One of the more eye-opening deals of the winter so far is Brian Wilson re-signing for eight figures with the Dodgers. It isn’t just that Wilson is coming off a year in which he barely pitched due to injury rehab. He’s good, and he looks to be healthy now. What makes it weird is that Wilson is in line to be a setup guy, behind one of the best relievers in baseball. Kenley Jansen is almost literally unhittable, so injury is the only thing that could conceivably stop him in 2014. Wilson is getting paid a lot, then, to not be a closer, even though he has a long closing background.
Wednesday, the Padres signed Joaquin Benoit for two years and $15.5 million. Benoit is a good relief pitcher, and a proven closer. The tricky part is that the Padres already had a proven closer in the perfectly adequate Huston Street. Benoit, like Wilson, is getting paid a lot to not be a closer, at least from the outset. And he’s getting paid a lot by a team that doesn’t have a budget anywhere close to the one the Dodgers do. On the face of it, the Padres make for a strange destination.
Yet there is some sense here. And before we really get into that, we might as well run a little comparison. Wednesday, Benoit signed for two years and $15.5 million. Tuesday, Grant Balfour signed for two years and $15 million. Both entered the free-agent market as proven closers. Both are going to open next season as right-handed 36-year-olds. Over the last three years, Benoit has faced one more batter than Balfour has. Benoit has 17 more strikeouts, and 14 fewer walks. He’s also allowed five more dingers. Benoit has a modest edge in FIP- and xFIP-, and though there’s a big difference in BABIP, Balfour pitched in Oakland, and he didn’t pitch in front of the Tigers’ defense. Benoit’s BABIP has still been very low. At the cost, it would appear that Benoit’s the slightly better investment.
But, yeah, Balfour’s going to be closing. Benoit’s future isn’t so clear. Let’s get into this from the Padres’ perspective.
The first thing, and the most important thing, is that Benoit is good. He’s not fantastic, but he’s good, and he’s good against both righties and lefties, thanks to his changeup. That makes him different from your run-of-the-mill righty reliever with a fastball and a slider and a wicked platoon split. People have figured Benoit has dinger problems, but really that was only the case in 2012; there were no such problems in 2010, 2011, or 2013. He’s good, and he’s not a guy you have to remove because a certain hitter is at the plate.
The next thing is that Huston Street is a question mark. He also might become a free agent after the season. He hasn’t cracked 60 innings since 2009, and while his second half last year was solid, his first half was a disaster. He hardly gets up to 90 miles per hour anymore, and though there are reasons to think he’ll be effective going forward, he’s not Kenley Jansen. It’s easy to see how Street could go and get himself in trouble.
And now we can get into some leverage stuff. Why do closers get paid a premium? They’re recording, usually, the toughest outs. So while they don’t throw many actual innings, the innings they do throw are worth a lot, in a sense almost doubling their “effective” innings totals. One of the debates about reliever WAR is that WAR doesn’t take into consideration the contexts in which the relievers pitch, and then they come out looking like lousy acquisitions, like overpaid bit parts.
You’re probably familiar with Leverage Index, where an LI of 1 is exactly average. FanGraphs hosts, among its statistics, pLI and gmLI. The former is the average LI of all game events. The latter is the average LI when a pitcher enters a game. Last year, each team’s top pLI reliever averaged a pLI of 1.86. Each team’s top gmLI reliever averaged a gmLI of 1.69. Meanwhile, each team’s second-highest pLI reliever averaged a pLI of 1.48. Each team’s second-highest gmLI reliever averaged a gmLI of 1.46. All other relievers averaged, respectively, 0.97 and 1.08.
In most cases, the closers were throwing the highest-leverage innings, but then there were still plenty more high-leverage innings to go around. Setup guys were throwing important innings, too, and so if closers are worth a certain premium, then setup guys are worth a premium of their own. Those are often critical spots.
And then one has to consider the Padres in particular. The last two years, Street has closed, picking up 56 saves. He was mostly set up for by the departed Luke Gregerson. Gregerson posted a gmLI just 0.13 points behind Street over that span, and he posted a pLI 0.19 points higher. In much plainer English, over the past two years, Street has mostly closed for the Padres, but Gregerson had the more important average plate appearance. Leverage is basically what drives the closer premiums, and so if you think of Benoit as simply taking Gregerson’s place, he might end up with the most important job given similar usage patterns. That’s before even considering the possibility that Street could lose his job at the back. And Benoit’s the current favorite to close in 2015, should the Padres decline Street’s option.
I don’t know that this justifies the expense. The Padres aren’t a big-budget team, and this year they’ll be paying more than $14 million for two guys to pitch the eighth and ninth innings. They might also be the worst team in their own division, and guys like Dale Thayer and Nick Vincent seem good, for little. The Padres, maybe more than anyone else, have been able to generate good cheap relievers over the years, and so it’s a leap to see them commit this money to a veteran closer who might not even close. But Benoit is good. It is a good deal, at least relative to the Balfour deal and the Jim Johnson deal. The Padres do intend to spend more money, they’re not too bad of a team to dream, and if leverage numbers hold up, Benoit could end up their most important reliever in the season to come, save total be damned. As free-agent contracts for relievers go, this one’s just fine. It’s a matter of whether those free-agent relievers should even be getting those contracts.
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