Two Relievers in a Pod

News Item #1 – AL East team with strong sabermetric leanings signs free-agent reliever. His peripherals are better than his ERA, and he’s considered to have some personality baggage. Reliever gets $12 million over two years – reaction is mostly positive.

News Item #2 – AL East team with strong sabermetric leanings signs free-agent reliever. His peripherals are better than his ERA, and he’s considered to have some pesonality baggage. Reliever gets $3.5 million for one year – reaction is abject mocking.

As you may have figured out by now, News Item #1 refers to the Boston Red Sox’ signing of Bobby Jenks, which took place a month ago, while News Item #2 refers to the Tampa Bay Rays’ signing of Kyle Farnsworth, which broke today. I find the differences in response to these deals somewhat amusing.

Here are the numbers for Farnsworth and Jenks over the last two seasons.

Farns: 102 IP, 2.91 BB/9, 9.09 K/9, 0.62 HR/9, 43.0% GB%, 3.79 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 3.54 xFIP
Jenks: 106 IP, 2.89 BB/9, 9.34 K/9, 1.02 HR/9, 53.3% GB%, 4.08 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 3.13 xFIP

Pretty similar, no? Their walk and strikeout rates are basically identical over a similar number of innings. Despite putting more balls in the air, Farnsworth has allowed fewer home runs, which is the main driver of the lower ERA. Both of them underperformed their peripherals due to equally high BABIPs, and are often considered to be stuff guys who haven’t lived up to their potential. They both have fastballs that average 95 MPH and are considered to have closer stuff with less-than-closer makeup. So, why did Jenks get twice as much money for twice as many years, and why are the reactions to their deals so different?

The easy answer is their performances in years prior to 2009. Farnsworth was up-and-down during his tenure in Chicago, and then almost entirely down in New York, and he’s been an easy target for criticism from fan bases in major cities. His high-profile failures have earned him a reputation which he simply hasn’t been able to shake.

Meanwhile, Jenks was considered a premier closer, racking up 117 saves in four years, and posting ERAs of 2.77 and 2.63 in 2007 and 2008, respectively. His postseason performance in 2005 as the closer for a World Championship team helped cement his reputation as a legitimate relief ace, and he kept that reputation until his ERA ballooned this year.

While Farnsworth might have been near Jenks’ equal the last two years, he certainly wasn’t in years prior, and the lingering memories of past seasons drives a large part of the perception difference between the two. However, given some of the changes Farnsworth has made to his pitching repertoire, it might be time to deemphasize his early career results.

Last spring, I wrote about some of the changes the Royals had made to Farnsworth’s pitching mix, having him add a cutter and getting him to be more of a three-pitch reliever, rather than just a fastball/slider guy. The addition of the new pitch coincided with a significant spike in his groundball rate and this year, he saw a large drop in his walk rate as well. As such, the more recent version of Farnsworth has been quite a bit better than past vintages.

He still throws hard, but that’s not all he does anymore, and we’ve seen the addition of a cutter leading to dramatically better results for quite a few pitchers over the last few years. At this point, we have to acknowledge that the addition of a cut fastball to a pitcher’s repertoire can lead to sustained improvement, even later in a pitcher’s career, and we have to adjust the way we weight a pitcher’s performance when he was not featuring the pitch. I’m not suggesting we throw out all of the pre-2009 data, but certainly, it should weigh less in our estimation of what kind of pitcher Farnsworth can be than the more recent two years, and that data suggests that he’s actually a pretty useful bullpen arm.

Given their performance records and repertoires, it’s hard to make an argument that Jenks is a quality pitcher while Farnsworth is not. You either like them or hate them both, because they’re too similar to inspire such different reactions. Once you factor in the size and length of their respective contracts, it seems pretty clear to me that the Rays got a better deal with Farnsworth than the Red Sox did with Jenks.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

38 Responses to “Two Relievers in a Pod”

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  1. Kyle says:

    Why don’t we talk about how Gregg got very similar money as Jenks and has worse periphs, not to mention Jenks won’t even close in Boston where he could have with Baltimore.

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

    IMO, had Jenks signed the same exact deal with CWS, it would have been a “bad move”.

    I think both signings are likely plus moves for their respective teams.

    I think, even for sabermetric fans, there is still quite a bit of bias involved.

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  3. Sandy Kazmir says:

    This is going to be fun.

