Brian Wilson’s Fantastic Offseason

On January 30 of this year Brian Wilson and the Giants came to an agreement on a one year deal for $4.4 million to avoid Wilson’s first year of arbitration. Based on our standard expectation of arbitration value, that would value Wilson at around $11 million for 2010. Now, Wilson was legitimately fantastic last season with a 2.50 FIP and a 3.23 xFIP. He had over three strikeouts for every walk and was a even moderate ground ball pitcher.

The issue is that even with all that, Wilson totaled 2.4 wins worth just under $11 million under last year’s economic conditions. In other words, the Giants paid out roughly as if 2009 was magically going to repeat entirely.

Obviously that’s a bit wishful as this past winter has seen a reduction in the valuation of players on the whole and on top of that, Wilson does not have a long history of dominance. Some regression to the mean from his 2009 level is to be expected and you readers agree, projecting Wilson for 1.8 wins in 2010.

In today’s dollars, that projects to be worth a tad over $8 million. That means that while the Giants are almost surely going to see a net savings when it comes to Brian Wilson, they’re unlikely to see a net savings compared to other 4th year players. Overall, that’s not such a big deal, but then the Giants went and extended Wilson for another two years covering 2011 and 2012 at a total of $15 million. Given the expected arbitration figures, that actually constitutes a slight pay cut for Wilson, valuing him at about $10.7 million for those two years.

Given that the 2010 salary had already taken place, I don’t have a huge beef with the monetary figures of the two-year extension. I think the initial deal was a mediocre one for the Giants, but they did much better here in terms of money alone. My issue with this deal is the why. I have a hard time seeing the scenarios under which the Giants saved themselves money here.

If Brian Wilson did repeat his 2009 performance, how much of a raise was he really going to get in arbitration? Compared to the downside that is always present with relief pitchers and that’s where I find fault with this extension. Wilson had a great season and he keeps that up for the next three years then the Giants might come out slightly ahead here. But they’re locked in no matter what, Brian Wilson‘s performance isn’t.




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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

25 Responses to “Brian Wilson’s Fantastic Offseason”

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  1. SF 55 for life says:

    I see the Giants trading Wilson some time in the next year. Maybe they thought teams would like him better if he had his arb years bought out already, or something.

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  2. vivaelpujols says:

    Oh noes! Another team overpaying for a closer.

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  3. Eric Cioe says:

    If every team “overpays” for closers, perhaps it’s time to reconsider how we value them.

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    • max says:

      There is nothing wrong with the closers, it is how they are being used that is wrong. If the closer is the best reliever on the team, as many are, then they should be used in a fireman role, instead of a closer role. So yes, they are being overpaid, but only because they are not being utilized correctly.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        ……Which brings us to Brian Wilson, who, despite being the Giants full time closer last year entered 11 games prior to the 9′th inning. I know that’s not exactly the “fireman” you have in mind here, but Wilson was used as more than just a closer, and he enthusiastically embraced the extra work and extra pressure.

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  4. DrBGiantsfan says:

    I know that conventional wisdom in the sabermetric community is that closers are almost fungible, certainly easily replaced. I’m not so sure it’s all that easy. We can ask Twins fans how easy it was to replace Joe Nathan at the end of this season. As a Giants fan, the memory of just how long it took to get from Robb Nen to Brian Wilson and how painful that journey was. Yes, Wilson blows a game here and there, but after years of going to the 9′th inning expecting to lose a lead, it sure is nice to feel like a 1 run lead going to the 9′th is probably safe.

    It’s not completely clear to me why we should expect a pitcher entering their 3′rd full MLB season at age 28 to regress. Shouldn’t Wilson still be on the upswing of his career trajectory?

    As mentioned earlier in the thread, Wilson was used as more than a closer last year entering games prior to the 9′th inning 11 times, most of those because the setup man was in trouble.

    Put all of the above together with an arm that has been known to produce 100 MPH fastballs, yes it’s not unheard of, but not that common either, and Wilson has a chance to be something special.

    All in all, I’m fine with the Giants slightly overpaying in $$$ and years. I think there’s a better than even chance that looking back it will be an underpayment.

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    • marcello says:

      The upside is they saved a couple million. The downside is they are now on the hook for $15mm in 2011 and 2012 no matter what happens. It’s a dumb deal for them to do, as the risk/reward is all kinds of #@$#$.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        One intangible factor is that the Giants historically have been more averse to going all the way to arbitration than most teams, and I don’t think there is any team that relishes the prospect. That may have factored into the decision. Don’t forget this is the same organization that essentially wrote off AJ Pierzynski the minute he told them he intended to go to arbitration.

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    • slamcactus says:

      “Shouldn’t Wilson still be on the upswing of his career trajectory?”

      If he was a shortstop, sure. The pitching aging curve is completely different from the hitters’ curve. It’s a big, big mistake to bank on pitchers experiencing their peaks around 27-30. Many of them peak much, much earlier than that, and very few of them peak late.

