Padres Support Closer With Free-Agent Closer

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

21 Responses to “Padres Support Closer With Free-Agent Closer”

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  1. tz says:

    Benoit getting slightly more money than Street for a slightly more important role makes sense, and Benoit being entrusted with the more important role also makes sense. This back-of-the-bullpen strategy makes all kinds of sense.

    The only part of it that doesn’t make sense is the Padres doing this when they’re an apparent long shot for the post-season.

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  2. B.C. says:

    It makes a little more sense when you consider that Benoit will become the team’s closer after Street leaves, which could happen before the deadline. Then they’ll have Benoit through 2015, which will give a young arm like Quackenbush time to ease into the role.

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  3. Oh, Beepy says:

    Didn’t Street have a 99.5% strand rate last year? A .213 BABIP? 4.92 FIP?

    I don’t think “The perfectly adequate Huston Street” is a phrase one should just throw around.

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  4. Daniel Betancourt says:

    I feel like this could be an upside deal for the Padres. As the trade deadline nears and team’s closers start to end up on the DL or burn out, the value of these closers tends to rise. They might have seen a market inefficiency in Benoit’s case and thought that he was being undervalued.

    This deal will most likely leave them with a solid reliever for the late innings for the next 2 years. But, they also might be able to get some mid-level prospect out of a competing team in need of a closer.

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  5. Steve says:

    Why trade Gregerson if you are going to do this?

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      Because they wanted Seth Smith?

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      • Iron says:

        It’s almost like the question answered itself.

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        • jayman4 says:

          It looks like they basically did this for Smith. Smith does not seem like an obvious fit in the SD OF where you have solid if unheralded hitters like Venable, Denorfia and Maybin. Gregerson has been amazing for a long time, so will have to see.

          For those not following them closely, I doubt the Padres see themselves as long shots for the division. They stared 2013 with their starting pitching in shambles and it ought to be a strength in 2014 with the maturing of players like Cashner and Ross, coupled with the return from injury of Cory Luebke. Toss in Stults and Kennedy and other plausible starters, I think they expect to have solid hitting, good SP and solid relief. And great defense.

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  6. marlins12 says:

    They should trade Huston Street to a team like Seattle. They’re trying to do big things and they’re dumb enough to give up a quality player to land a “proven closer.”

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  7. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Guess who’s gonna win the division, and claim a third championship? I might even head to to Diego and cheer on my team from that rinky-dink ballpark there.

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  8. zardozmonkey says:

    Have fun with Morse in that outfield DrB

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  9. DrBGiantsfan says:

    I’m not sure how someone was able to hijack my handle. I hope folks can tell it’s not my style of writing.

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    • tz says:

      How to spot the true “DrBGiantsfan”:

      1. Note the black name instead of the green.
      2. If you move the cursor over the name you should see reference to the blog
      3. Read the above blog to get familiar DrB’s style of writing. (I did out of curiosity, and it’s a decent read)

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      • Ian R. says:

        In principle, there’s nothing to stop an impersonator from typing in the URL of the real DrBGiantsfan’s blog before posting a comment.

        The writing style is a little tougher to fake, though.

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    • Park Chan Ho's Beard says:

      It’s too easy for the impersonators on this site. Every article has comments from people claiming they’re Jack Zduriencik or Ruben Amaro Jr., but I’m almost convinced it’s not actually them!!!

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  10. Gregg0 says:

    I agree, it’s a little odd to dump Greggo who slots in at $3.2 mil (one year of control) for Seth Smith ($3.5, one year of control), then sign Jack Benny for $7.5 x 2

    Greggo is not as good as jack, but he’s not terribly far off. So, I guess this means basically they kind of went out on a $7.5 mil limb for Seth Smith in a sense. He’s definitely more talented with the stick than most of SD’s players, but good luck with that guys. Smitty’s a defensive liability, and offensively kind of Yonder Alonso-esque with less upside.

    It’s a curious pair of moves.

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