Lyon, Benoit and The 2010-11 Relief Market

Ben Nicholson-Smith is a staff writer for This piece is a continuing series of guest posts he’s written for the site. You can check out the rest of his work over at MLBTR on a regular basis.

Andrew Friedman knows all about the market for relief pitchers. Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and just about every other one of Tampa’s late-inning options recently left via free agency, so the Rays executive VP of baseball operations spent much of the winter restocking his bullpen. And to hear Friedman tell it, the market for relievers went “out of control” this offseason. The numbers back it up. Eight relievers signed multiyear deals last winter. More than twice as many relievers – 17 – have already signed multiyear deals this winter.

So who’s responsible for the jump in multiyear deals for relievers? The owners have been spending big in general this winter and they’re probably largely responsible for the increased spending on bullpens. If owners are willing to spend more, all players, including relief pitchers, benefit, even if relievers don’t generally make good long term investments.

Along with owners, players and agents can shape offseason spending, so it’s tempting to argue that Joaquin Benoit and his representatives at ACES set the market for relievers this winter. Benoit, after all, signed for an unexpectedly large guarantee early in the offseason. Just three days after Jose Contreras became the first reliever of the winter to sign a multiyear deal, Benoit agreed to terms on a three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Tigers.

Many similar relievers went on to sign multiyear deals, so Benoit gets his share of the credit for the burst in spending on bullpens, but it’s hard not to wonder if Brandon Lyon might have set his fellow relievers up, too. Last offseason, Lyon signed a three-year, $15 million deal that turned out to be the biggest deal a reliever signed that winter in terms of guaranteed money.

When the Astros signed Lyon, the move was widely panned (including at FanGraphs and at MLBTR). This winter, Lyon’s deal would have stood out less, since middle relievers obtained multiyear deals left and right and many of them signed deals that compare with Lyon’s.

Like Lyon, Benoit, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and J.J. Putz are right-handed relievers who hit free agency after completing strong seasons as non-closing relievers. None of them were tied to draft pick compensation and they all secured multiyear contracts.

Back in his 2009 walk year, Lyon was lucky with batting average in balls in play. Opponents posted a .226 batting average on balls in play against him, and he posted a shiny 2.86 ERA. Lyon was lucky again in 2010, this time with his home run to fly ball ratio. No pitcher with as many innings pitched as Lyon (78) allowed fewer home runs per fly ball (Lyon allowed homers on a career-low 2.1% of fly balls he induced last year).

Lyon was durable in 2010 and his numbers look good, if not particularly sustainable. Lyon wasn’t looking for a new contract, but his solid numbers likely helped free agent relievers like Benoit, Guerrier, Crain and Putz. If Lyon had underperformed and made the Astros’ $15 million investment look like a glaring mistake, he could have become a cautionary tale for teams considering spending big on middle relief. But with another healthy season and some luck, Lyon posted a 3.12 ERA and assisted some fellow relievers.

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10 Responses to “Lyon, Benoit and The 2010-11 Relief Market”

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  1. mister_rob says:

    It all started when Kenny Williams gave a 31 yr old reliever with 4 career saves 19 million dollars (Linebrink) a couple years ago

    So I dont buy that Lyon could have been a cautionary tale if he underperformed. Linebrink didnt hurt Lyon’s paycheck any

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  2. Tigerdog says:

    I find it a little bit ironic that Lyon chose the Tigers over the Twins because Detroit offered him a chance to win the closer’s job. He apparently turned down a two year offer from Minnesota for basically the same annual salary, because the Twins already had Joe Nathan locked in for the ninth inning role. Not that he needed the glory, but we all know that there’s a significant jump in salary when one can rack up some saves on the stat sheet.

    Well, Lyon blew the chance to be the closer before spring training was half way over. Fernando Rodney claimed the job and shockingly never gave it up, blowing just one save all season long in 38 chances. The Tigers offered arbitration to both Rodney and Lyon at the end of the 2009 season, and apparently a two year contract to Lyon, but he got a better deal with the Strohs, as did Rodney with the Angels. But all is well in Detroit, as Jose Valverde fell to the Tigers at about a 30% discount, and they gave Benoit- the best set up guy on the market- about the money that Lyon got in Houston. Neither got closer money, but they got a multi year deal, which is what Lyon turned down earlier to get a shot at closing.

