The Multi-Year Relievers at Mid-Season

Handing out multi-year deals to relievers is a dicey proposition, but every year we see teams hand them out. This past offseason 10 teams handed out multi-year deals to 15 relief pitchers, totaling $160.5 million total and $54.7 million in 2011 salary. Yet to date they’ve produced just 3.9 WAR among them. Maybe WAR isn’t the best measure of relief pitchers, but the other stats don’t make the signings look much better. They have also combined for 162 shutdowns, but 71 meltdowns — or a meltdown every 6.5 games pitched. Here’s how they break down.

A few observations:

  • Randy Choate is absolutely killing it. Signed for the lowest salary, both in 2011 and total, of any multi-year reliever, he’s produced a half win above replacement despite pitching the fewest innings among the healthy crew. But the most important aspect of his game is his inherited runners scored percentage. Not only is it lowest among the healthy relievers, but he has inherited the most runners. True, he’s only facing a batter, maybe two, at a time, but he’s certainly making the most of those opportunities.
  • The Yankees have already paid Pedro Feliciano more this year than Choate will make in his two years with the Marlins. My colleague and RotoGraphs contributor Mike Axisa argued the case for the Yankees signing Choate this winter. We might yet see Choate in pinstripes: they have asked the Marlins about his availability.
  • Rafael Soriano is obviously the biggest bust of the group, though no one needs a chart to know that. There was little chance he’d live up to his $35 million contract (22% of the the $160.5 million total), but his injury makes it a near impossibility. His contract would have crippled a less financially sound team. Overall the Yankees paid $43 million for five years of two relievers, and have gotten just 15 mostly horrible innings so far.
  • Scott Downs pitched just three games in April, yet has recovered to be the most valuable reliever in this group. He might be tied with Crain in WAR, but Downs has done it in far fewer innings. He has also done a better job keeping his inherited runners at bay, something that doesn’t show up in his ERA-. Even more impressive: through his first 16.1 innings (18 G) he struck out just seven batters, or 3.9 per nine. In his next 16 appearances (13.1 IP) he has struck out 13, or just under a batter per ining.
  • Since a little break after getting shellacked against Toronto on May 16, Joaquin Benoit has thrown 19.1 innings and has struck out 20 while walking five, with a 1.40 ERA total (14 inherited runners, 3 scored). He’s still probably not worth that long-term investment, but it’s looking better than it did earlier in the season.
  • After the A’s signed Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes, Dave Cameron asked why Billy Beane was buying relief pitchers. Fat lot of good it did him. Balfour has been OK, while Fuentes has been predictably mediocre. Maybe he can get a return on one or both of them at the deadline or during the offseason. But it likely wasn’t worth the financial outlay, or, in the case of Balfour, the forfeited draft pick.
  • The two former Twins relievers are having different experiences after signing similar contracts. Jesse Crain has good traditional numbers, but has allowed a few too many inherited runners to score on his watch. The six meltdowns are also a bit troubling. Then again, Matt Guerrier has been far worse in both categories.
  • As a group these 15 pitchers do a better than average job of holding inherited runners. The league rate is 29%, while they’re at 22.5%. Yet they’re melting down at a slightly above-average rate. The league melts down once every 6.8 games, while, as mentioned, this group melts down once every 6.5 games.

This group has plenty of time to recover for the second half, but at the same time they have plenty of time to falter, too. The performance as a whole might improve, as guys like Benoit put their slow starts further behind them, and guys like Soriano get healthy. But there are also opportunities for guys to go from good to bad, or from mediocre to bad. We see it so often with relief pitchers. It remains a wonder that general managers deem them fit for multi-year agreements.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

26 Responses to “The Multi-Year Relievers at Mid-Season”

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  1. Trotter76 says:

    What’s the definition of a meltdown for the purposes of this article?

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    • lex logan says:

      Good question — there was an article about shutdowns/meltdowns earlier this year, but there ought to be a definition in the Glossary. My memory is that these are based on changes in Win Probability, with a 6% swing qualifying as a Shutdown or Meltdown. I remember the article did not make it clear if that was an absolute difference or a proportional change.

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  2. Mike B. says:

    Notable about Scott Downs is his lofty GB%, which sits at a career-best 67.4% (previous best was 65.6% in 2008; career average is ~57%). With that high of a GB% it makes sense that his HR/FB rate is low; he’s given up only one HR in 29 2/3 IP.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      “With that high of a GB% it makes sense that his HR/FB rate is low; he’s given up only one HR in 29 2/3 IP.”

      Why would his skills at inducing groundballs make his flyballs stay in the park?

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      • MetsKnicksRutgers says:

        If only ~33% of BIP are even in the air, your HR/FB could be really high, but your HR rate would still be low compared to a guy with 40% GB rate.

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  3. Ben says:

    Is that a typo that Randy Choate only has 18.7 IP across 41 games?

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  4. Dan says:

    What about Bobby Jenks?

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  5. joe says:

    And why isn’t Mariano Rivera on this list?

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  6. I still don’t understand why teams waste money on relievers. Look at San Diego last year and Cleveland this year. A bullpen is a very complicated thing, and just because a setup man does well in one situation does not mean he will do well in another.

    Even if you filled a team with the top 5 closers, I bet they wouldn’t have the best bullpen in baseball. It’s a group effort.