      Wilson just had his career year. Expecting more would be foolish. Expecting him to maintain is certainly possible, but maintaining that level of production for 3 years is a tall order for many pitchers. The upside for this contract is that Wilson maintains his 2009 level of performance, making him about worth what he’ll make.

      When the upside of a contract is fair market value, the downside is that the player will be expensive and worthless (remember, we’re talking about a pitcher here), and there are numerous possibilities in between, that’s not a very good range of outcomes.

      It’s not the worst closer contract we’ve seen this offseason (that’d be Brandon Lyon, who already looks to have lost the job due to injury), but it’s not a good one, either. This will likely end up a slight overpay (and possibly worse) for a team that really can’t afford to handcuff its finances much more.

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  5. Matt says:

    Isn’t evaluating based on market rate per the wrong way to go since the arbitration process will over pay for the “save statistic”. So perhaps the Giants got a deal when compared to what a pitcher with all those fancy saves will receive in arbitration.

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  6. Matt says:

    …market rate per win I mean

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  7. Graham says:

    I don’t think a general axiom about the value of closers is all that useful — each team’s bullpen situation is different enough that a given closer could have wildly divergent value based on the bullpen and organization around him. In the case of the Giants, those painful memories of Armando Benitez, Matt Herges, and others are probably driving a little bit of this desire to lock up Brian Wilson — but, as a Giants fan, I understand and support the impulse. Furthermore, even if Wilson didn’t appear to take a step forward last year, he’s not very expendable given that the team has no real Plan B. Jeremy Affeldt would probably be the first line of defense, but he has no experience in the role. Sergio Romo, the other Giant setup man, lacks the raw stuff to be a dominant closer, at least per the model favored by most teams. NKOTB Dan Runzler was in A ball at the beginning of last season, and despite his remarkable ascent through the system and success in the bigs at the end of last season, it’s still far too early to tell with him. And the Giants’ assortment of AAAA relievers — Waldis Joaquin, Osiris Matos, etc. — don’t appear to be worthy of high-leverage situations.

    Bottom line: Wilson appears to have both the mindset and the stuff to be an elite closer for a number of years, and he has no ready successor to even cast a shadow of expendability on him. On a team that plays a vast number of tight ballgames thanks to its brilliant pitching and hideous offense, his presence is that much more indispensable. Insofar as closers can provide any certainty, I think Wilson looks like a pretty safe bet — and even if the Giants may have jumped the gun on this deal, or paid a little too much for Wilson’s services, I’m still pleased given all the other circumstances.

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    • B says:

      “he’s not very expendable given that the team has no real Plan B. Jeremy Affeldt would probably be the first line of defense, but he has no experience in the role. Sergio Romo, the other Giant setup man, lacks the raw stuff to be a dominant closer, at least per the model favored by most teams…And the Giants’ assortment of AAAA relievers — Waldis Joaquin, Osiris Matos, etc. — don’t appear to be worthy of high-leverage situations.

      Bottom line: Wilson appears to have both the mindset and the stuff to be an elite closer for a number of years, and he has no ready successor to even cast a shadow of expendability on him…”

      I disagree pretty strongly. The Giants have lots of other options, this isn’t the Giants of a few years ago where we put out Matt Herges and his 5.37 K/9 rate out at closer. Affeldt was good last year while striking out 8 batters every 9 innings, Romo might not fit the traditional “hard thrower” closer stereotype, but he’s struck out almost 10 batters per 9 innings over his MLB career (with an almost 4-1 K/BB ratio), Runzler and Joaquin might be question marks but they do have good stuff (and Runzler especially has an impressive history at both the MLB and minor league level of some serious strikeout stuff). We have other options, guys with a good combination of both stuff and results to say they can be useful high leverage bullpen guys. I like Wilson a lot, but if you think we have no other options, I think you’re dead wrong. Also, I’ll note that while I think top relievers may be undervalued by Fangraphs, the whole notion of “closers mentality” is crap. If you’re good, you’ll be a successful closer, if you aren’t good, you won’t.

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  8. Dave says:

    How much is cost certainty going forward worth? Because that is what this deal is about. And Affeldt’s. And (rumored) Cain’s.

    Another point – completely separate – the Giants are paying Affeldt and Wilson a substantial chunk of change to anchor their bullpen over the next 3 years. The rest of the bullpen in that time will be made up largely of guys making the league minimum (Runzler, Romo, Juaquin, Sosa, perhaps Hinshaw, etc.) So, does it matter that they’re slightly overpaying the back end, when the bullpen as a whole will be making a minimal percentage of their overall payroll?

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  9. I can see the point made regarding how Wilson had a leap in production, and thus regression is expected due to that. But not all regress. Nathan didn’t.

    And speaking of which, has anyone actually done a study regarding this or have we all been repeating each other’s truisms?

    I like DrB’s line of reasoning and would like to see answers to those.