    On a related note, Dave Dombrowski seemed to break from his M.O. of not giving multi year deals to relievers that weren’t closers when he signed Benoit. From 9/2006- 4/2009, a span of three winters, DD signed fewer free agents, for less money, than any other GM in the league. Not one multi year free agent contract. In fact, you can count the total number of new free agent signings on one hand. Quite a feat for a club with a top five payroll, high enough to pay the luxury tax in 2008. Dombrowski had not been one to give out many multi year free agent contracts on the whole, with a few notable exceptions such as Pudge, Magglio, and Rogers. Yet DD seemed to make an exception when it came to signing closers. In a five year span, he has signed Urbina, Percival, Jones, extended Jones, Lyon, and Valverde- all with the intention of making them the closer. Valverde has a club option for $ 9 MM in 2012. Maybe DD pockets the change and makes Benoit the closer for two seasons? Just a thought.

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  3. DonM says:

    The person paying sets the market. The players can ask for a contract in any amount for any length of time. The GMs/owners decide whether to pay that much or guarantee that many years. If no team was willing to pay for more than one year, there’d be no multiyear contracts.

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    • B N says:

      Thank you for explaining to me the concept of a mutually agreed-upon contract. I will treasure this information always.

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    • quincy0191 says:

      The person paying sets half the market. Suppliers have to weigh in as well. The GM/owners can offer a contract in any amount for any length of time. The players decide whether to accept that much or that many years. If no player was willing to sign for only one year, there’d be no one-year contracts. That’s just as true as what you wrote.

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  4. MHead81 says:

    What is the point of this? What did we “learn” here? What is the conclusion, that several RPs signed multi-year deals this offseason? Wow, what a revelation. (And other than the pitchers themselves, who cares?) And it’s not like the market can’t change next offseason so it’s not even like this is a guarantee of a trend we’ve witnessed the beginning of these past few months. In fact, it’s entirely possible that all of these contracts could have negative implications for FA RPs next offseason if they turn out to be blatantly awful signings, although in fairness, it’s also entirely possible that RPs will continue to receive bad contracts.

    Couldn’t this entire “article” just have been summed up in one paragraph– max– instead of dragging it out this long, on a site where points are made using in-depth statistical analysis? Seriously, there is nothing enlightening about this “series”– it’s either a page of listing popular players who might make a lot of money as upcoming free agents, without any insight as to why other than HR and SB totals, or it’s a recap of the most boring aspect of baseball: the relief pitching free agent market.

    Like I said in the comments section of the last article, there is no mention of why these players did or might get the contracts being discussed. And no, by that I do not mean the answer is something such as Brandon Lyon “setting his fellow relievers up.” There is also no mention of any potential reasons why teams caved and handed out these multi-year deals which we already know are more likely to turn out to be regrettable than not, nor is there mention of the GMs who refused to give in to the demands and what alternative routes they may or will take. There is no conclusion to this idea. Tell us SOMETHING we don’t already know, or at least pose a question or a new idea.

    This article would be a better suited, best-case, as a footnote updating Dave Cameron’s original relief pitching article that this article links to, but more realistically, if it must be on this site, it “belongs” in the comments section of that article. Coping & pasting links over at MLBTR does not mean someone has any business submitting articles to this site.

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    • Header81 says:

      While I couldn’t agree more with you post … “Couldn’t this entire ‘reply’ just have been summed up in one paragraph– max– instead of dragging it out this long, on a site where points are made using in-depth statistical analysis?”

      Are you a mheader born in 1981?

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  5. JP says:

    “Lyon was durable in 2010 and his numbers look good, if not particularly sustainable” = I did not watch Lyon pitch in 2010 and can offer little/nothing in the way of analysis.

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  6. Taylor says:

    I am a lifelong Astros fan. The implication that other teams are looking to Ed Wade to set market standards constitutes the closest thing to hope I have felt since Wade came to Houston. Perhaps his lunacy will prove contagious.

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