The Closer Markup

With Trevor Hoffman signing a one year contract today (fairly rare for a free agent closer), we’re presented with an opportunity to measure just how much teams are willing to pay for the proven closer label.

For instance, let’s compare Hoffman with a very similar non-closer who also signed a one year deal earlier this winter.

BB/9, 2005 to 2008:

Hoffman: 1.87, 1.86, 2.35, 1.79
Not Hoffman: 1.97, 2.00, 2.10, 1.66

From a practical standpoint, there’s no difference in their walk rates.

K/9, 2005 to 2008:

Hoffman: 8.43, 7.14, 6.91, 9.13
Not Hoffman: 5.92, 8.33, 7.97, 7.51

Slight edge to Hoffman here, but not a huge one. We’re talking about half a strikeout per nine innings, or about five to six per year. Very marginal difference.

HR/9, 2005 to 2008:

Hoffman: .47, .86, .31, 1.59
Not Hoffman: .49, .94, .89, 1.66

Again, a slight advantage to Hoffman, but not a big one, especially when park effects are included. And this is what we’d expect, given that they’re almost equal in flyball rates – Hoffman is at 45.5% FB% since 2002, and Not Hoffman is at 45.2%.

Overall, their skill sets are extremely similar. Both are experienced good command flyball guys who miss bats and are slightly HR prone. Both have long track records of success. Both took one year contracts to move to new clubs this winter.

Trevor Hoffman got $6 million, and could earn up to $7.5 million if he pitches well. Bob Howry, our Not Hoffman for this exercise, got $2.75 million, and could earn up to $3.65 million if he pitches well. Hoffman got, essentially, twice as much money for the same skills because he comes with the proven closer label.

Even in a depressed economic market, the closer markup is still ridiculous.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

26 Responses to “The Closer Markup”

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  1. Jason T says:

    That’s insane. They could’ve brought CC back if they’d tacked that $6-$7.5M on top of their offer. Fail.

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  2. hal says:

    Different types of pitchers and different innings pitched is just a start of the differences between the two. I’m sure you could cherry pick stats to support whatever emotional feeling you have about a player.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Right – as a Mariner fan, I’m quite passionate in my hatred for Trevor Hoffman, and have fond memories of the great Bob Howry. Clearly, my anti-Milwaukee bias is showing through.

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      • Jason T says:

        It’s true! It’s well known how much San Diego and Seattle fans HATE each other. Rivalry!

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      • hal says:

        Fine, don’t respond to the arguments. Good job comparing two quite different pitchers who performed in quite different situations.

        And you are often quite emotional whether you refuse to discuss it or not. That emotion doesn’t have to be attached to a team either – that’s just being evasive.

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  3. How are walk, strike-out and home run rates “cherry picked”? Over four seasons?

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  4. eightyone says:

    I believe he’s saying that Howry hasn’t been a full-time closer and pitches in lower-leverage situations. I’d buy this, to a degree but Howry has filled in as a closer for the Cubs on occasion and had experience closing in the past.
    It’s an apt comparison, and given the difference in home parks, the Brewers did overspend.

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  5. Andy says:

    I’m a Brewers fan and realize they overpaid on Hoffman (not as bad as last year on Gagne) because he’s a “proven closer”. Though I take solace its a one year deal (and that Francisco Cordero turned down the a 4 year/40+ mil contract the Brewers offered him last year)

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  6. Alskor says:

    Hoffman pLI
    05 2.01
    06 2.02
    07 2.23
    08 1.90

    Howry pLI
    05 1.22
    06 1.42
    07 1.42
    08 0.91

    Hoffman gmLI
    05 1.88
    06 1.98
    07 1.94
    08 1.84

    05 1.31
    06 1.33
    07 1.58
    08 1.08

    Refresher for those who havent been paying attention:

    pLI: A player’s average LI for all game events.
    gmLI: A pitcher’s average LI when he enters the game.
    LI (leverage index): A measure of how important a particular situation is in a baseball game depending on the inning, score, outs, and number of players on base, created by Tom Tango.

    Please dont construe this as any sort of argument that Hoffman and Closers in general arent paid more than similarly valuable relievers… I have no doubt they are. I dont think its quite as dramatic as is shown above, however.

