On Craig Kimbrel and Committing to a Closer

The Atlanta Braves are in the news yet again, with yet another long term contract for a member of their young core. After already locking up Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran, the Braves have now committed $42 million to Craig Kimbrel over the next four years, buying out his three arbitration years and his first year of free agency, while also getting an option for his second FA season. Kimbrel is a dominant closer, and on a per batter faced basis, maybe the most dominant pitcher in the sport right now.

In his career, opposing batters have posted a .212 wOBA against Craig Kimbrel. That’s 40 points better than Aroldis Chapman‘s .253 wOBA against, and Chapman is probably the only guy who one might think could challenge Kimbrel for the most dominating title. Kimbrel has been essentially the perfect closer, putting up some of the best relief pitcher seasons in baseball history, since he debuted back in 2010. And yet I still wonder whether or not the Braves really needed to sign this contract.

The Braves already owned Kimbrel’s rights for 2014 through 2016, and the prices they guaranteed him for his arbitration years aren’t such a steep discount that the deal could be considered a wise investment just on the basis of maybe saving a few million dollars for the next couple of seasons. For the Braves, the value in this deal comes in buying out his 2017 and maybe his 2018 free agent years, and those seasons will now $13 million apiece. That’s a season or two extra that they wouldn’t have been able to control without giving him a long term deal that pushed into his 30s, so even if the salary portion doesn’t look so great, there’s a benefit to adding just one or two seasons extra rather than having to commit to another three or four years after his arbitration seasons are up.

But how likely is it that the Braves will still want to pay Kimbrel $13 million four years from now? It’s no secret that the shelf life of relief pitchers is shorter than players at other positions, and Kimbrel would hardly be the first dominant reliever to show up, dominate for a while, and then hang around as a shell of what he once was. Can we really forecast, right now, that Kimbrel will still be one of the best relievers in baseball in 2017?

For reference, here is a list of every pitcher who posted a +3 WAR season out of the bullpen from 2000 to 2009.

2003 Eric Gagne 82.1 5% 36% 0.22 0.243 84% 51 44 4.4 3.5
2004 Francisco Rodriguez 84.0 10% 37% 0.21 0.278 78% 41 39 3.8 3.5
2004 Brad Lidge 94.2 8% 43% 0.76 0.292 88% 44 43 3.6 4.2
2007 Rafael Betancourt 79.1 3% 28% 0.45 0.240 86% 33 52 3.5 4.5
2006 J.J. Putz 78.1 4% 34% 0.46 0.306 79% 52 40 3.4 3.3
2006 Jonathan Papelbon 68.1 5% 29% 0.40 0.224 92% 20 46 3.4 4.8
2004 B.J. Ryan 87.0 10% 34% 0.41 0.302 81% 50 48 3.3 3.3
2002 Eric Gagne 82.1 7% 45% 0.66 0.278 85% 30 20 3.3 4.3
2008 Mariano Rivera 70.2 4% 27% 0.51 0.218 88% 53 53 3.3 3.2
2004 Eric Gagne 82.1 7% 35% 0.55 0.267 77% 53 47 3.2 2.8
2000 Gabe White 84.0 5% 26% 0.64 0.262 80% 42 47 3.2 3.8
2004 Joe Nathan 72.1 6% 36% 0.37 0.269 86% 35 39 3.2 3.5
2006 Joe Nathan 68.1 8% 31% 0.40 0.238 85% 35 49 3.2 3.9
2001 Mariano Rivera 80.2 6% 26% 0.56 0.268 75% 32 51 3.2 3.6
2001 Octavio Dotel 84.0 10% 38% 0.32 0.301 80% 43 37 3.1 3.0
2002 Robb Nen 73.2 7% 27% 0.24 0.315 80% 56 48 3.1 2.9
2006 Takashi Saito 78.1 8% 35% 0.34 0.268 79% 47 42 3.1 3.1
2008 Jonathan Papelbon 69.1 3% 28% 0.52 0.293 70% 52 45 3.0 2.1
2005 Mariano Rivera 78.1 2% 30% 0.23 0.238 78% 32 47 3.0 4.2

19 pitcher seasons, but only 13 pitchers, as guys like Gagne, Rivera, and Papelbon all had multiple +3 WAR seasons during the first decade of the 21st century. So let’s look at those 13 guys, and see how effective they were in their fourth season after the year indicated above, to see how well they were able to sustain their dominance over the long term. In chronological order:

Gabe White, 2004: 60 IP, -0.4 WAR, -1.3 RA9/WAR

White’s 2000 season looks like one of the great flukes in baseball history, as he accumulated 75% of his career WAR total in that one season. He’d been pretty mediocre to that point, and then returned to mediocrity immediately afterwards, posting a below replacement level season in 2001. He did have one more solid season in 2002, but but he was out of baseball by 2005. A one year spike guy is probably not a great comparison for Kimbrel, but White is a nice reminder that even mediocre pitchers can look amazing for 70 or 80 innings.

Octavio Dotel, 2005: 15 IP, +0.0 WAR, +0.5 RA9-WAR

Dotel followed up his terrific 2001 season with another great year in 2002 and then two solid years in 2003/2004, remaining of the game’s best relief arms for three years after his best season. But then he got hurt, only pitching a combined 25 innings in 2005 and 2006, and eventually returned as a good-not-great setup guy who had value but wasn’t what he was before.

Mariano Rivera, 2005: 78 IP, +3.0 WAR, +3.6 RA9-WAR

You don’t need much information here. Mo was consistently amazing, year in and year out, and could probably still be one of the best closers in baseball today. The ultimate example of a closer having a long, successful career.

