Economics and Fantasy Intersect in the Oakland Bullpen

The Oakland Athletics caused a bit of a stir this past winter when they acquired Jim Johnson from the Orioles. Johnson has been one of the more consistent and durable relievers over the past several years, but for a team on a low budget, spending $10 Million on a reliever didn’t seem like the most valuable use of limited resources.

Back in February, I wrote an article at The Hardball Times about how Oakland, among other teams, might be signing veteran relievers to close in order to save on future arbitration costs with their young relievers. Looking at comparable relievers over the past few years, I found that the A’s could save in the range of $7-8M simply by preventing their young set-up guys Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle from accumulating too many saves before their first arbitration hearing.

At the time, it sounded like another smart idea by the A’s, finding a new way to improve their team at a low effective cost. After Johnson’s slow start to the season and subsequent removal from the closer role, it might not seem like such a great idea anymore.

Most of the time in fantasy baseball, we don’t need to pay much attention to economics. Occasionally, high-priced free agents may get more playing time than a young player, but generally speaking, whether a player makes $1 Million or $15 Million doesn’t affect how we value him.

In the Oakland bullpen, however, we have a perfect storm where the financial side of baseball may have a significant impact on fantasy. Regardless of how much money Johnson is making, the team has a very large incentive to avoid giving too many saves to either Cook or Doolittle, who are both in their third and final pre-arbitration year. Yesterday it was reported that the A’s would be going with a committee approach in the ninth inning, so who should you pick up if you’re looking for saves?

The economic side makes a strong case for Luke Gregerson to see a significant amount of time in the ninth inning. Gregerson uses a slider-heavy approach that makes him highly effective against right-handed batters (2.79 FIP), but hasn’t had a large platoon split (3.12 FIP against lefties). Over the past five seasons, he’s been one of the better relievers in the National League, with a 2.88 ERA and 2.94 FIP. In addition to looking good so far this season, Gregerson is in his final arbitration year and will be a free agent in 2015. This means that no matter how well he pitches and how many games he saves, he won’t affect Oakland’s bottom line in the upcoming years.

If Gregerson were to take on the right-handed half of the committee, Doolittle would be the obvious choice for the left-handed side. Doolittle has relied heavily on his fastball since arriving at the majors, riding the pitch to a 2.52 FIP and no platoon split to be seen. However, as I mentioned earlier, the A’s have a huge financial incentive to keep Doolittle’s save total down. Luckily, he’s only picked up three saves in his career.

In my original research , I noticed that for non-closer relievers, saves didn’t influence arbitration salary until they reach a certain threshold. The sample was small, but Bobby Parnell (who had 13 saves going into his first arbitration) received the same $1.6M salary as David Robertson and Sergio Romo (who only had 3 saves each). Doolittle should safely be able to pick up ten or so saves without the A’s paying a price in arbitration.

Ryan Cook is a righty with the highest fastball velocity in the A’s pen in 2013, and we’ve seen in the past that velocity correlates to closer change. However, he already has 16 saves, as he received most of Oakland’s save opportunities over the past two years when Balfour was injured or unavailable. While I’m not certain at what point saves start costing money in Arbitration, Cook is in a much riskier position than Doolittle.

Personally, I’d predict that Cook is the least likely to earn any saves this season, especially when the team has an effective righty who they can use without driving up their future payroll. However, if you don’t buy the idea that the A’s care about suppressing Cook and Doolittle’s arbitration costs, then the traditional signs would tip the scales slightly in Cook’s favor.

This brings us back to Johnson. Over the past three seasons, he’s never had an ERA over 3.00 or a FIP over 3.50. It’s possible that he’s just broken, but he’s only 30 years old and hasn’t lost any velocity this year. If Johnson pitches well and shows improved control for a few weeks, I’d have to imagine that the A’s wouldn’t hesitate to give him his job back, even if his replacement(s) are performing well.

So, what are the key takeaways from a fantasy perspective?

-Given Ryan Cook’s high save total, the A’s have the highest incentive to keep him out of the ninth inning.

-If the A’s are truly taking a closer-by-committee approach, Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle should see most of the save opportunities, but the team probably won’t want Doolittle to get more than 10-15 saves.

-In the long term, I’d expect Johnson to get his job back if he has a good stretch. If Johnson continues to struggle, Gregerson is the best cost-certain reliever on the team and therefore should get the majority of opportunities.

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Matt is a PhD student researching cancer and stem cell biology, and spends some of his free time writing about the analytics of beer at BeerGraphs and contributing to The Hardball Times. Follow him on twitter at @murphym45.

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Clyde Prompto
Clyde Prompto

Great job on this piece. Do you think arbitrators are going to figure out a way to quantify high leverage innings, and then assign monetary value to them anytime soon? I’d be pretty annoyed if I were Ryan Cook or Sean Doolittle in this situation.