    I think that, in general, the possibilities for analyzing the context of reliever performance through the lens of Leverage and Win Probability arent being fully exploited.

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  7. joser says:

    That Howry hasn’t been put into higher leverage situations tells us nothing about how he would perform if he was. “Proven” closers benefit from much of the same mystique that “clutch” hitters do. In many cases they’re not as good as the anecdotalists would have us believe.

    It’s clear that some closers are better than others, and not every pitcher can be a closer (by choice or by skills) but they’re paid like some kind of rare bird whereas in reality they seem to turn up regularly from almost anywhere. As many commentators have pointed out, once the “proven” label is attached and they become exclusively 9th inning save-situation-only specialists their jobs are often easier than the late inning setup men who come in with men on base — yet they are paid far more .

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    • Alskor says:

      Well, Howry may very well be able to pitch just as effectively in Higher leverage situations, but Im not sure we can assume that. What I was saying was that in context of difficulty, Hoffman’s performance over the past four years was more impressive than Howry’s and that, in fact, the difference is larger than we might assume from just looking at their traditional stats.

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      • chris says:

        Howry will choke in pressure situations. Sorry to say, but its also the makeup of a pitcher that seperates a closer from an ordinary bullpen guy..
        Hoffman is the better pressure guy, even if his stuff isn’t there anymore.
        Love him or hate him, he is the better closer than Howry.

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  8. Cobrasnake says:

    What about the fact that Howry is coming off a season where he posted an ERA of 5.35 and a WHIP of 1.458 while Hoffman posted an ERA of 3.77 and a WHIP of 1.037, plus Hoffman had an ERA under 3 for 6 straight years before last year and has never posted an ERA over 4.

    Also forgot to add Howry’s ERA wasn’t just blown up by one bad game, he only had one month with an ERA under 4 last season and finished pretty bad as well.

    I know park can play a factor in some of this but there was a pretty big difference in there numbers last year and Hoffman is more proven overall.

    Also I know no one else has throwed the ERA stats out there so maybe you guys are looking at different stats, but I think ERA is atleast worth looking at and I’m not saying other stats aren’t.

    I don’t really know alot about what stats people go by when looking at pitchers numbers these days but for me I still look at alot of the normal stuff I guess, but I always take league and parks into account when looking at stats.

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  9. Pizza Cutter says:

    The correlation between reliever salary and walk rate is around .15. If you look at walk rate two years previous, it comes up to about .20 (figure that’s the data that GMs are using for their valuations when they sign those contracts.) For K rate, it’s around .20-.25. For save total (raw number), it’s in the .60 range. What are they really paying for?

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    • Millsy says:

      Pizza Cutter…a fantastic analysis the absurdity of reliever pay. Very simple…very straight forward. It’s almost comical if this data is accurate. What’s to say that those in non-save situations wouldn’t pitch just as well in save situations? At this point, I have seen very little data on any of that (references to Nuke Laloosh, John Rocker, and Ryan Leaf are appropriate, I guess…I just like bringing John Rocker into any conversation).

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  10. Jacob says:


    Clearly Hoffman got overpaid, however, your conclusion stinks.

    “Hoffman got, essentially, twice as much money for the same skills because he comes with the proven closer label. Even in a depressed economic market, the closer markup is still ridiculous.”

    Here you imply Howry was paid market value for his services, and in your article on the Howry signing you suggest that he was underpaid. The “closer markup” should be measured as a markup from fair market value, not from howry’s undermarket contract, right?

    (Also, if you look closer at Howry, and the disappearance of his fastball, and his z-contact% you may conclude that it’s not that he was unlucky last year- as you assumed in your earlier analysis- but that his skills may have deteriorated, and he carries a much greater risk going forward.)

    Finally, in addition to the closer markup, don’t ignore the hall-of-fame markup. Assign those markups about a half million dollars each and the whole one year deal does not look as absurd as you suggest. Really the only absurd thing is to assign the difference between the howry and hoffman contracts ONLY to the “proven closer” label.

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  11. HOWRY'S COUSIN says:

    how bout’ that denny hamlin! did you see the race?

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