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  7. Tough Spot says:

    While these deals by and large haven’t worked out, I can see how a GM that doesn’t like the looks of the arms in his own organization or in the freely-available talent pool sees this as the cost of doing business. The alternative to signing a Brian Fuentes type guy to a 2 or 3 year deal last off-season wasn’t signing him for 1 year; it was taking a gamble with the guys you could get on a Spring Training invite (i.e. replacement level player) or trading for cost-controlled players (e.g. DBacks in the Reynolds deal, Twins with Hardy, or Marlins with Maybin), which can be a mixed bag, too. Maybe this year’s crop will lead to a market correction, but as of last off-season, adding an “established veteran” meant either multi-year deal or going without one.

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  8. CheeseWhiz says:

    I just wonder how many more years it will take before GMs and casual fans understand how volatile and fungible relievers are. Cashman tried to tell ownership that inventing so much in Soriano was a bad idea, and yet they forced his hand anyway and many Yankees fans thought that their bullpen problems were solved.

    Smart teams will continue to rummage through the scrap heap and see who sticks in training camp while developing talent from within. I’m just glad the Mariner’s cashed in on JJ Putz while they had the chance (and I LOVED they guy.)

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  9. DW says:

    Might as well call this the former-Rays relief pitching report

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      The Twins get lots of shit on their site for being a non-saber team, but there are just as many missed stupid moves for them in here too. Letting their entire non-closer pen go was (from a saber perspective) a great decision, this says that very clearly.

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      • Joe says:

        Trading Wilson Ramos for “allstar” closer Matt Capps (and then being stuck with a 7mil arbitration year with Capps), will pretty much need multiple years of good decision making to offset it.

        When you factor that in are their bullpen decisions a net positive or negative? (I say this partly in jest)

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      • Small Sample Goodness says:

        Add that the $7 million investment in Capps likely forced them to trade Hardy for a steaming bag of poo.

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      • Joe says:

        Ahh… the Ramos trade.. the gift that keeps on giving….

        And the poo was for future potential relievers…. (probably necessitated because they were smart to let the other relievers go?)

        So basically they lost Ramos and Hardy to switch out one interchangeable set of arms for another….

        Well to be fair they got a season and a half of an ‘allstar’ closer (read: the National need a representative in the ASG; who in reality is more or less a slightly above average arm at the time who didn’t strikeout a lot of people and had a career xFIP around 4)

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  10. daniel heit says:

    Mike B – “With that high of a GB% it makes sense that his HR/FB rate is low; he’s given up only one HR in 29 2/3 IP.”

    Yirmiyahu – “Why would his skills at inducing groundballs make his flyballs stay in the park?”

    Mike B, Yirmiyahu is right, their is no relationship between flyballs and groundballs. The league average is 10.5% (I think?) So that means that even if he had a 90% GB rate and lets say that the other 10% were of the non GB inducing variety his HR/FB% number could be very high or very low depending on luck, park factors, pitch type and other variables. So if you are new to advanced stat metrics or terms, understanding this particular stat is important because it will also help you understand xFIP which uses the league average HR rate in place of the pitchers. In the case of Scott Downs, who has made a career out extreme GB tendencies (did 66% in full season 2008) , even if he regresses to the average HR/FB rate he should still be overly effective. After all, if 68% of non-strikeout outs are put on the ground and you then give up a homer on a missed pitch you still are 68% likely to get a ground out on the next batter with no one. There you have some SABR 101 from someone who thinks he just graduated the 101 course and wants to pass on da knowledge.

    PS – Kevin Gregg might suck and have an negative WAR and makes to much money but it is really impressive that he is never bad enough for long enough stretches to lose his job. In fantasy I am working on a deal to acquire him without giving up a closer of my own and we are working out the details of additional players. He is cheap and the owner thinks he sucks and will give him up for next to nothing because he has a bad WHIP and thinks his ERA will soon follow (probably true). But I say who really cares? How much is 65 innings (cut that in half for this mid-season trade) going to affect the other 11 Starting Pitchers total innings combined I am running out there. He is the epitome of “saves are saves” – Anyone think my logic is flawed or Gregg is going to blow up?

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  11. Antonio Bananas says:

    Due to how specialized some relievers are, should we also study the usage? Like, say you send in a lefty to face a right to kills lefties, not only that but the lefty is a fastball/slider pitcher and the hitter kills fastball/slider guys. The lefty does give up the runs, but does it really make him worse than a guy more properly used?

    I think of relievers like guns. You use different types for different game(s). You don’t hunt deer with a shotgun and you don’t put Scott Proctor in with the game on the line and runners on.

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  12. Oasis says:

    So is there any particular reason why Carlos Marmol and his 3 year contract were excluded?

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  13. Garrett says:

    This article sucks. Just randomly exclude pitchers for whatever chickenshit reason.

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  14. wes says:

    re: the fungibility of relief pitchers. SSS and all but this year the Phillies are a good example of this. Madson 15 SV in 16 SVO; Bastardo 5 SV in 5 SVO; Contreras 5 SV in 5 SVO. It’s not until the far end of the bullpen that performance has dropped off (Baez and Carpenter are each 0 for 1 in save opportunities–and Baez chould be the poster child for the cautionary tale against giving multiyear contracts to bullpen filler).

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