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  4. Bill says:

    Not that it’s a *huge* deal for relievers like these, but Jenks is 5 years younger.

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  5. Lee says:

    Meh, classic Dave cherry pickin.

    30 year old, 3.19 career FIP
    35 year old, 4.31 career FIP (throw out his early years and it’s still around 4)

    Yea, Jenks is worth about 2/12 and Farnsworth is worth about 1/3.5. Farns has had a decent couple years, so it’s worth the 3.5 to hope to get that type of production out of him again, but I don’t seem them as comparables to the same degree you do. However, I don’t think the deal warrants negative criticism, as you said it has gotten. I’ll take your word for it. Certainly not a horrible deal.

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    • Bryz says:

      Did you completely ignore that Dave used xFIP?

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      • Lee says:

        If over 830 innings a pitcher’s xFIP is more than a half a run over his FIP, it’s probably safe to say he gives up more homers than the average guy. By how much? Well, not by as much as it looks, you still have to regress it, but that’s a decent sample size.

        You can’t blindly take stats at face value, everything has context. Dave pretty clearly cherry picked some stats to make his point, without presenting the entire picture. Which, tongue in cheek, is what I did in my post, to make it clearly look like Jenks was a slam dunk over Farnsworth.

        The truth is, both deals are in the range of being OK. Jenks on the good size of OK, and the Farnsworth deal, probably just what he deserved to get. I agreed with Dave’s thesis. The Rays shouldn’t take flak for this deal. But it certainly wasn’t as good of a deal as Jenks to the Sox.

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      • philosofool says:

        Yes Lee, everytng is context. The conext here is home park. xFIP is park neutral, FIP isn’t.

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      • Lee says:

        Not sure what your point is, philosofool. You do know that all xFIP does is normalize HRs, right? Farnsworth’s career innings pitched

        CHI – neutral/ery slight hitters park
        NYY – neutral
        KC (for less than 100 IP) – solidly a pitchers park

        This adds up to: Farnsworth has pitched in a neutral HR environment over the course of his career.

        All citing xFIP is doing is claiming his HR rate will get better than it has been throughout his career.

        But I’m sure you understood that…

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    • Nadingo says:

      I don’t think it’s “cherry pickin” when you actually put forward an argument for why it makes sense to consider recent data to be more important than career data. Did you miss this paragraph?

      “While Farnsworth might have been near Jenks’ equal the last two years, he certainly wasn’t in years prior, and the lingering memories of past seasons drives a large part of the perception difference between the two. However, given some of the changes Farnsworth has made to his pitching repertoire, it might be time to deemphasize his early career results.”

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      • Lee says:

        I stand very corrected. Looking at his cutter and related stats, it’s pretty compelling. I retract what I said. This is a great pickup, and it looks like Farns could really repeat the last two year’s FIP performance.

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  6. Dave, this is an excellent post. I love the contrarian view, but…

    The last 2 seasons Kyle Farnsworth has a clutch score of -3.81. That’s worst in baseball among RP’s (min 50IP) by a wide margin. Next closest is Esmerling Vasquez at -2.57.

    I was forced to watch these 2 seasons from my sofa and at the K, and I can say, without hesitation, that The Professor deserves all the abject mocking that the bounds of human dignity will allow. The Rays and their army of 2%’ers may not deserve such ridicule, but Mr. Farnsworth has a heap of outstanding karmic debt payable to Kansas City, plus the juice.

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    • Lee says:

      Not that many people give much (or any) weight to clutch score around these parts, but that is hilarious.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      IIRC, Posnanski made a post detailing Farnsworth’s performance in close games v. non-close games, and the conslusion was thathe pitches great in non-close games, and not so well in close games.

      But, that has seemingly been the rep on Farnsworth “great ability, weak mind”.

      Posnanski: In high leverage situations, the league hit .548/.605/.774 against Kyle Farnsworth.

      This is where looking at MLB players as if they were NFL players “6’4, 230, muscular build, 95mph” can lead people to faulty expectations.

      Not sure whether Jeff Smardzija is the next Farnsowrth, but they could be cousins in performance.

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    • Detroit Michael says:

      Farnsworth’s clutch or WPA performance in Kansas City was awful. Sure, it’s probably not predictive, but I think it had a lot to do with his lesser contract offer.