Eric Gagne, 2006: 2 IP, +0.0 WAR, +0.0 RA9-WAR

Gagne is the closest thing we have to a match for Kimbrel, as he destroyed opposing hitters from 2002-2004, posting +3 WAR seasons in each of those three years. And then he fell apart in 2005, missed almost the entire 2006 season, and had only a brief and moderately successful return to the majors in 2007. Perhaps Gagne’s previous work as a starter caught up to him, or his workloads as a reliever finally were too much, but Gagne is the yin to Rivera’s yang, and is a reminder of the risk of betting big on even the very best relievers.

Robb Nen, 2006: Forcibly retired by injury

Nen’s last pitch of his dominant 2002 season turned out to be his last. He tried to help the Giants win a World Series with an arm that needed surgery, and it ended his career. He finally retired in 2005 after several years of rehab.

Joe Nathan, 2008: 68 IP, +2.0 WAR, +3.6 RA9-WAR

Nathan had a great six year run as a dominant closer for the Twins, and is a template for how this deal could work out well for Atlanta. He was still nearly as good in 2008 as he was in 2004, and then continued to pitch well in 2009 as well. Even after an injury in 2010, he’s still pitching well, and hasn’t yet succumbed to age or injuries.

Francisco Rodriguez, 2008: 68 IP, +1.7 WAR, +2.7 RA9-WAR

Rodriguez is often used as a comparison for Kimbrel because he was so good at such a young age, posting his +3 WAR season at age-22, and then establishing himself as a dominant closer in his early-to-mid 20s. By the time he got near free agency, he had declined to good reliever instead of a great one, so the Angels wisely let him go. While he’s never totally imploded, his late-20s and early-30s have been nothing like what he was in his younger days.

Brad Lidge, 2008: 69 IP, +2.2 WAR, +2.7 RA9-WAR

Lidge was up-and-down after his monster 2004 season, mixing in a couple of great years with a couple of mediocre ones, though 2008 was again one of his better seasons, and he provided a lot of value for the Phillies in his first year there. From there, though, it was mostly downhill, and Lidge’s contract with the Phillies proved to be a mistake.

B.J. Ryan, 2008: 59 IP, +0.9 WAR, +1.5 RA9-WAR

Ryan followed up his dominant 2004 season with two more great years before blowing out his arm. He was good but not great in his return, and that only lasted a year, as he was out of baseball after 2009. He had a great three or four year run, but that’s essentially what his career amounted to.

Jonathan Papelbon, 2010: +1.2 WAR, +0.4 RA9-WAR

Papelbon was excellent for almost his entire tenure in Boston, and sustained most of his success for the next three years after his dominant 2006 season. 2010 was a down year, but he bounced back with a great 2011 season, and while the Phillies certanily overpaid him, he’s a check mark in the positive category for Kimbrel, as he’s been pretty consistently good ever since his debut.

Takashi Saito, 2010: 54 IP, +1.4 WAR, +0.8 RA9-WAR

Saito never repeated his remarkable rookie season, but then again, he was 36 when he came over to the U.S., so this isn’t really much of a comparison for Kimbrel, and I don’t think we can say too much about the fact that he had turned into just a good setup man at age-40.

J.J. Putz, 2010: 54 IP, +1.4 WAR, +1.3 RA9-WAR

Putz broke out in a huge way in 2006, learning a split-finger fastball from Eddie Guardado and riding that pitch to becoming one of the game’s best closers. He repeated his dominance in 2007, but then lost velocity and effectiveness and spent a couple of years as a mediocre reliever. The White Sox fixed him up in 2010 and he’s been a quality closer ever since, though not without a few bumps in the road.

Rafael Betancourt, 2011: 62 IP, +1.8 WAR, +1.5 RA9-WAR

Betancourt’s monster season with the Indians in 2007 didn’t carry over into 2008, as he was nearly a replacement level reliever in the season immediately after his breakout. However, he rebounded nicely and returned to excellence in Colorado, consistently providing value out of the Rockies bullpen.

Of the 13 pitchers on the list, three went on to have sustained success over a long period that would easily have justified a similar deal to what the Braves just gave Kimbrel. If he follows in the path of Rivera, Nathan, or Papelbon, this will turn out just fine for Atlanta.

The other 10 names are a pretty big mixed bag, though. There are some pitchers who were still productive four years out from their +3 WAR season, but many of them didn’t do so well in between, and going year to year likely would have been cheaper than buying out their next four years with a long term deal. For these 10, I think the general consensus would be that a long term deal in the immediate aftermath of their +3 WAR season wouldn’t have worked out that well for the team overall.

However, it must be noted that Kimbrel’s track record is far superior to the ones we’re looking at here. He’s not Gabe White, a career mediocrity who had one great year. Even guys like K-Rod or Lidge weren’t as good as Kimbrel is now. Kimbrel has further to fall than the rest, and could decline a lot while still remaining an excellent pitcher. In that way, he’s not that different from Papelbon, who is worse than he was but still quite good.

Is this a risk for the Braves? Absolutely, and I’m not entirely sure that the upside of potentially having him around for one or two extra seasons at $13 million per year is worth the extra money they guaranteed him going forward, but it should also be clear that this isn’t an obvious mistake. As much as relievers are fickle, a significant portion do sustain success for long periods of time, and Kimbrel is good enough that he can get worse and still be worth $13 million in 2017 dollars.

Like the Freeman deal, there’s an argument to be made that perhaps this deal costs Atlanta too much without providing a ton of upside, but like the Freeman deal, the Braves have ensured that they get to keep a high quality talent through his 20s without having to commit to his 30s. Every long term deal has a risk, but the Braves are taking risks on player’s prime years, and that’s a strategy I can’t argue against too strongly.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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