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.

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Kyle H
Kyle H

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.