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  7. MikeS says:

    In addition to the above well thought out statistical evaluations I can share my own observations. In 2008 the White Sox were in a ntight pennant race with the Twins. They had to play a double header against the Tigers on September 14th. After winning the first, they were cruising in the second till giving up 2 in the 7th and 5 in the 8th to tie the game at 7. Bobby Seay started the 8th and got two outs but gave up a hit and a walk. In comes Farnsworth. As a White Sox fan I said “Thank you Jimmy Leyland” and sat back, all tension gone. An infield single and a DeWayne Wise (DeWayne Wise!) grand slam and -0.391 WPA later my faith in Farnsworthless was rewarded.

    Oh, and Jenks has 2.8 more WAR in 500 fewer innings.

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  8. Joel says:

    There’s a reason that every fanbase that has ever watched Farnsworth pitch for their team hates his guts. I am looking forward to the Rays fanbase being added to that long list.

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  9. mister_rob says:

    Theo could sign Willie Bloomquist to a multi year deal and most of the “expert” analysis would be positive

    jim Hendry is an idiot for giving Dempster 14m a year
    Hendry is an idiot for trading so many prospects for a relatively cheap Garza
    But last year everyone loved the idea of Theo giving Lackey 86m

    Look at the numbers. Lackey is a less durable version of dempster

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    • Sky says:

      Everyone loved the Lackey deal, really? Huh, not what I remember.

      The Lackey deal confused me, but in his favor, his stats have come in the AL.

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    • McExpos says:

      Not to feed the trolls, but in last year’s post on Fangraphs, Matthew Carruth wrote,

      “Even still, this looks like a vast overpay in terms of annual value. And possibly worse than that is guaranteeing five years to a pitcher, much less for his age 31-35 seasons.”

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      “But that’s the beauty of this deal for the Cubs – they’re not paying him like they expect him to repeat his 2008 season. At $14 million per season, they’ve essentially valued him as a +2.5 win pitcher, which would translate to a 4.25 FIP over 180 innings. In other words, they’ve built a regression of almost a full run per nine innings into Dempster’s expected performance, based on this contract.

      If Dempster really did establish a new level of performance in ’08, this is going to go down as a massive steal for the Cubs – they’d be getting an all-star pitcher for the same price that Carlos Silva got last winter. He can take a pretty sizable step back and this still would be a positive value contract. Essentially, for this to be a bad deal for the Cubs, Dempster’s going to have to get injured. If he stays healthy, this looks to be a big winner for the north side club.”

      You were saying?

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    • NBarnes says:

      Actually, I was really down on the Lackey deal. Like, really, really down. And the Beckett extension. And spent the season in a gloomy mope of justified low expectations.

      And my reaction to Jenks was ‘6 a year for two years? For a reliever?’.

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    • Nadingo says:

      I blame the Tuck! Sez cartoons. Not for anything related to Farnsworth. I just really don’t like them.

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  10. Sky says:

    One projection system (CHONE):
    Jenks – 3.23 ERA
    Farnsworth – 3.71 ERA

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  11. West says:

    They can out-drink 95% of the MLB that’s for sure.

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  12. 81 says:

    If the signing of Farnsworth seems principally derided it could be because Yankee fans are very loud.

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  13. frug says:

    One other thing to consider; $3.5 million is a much bigger investment for the Rays than $6 million a year is for the Red Sox. While the one year length protects the Rays long term, it could still effect them this year if they need to make a midseason deal and ownership isn’t willing to take on more payroll. The Red Sox of course of have significantly more payroll flexibility, and it’s difficult to imagine Jenks contract having any real effect on their ability to make trades.

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    • pft says:

      The Rays are well below last years payroll of 70 million and will likely not exceed 35 million unless they spend big for a DH and additional bullpen help. The Red Sox OTOH are right at the salary cap threshold, and given the teams relucatance to spend past the threshold, Jenks 6 million will have more impact on the Red Sox abaility to add payroll during the season if any holes develop (much like 2010) than the Rays.

      Farnsworth at least looks like he keeps himself in shape, so his 35 yo body may be as young as Jenks 30 yo. He is signed for only 1 year and his past 2 years he has been pitching better than his career numbers due to the addition of the cutter, unlike Jenks.

      Jenks will also find himself pitching in non closing situations, and some closers do not handle this well. Jenks did pitch better in non-closing situations last year so maybe he will do ok with a different role. However, there is a big difference pitching the 7th and pitching the 9th in non closing situations.

