s not 9 starters and backups, it’s 13 part-time starters who are put in advantageous place to succeed.

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  34. Jason says:

    We’re losing the thread with subjective definitions of “elite” status. Dave was right on. Nick Punto and a good closer will have a similar # of PA’s. We KNOW, through LI, that the reliever’s PA’s will be 1.8-1.9X more influential than Punto’s.

    Thus, if Punto is making $2.5-$3 million, good closers ought to make $5-6 million. They make a lot more, so either Punto is undervalued or closers are overvalued.

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