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Jeremy Affeldt and Valuing Relievers

Based on reports from the last few days, the Giants have reportedly agreed to re-sign Jeremy Affeldt to a three year, $18 million contract. Predictably, the internet has responded with scorn.

Multi-year deals for relief pitchers are generally not a great way to spend money. Relievers are fickle, they can be replaced fairly easily, and it doesn’t take much money to cobble together a bullpen full of failed starters who can excel in a more limited role. Keith’s overarching point about long term deals for relief pitchers is correct.

But, at some point, it probably behooves us all to move beyond generalities and talk about the specifics of contracts for free agent relievers, because despite the rhetoric, not every multi-year deal for every relief pitcher is a giant waste of cash.

On the one hand, it’s not hard to look at deals like Heath Bell‘s 3 year, $27 million contract from last winter and conclude that reliever valuations are still out of whack with reality. That deal never made any sense, and was a prime example of an improper evaluation of reliever value by a Major League team. On the other hand, Jeremy Affeldt is not Heath Bell, and we shouldn’t be so quick to lump all bullpen specialists into one giant bin.

There’s not much point in arguing that Affeldt was an excellent relief pitcher last year. By combining an above average strikeout rate with one of the highest ground ball rates in baseball, he ran a 72 ERA-/73 FIP-/86 xFIP-, and despite being a lefty, he wasn’t used as any kind of left-on-left specialist. 55% of the batters he faced last year were right-handed, and his .283 wOBA vs L/.290 wOBA vs R shows that he was equally effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. While he got a reputation as a lefty specialist due to his dominating performance against LHBs in 2011, it was never really deserved, as his career platoon split is essentially non-existant.

Affeldt is the kind of left-handed reliever who can pitch full innings regardless of who is coming to the plate, and as he showed in the postseason, non-specialist lefties can be quite valuable, as they can be used to get the platoon advantage against several good left-handed hitters even when they’re not stacked together. Additionally, Affeldt’s strikeout and groundball tendencies make him the perfect option for bailing a starter out of a situation where there are runners in scoring position and less than two outs, since very few of his plate appearances end with a fly ball to the outfield. Whether you need a strikeout against a lefty or a double play from a righty, Affeldt is capable of delivering either.

You know how many lefty relievers in baseball combined a 55% ground ball rate and a strikeout rate of 8.0 per nine innings last year? Four – Sean Marshall, Jonny Venters, Sean Burnett, and Jeremy Affeldt. While we can talk about how easy it is to find a decent cheap reliever on waivers or in the minors, it’s simply not true that you can dig up a no-platoon split lefty who can get both groundballs and strikeouts without any effort.

And this skilset is one of the best in baseball for a reliever to have. For a reliever, you’d rather have a high BB/K/GB guy than a pitch-to-contact strike-thrower, because relievers are quite often faced with situations where a ball in play can lead to a run but a walk cannot. The ability to avoid contact is the most important skill any reliever can have. The ability to get outs without giving up fly balls isn’t that far behind. Trading some extra walks to get more groundballs and more strikeouts is a good trade-off for a reliever, and that’s essentially Affeldt’s skillset in a nutshell.

Will it still be his skillset in 2015, when the Giants are paying him $6 million in his age-36 season? Maybe not. It’s quite possible that his downward trending velocity is a sign of declining stuff, and in a year or two, Affeldt won’t be as useful as he is now. But, the goal of signing a free agent shouldn’t be to maximize value at the back-end of the contract. Nearly every multi-year free agent contract that is signed gives the team a net benefit at the front and a cost to the team at the back end. Multi-year free agent deals are essentially one way a team can loan money to itself, shifting future value to the present to allow for roster construction that maximizes a team’s chances of winning in the near future.

The key isn’t to avoid ever borrowing from your own future – it’s to borrow at a rate that isn’t prohibitive to long term success and allows you to add marginal wins at a time when those wins are the most valuable. As the defending World Champs, the Giants are clearly in a position where borrowing from the future to improve the present is not only justifiable but a good idea, as long as they get the right price. This deal doesn’t hinge on Affeldt being worth $6 million in 2015 – this deal hinges on Affeldt providing enough value in 2013 and 2014 to make the overpay at the back end a worthwhile trade-off.

And, at $6 million per year, that’s not all that difficult an argument to make. Even if Affeldt is reduced to lefty specialist status by the end of this contract, that kind of situational reliever is still worth a couple million and a roster spot. Just because Heath Bell wasn’t worth $9 million per year doesn’t mean Affeldt can’t be worth $6 million, at least for the next year or two.

Would you rather have been able to re-sign him for 2/12? Sure. In 2015, this deal probably won’t have a great return on investment. But, let’s not pretend that Affeldt is just some random lefty who could be easily replaced with a waiver claim. He’s one of the better left-handed relievers in baseball, and one of the few who doesn’t have to be lifted every time a right-hander steps into the batter’s box. Quality veteran relievers are a luxury item that not every can afford, but Affeldt’s salary isn’t going to be any kind of real drag on the team’s ability to win. At worst, the Giants are overpaying by a couple million per year, and most of that overpay is probably a year or two down the line.

There are bad multi-year deals for relief pitchers. This just isn’t one of them, and we shouldn’t pretend like any multi-year deal for any relief pitcher is automatically a mistake.