      Anyways, the Red Sox can afford to go after the younger and more established releiver. The Rays are in a different situation and got a good deal to fill one of their holes in the pen, and I look for them to do the same at DH. I would not count the Rays out at all.

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      • 81 says:

        Baseball has a salary cap now? A lot’s changed since I went to bed.

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      • bcp33bosox says:

        @81, it is pretty obvious PFT is talking about the Luxury Tax (178M this year), which I have heard it referred to numerous times as a *soft* salary cap…and the BoSox have tried hard in the past to stay below it, so they could have more flexibility and that is why the are waiting on (announcing) the Gonzo extension (so they could make more moves before opening day, i.e. Crawford, Jenks and Wheeler and not get hammered on the tax). The fact they are already at this threshold, barring any salary dump moves (Scutaro or Cameron could be very expensive bench players) and if their recent tendencies hold true, as pft said, they will not be very flexible this year. Though they should/could be again in 2012. I would also agree with pft’s analysis of the Rays still being a possible contender in the ALEast and WC.

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    • Sandy Kazmir says:

      In that case the Red Sox probably haven’t made a bad move in a decade. Julio Lugo was a good deal because they have the financial flexibility to absorb it. John Lackey is a good deal because they have the financial flexibility to absorb it. Josh Beckett is a good deal…. Sox fans bust my gut at the seams.

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  14. Will says:

    There’s two things you are overlooking: papelbon and jenks. Jenks is a proven closer who can step in if pap gets traded. I’m not saying this should happen, but it’s likely to happen. Farnsworth has big platoon splits, so hes not goog closer insurance if he faces three Lefties in the 9th, at least from the red sox standpoint

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  15. highrent says:

    This article represents why Dave still rules this site. Good article Dave.

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  16. Peter says:

    What bugs me about this article is that Dave notes that the difference in contracts likely comes down to past history, and then at the end he says the two pitchers “have” to be seen as similar…based on his opinion that the earlier results should not really be taken into account.

    Dave, do you honestly think the Red Sox would have signed Jenks to this deal if they were guaranteed that he would perform like he has over the past two years? Don’t you think they expect some degree of rebound.

    The fact of the matter is, given how the Beltre signing (another player coming off the lowest perceived value of his career) worked out, clearly the Red Sox and the evaluators of this signing ARE taking the earlier results into account, hence the different reactions.

    As for Farnsworth…the people who have noted his poor mental makeup and weak clutch performance are right on the money (and I still can’t believe that Dave said they BOTH have “less than closer makeup”). Following the 2005 season, I asked an ATL fan friend of mine if he wanted Farnsworth to return to the team, as “he did really well for you!” To my complete surprise, he told me not to trust the numbers alone, and that Farnsworth didn’t live up to his, something that was confirmed to me as I watched him a lot during his time in NY. Farnsworth is Exhibit A that even the best analyzed numbers sometimes mislead.

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  17. MikeS says:

    This post demonstrates the limitations of sabermetrics when used without any reality checks. Jenks was a lock-down closer for a contender (and ’05 World Series winner) for 4 years, and an effective one when healthy for the last 2 years. Farnsworth has been one of many good-stuff-but-can’t-close guys his whole career. From 2007 – 2010, Farnsy has exactly 1 save, with 11 blown saves. Careerwise, it’s 27 SV, 36 BS. You are actually comparing Jenks, who saved as many games (27) games LAST YEAR (4 blown) as Farnsy has in his entire career? Jenks’ 173 SV/26 BS mean nothing compared to Farnsy’s 27 SV/36 BS? Has Farnsy’s 95-mph heat inexplicably scared the last 7 teams he’s played for from using him as a closer? Do you believe Farnsy’s just been inexplicably unfortunate HIS ENTIRE CAREER since his peripherals are so gosh darn good? Here’s the reality: Jenks’ problem isn’t his head, since he’s always been borderline retarded – that actually helps him forget his bad outings. It’s his health. He is a very large man who had a good size pin in his pitching elbow before he ever reached the bigs. Farnsy’s problem isn’t his head either, it’s his guts. Some guys put up great numbers in the 7th, but can’t pitch the 8th. Farnsy can’t pitch when it’s close. As for that golden cutter, Jenks started throwing it 2-3 years ago, and it is effective if you have the guts to close. Not widely known, but Jenks was a starter with the Angels — he has always had other pitches to go to if he needed them.

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