    Also, I would like to note that Wilson has finally (maybe the money got him to change his mind) agreed to add his curveball, which was considered plus before the draft, but that he hasn’t used as a pro. The Giants have been trying for years to get him to use other pitches more, and he’s finally agreeing to it. So perhaps his performance won’t necessarily regress.

    And perhaps it was not all stubbornness on his part, he did get TJS before the draft so maybe in his mind he blamed the curveball for his injury, and thus avoided using it once he got healthy again.

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    • B says:

      “I can see the point made regarding how Wilson had a leap in production, and thus regression is expected due to that. But not all regress. Nathan didn’t.

      And speaking of which, has anyone actually done a study regarding this or have we all been repeating each other’s truisms?”

      It’s all about understanding probability distributions and sample error. When you look at the population in limited samples (like a season or less, which is exactly what we’re looking at), understanding sample error tells you that it’s more likely that a players true talent level is closer to the mean than farther, as more players are closer to the mean than farther, and it becomes more likely that sample error over the given time period was in the direction away from the mean. Once we assume no sample error going forward, that tells you it’s more likely they’re going to be closer to the mean next season.

      Understanding all that, we still know that each individual is an individual, and don’t all belong to one large population. There could be real reasons you believe Wilson comes from a population whose true talent is at or above the level he performed last year, you just have to have a very strong case to believe that, because on average, players do regress.

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  10. Thomas J. says:

    Closers are not going to be agreeable to being used as firemen rather than closers until compensation structures are maximized on the basis of firefighting rather than saves.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      It is possible compromise a bit, which is the way Wilson was used by the Giants last year. If you have a guy who is able and willing to go more than 1 inning, you can bring him into a game in a high leverage situation in the 8′th inning and then leave him in for the 9′th to either get the Save or the W.

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  11. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Hate to drag up an old debate, but as long as we’re talking contract extensions for Brian Wilson, Jeremy Affeldt also got an extension, and…….the reason why the official announcement was delayed was because the Giants also wanted to announce an extension for Matt Cain at the same time, now through 2012, his first FA year. So much for Matt Cain being gone after 2011!!!

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    • slamcactus says:

      Right, now he’s there and expensive in 2012. The Giants better get a hell of a lot out of their farm in the next couple years, because at the rate they’re going, they won’t have any money whatsoever to fill out the roster.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Right, the glass is half empty, huh? First it’s Cain gone after 2011. When they take care of that, the sky is still falling because they won’t be able to afford anybody else. I’m telling you, the Giants have the financial ability to keep or sign the players they need. They have a well-heeled ownership group, a great stadium situation and a great TV contract.

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  12. B says:

    I do think the general statistical community undervalues relievers (or at least the top relievers in a bullpen) some. Smart teams are still paying these guys a decent amount of money, whether it’s the Twins paying Joe Nathan more than Fangraphs says he’s been worth in every year of his career but one, the Rays paying a decent amount for Soriano (need to keep in mind both the money + talent they gave up for him), or the Red Sox paying a decent amount for Papelbon (though he’s projected to be worth it), it could be that teams think they’re worth a bit more than Fangraphs does. Maybe, maybe not, but that’s not the real point.

    The real point is your entire premise is based off the 40/60/80 rule of thumb, but I don’t think that’s accurate in this case. We know arbitration is a crappy process that uses bad stats to establish what guys are worth. We also know Papelbon got $6.25M in arb last year as a first year eligible reliever. Papelbon was coming off a 2.34 ERA, 41 save season for that year. Brian Wilson is coming off a 2.74 ERA, 38 save season (and had 41 saves last year, so he’s pretty obviously an “established closer” at this point). Regardless of how much he’s worth, or how good he really is compared to Papelbon, do you really think it would be that difficult for him to argue he’s worth more than 70% of Papelbon (his contract was ~70% of Papelbon’s comparing their first year arb eligible salaries)? I think Wilson had a very good arb case and settling at the midpoint was probably a good move by the Giants. Remember, this is arbitration, and it’s not set by properly valued market prices. It’s set through a messed up dinosaur process.

    So the Giants basically had to pay Wilson $4.4M for 2009. Given that, looking at his extension, he gets a little less than a 50% raise next year, and then a little less than a 33% raise the following year. Based on the 40/60/80 model where you expect a 50% raise than 33% raise, it does look like the Giants got a little bit of a discount going forward. Not very big, maybe it should have been bigger, but overall, I don’t think you can say it’s that bad of an extension. Looks pretty fair to me. I don’t necessarily see the point of it, but I also don’t see any real reason to bash it. At worst, we’re quibbling over maybe $1M combined over 3 years?

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  13. Fergie348 says:

    The way it’s looking, the Giants indeed need to reap some value out of their farm system if they don’t trade away any of their newly extended pitching staff. They’ll likely have about 70 million committed to their starters, short relievers and center fielder come 2012, so there better be some value coming up to fill out the outfield and the middle infield if they want to keep payroll in the 100 – 110 MM per year threshold that bow tie (neukom) says he’s targeting.

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  14. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Good Vibrations indeed.

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  15. jaybow says:

    He’s been looking good so far.

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