Dave Dombrowski Still Can’t Value Relievers

In 2015, the Boston Red Sox had one of the worst bullpens in Major League Baseball. Red Sox relievers were worth -1.3 WAR with  a FIP of 4.64, finishing 30th in the league in both measures. They allowed opposing hitters to hit .261 with a BABIP of .300. Unsurprisingly last offseason, newly-installed president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski set out to remake Boston’s bullpen. Throughout his long and storied career as a general manager, Dombrowski has consistently turned lagging franchises into contenders. His one weakness, as Dave Cameron pointed out last year, has been constructing bullpens. After examining Dombrowski’s tenure with the Detroit Tigers, Cameron wrote, “There was not a single aspect to pitching that the Tigers bullpen excelled at during Dombrowski’s tenure.” In the 2015 offseason, Dombrowski made two significant trades to bolster the back end of the Red Sox pitching staff. He shipped four prospects to the San Diego Padres for closer Craig Kimbrel and sent left-handed starter Wade Miley to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for reliever Carson Smith. Both of these moves reveal that despite his years of experience, Dombrowski still has difficulty properly valuing relievers.

THE KIMBREL TRADE

From 2011-2015, Craig Kimbrel led all relievers with 12.6 WAR. He struck out 40.9% of opposing hitters, allowing a .159 batting average with a 1.73 FIP. Only Aroldis Chapman struck out more hitters over the same time period. Kimbrel’s league-leading 224 saves were 58 more than the closest reliever, Huston Street. The difference between Kimbrel and Street is roughly equivalent to the difference between Street and Addison Reed, who had the 15th-most saves from 2011-2015.

A closer examination of Kimbrel’s peripheral stats, however, reveals that he’s been slipping from his career peak in 2011 and 2012. In 2015, Kimbrel’s FIP rose to 2.68. Opposing hitters hit more home runs against him and their batting average against his four-seam fastball rose from .180 from 2011-2014 to .212 in 2015. In 2016, this decline has continued. Kimbrel’s walk rate has ballooned to 12.2%. His ground-ball and fly-ball rates have reversed themselves and he’s allowing much more hard contact. Just take a look at the chart below.

GB/FB LD% GB% FB% IFFB% SOFT MED HARD
2011-2015 1.33 20.2% 45.6% 34.2% 12.3% 20.1% 55.6% 24.3%
2016 0.64 21.0% 30.9% 48.1% 5.1% 14.8% 53.1% 32.1%

Opposing hitters are now hitting more of Kimbrel’s pitches as fly balls, they’re grounding out less often, and they’re making more hard and less soft contact than ever before. These factors have turned Kimbrel from an otherworldly reliever to merely an effective one. Looking at his yearly WAR figures, we can see that this transformation has been underway for a while now.

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
WAR 3.2 3.3 2.3 2.3 1.5

In 2015, Kimbrel ranked 19th in reliever WAR, right between Justin Wilson of the Yankees and Keone Kela of the Rangers. That’s hardly inspiring, especially since Kimbrel earned $9 million in 2015 while Wilson and Kela made the league minimum.

Considering the price in prospects the Red Sox paid to acquire Kimbrel, they need him to perform at an elite level. In November 2015, Boston sent 3B Carlos Asauje, SS Javier Guerra, OF Manuel Margot, and LHP Logan Allen to the Padres for Kimbrel. Asuaje profiles as a utility infielder. According to Ben Badler of Baseball America, Logan Allen, whom the Red Sox drafted in the 8th round, had the talent of a 2nd or 3rd round pick. Margot and Guerra were both among the top 100 or even top 50 prospects in the minors depending on which prospect list you prefer. Using the prospect valuation system developed by Kevin Creagh and Steve DiMiceli (you can read about their methodology here), I’ve estimated the cost to the Red Sox in terms of the surplus value of Margot and Guerra. Due to the varying nature of prospect valuations I’ve included the players’ rankings in Keith Law’s Top 100 prospects and Baseball America’s Top 100 as of February 2016.

Prospect BA Ranking Surplus Value Keith Law Ranking Surplus Value
Manuel Margot 56 $22,400,000 25 $62,000,000
Javier Guerra 54 $22,400,000 34 $38,200,000
Total $44,800,000 $100,200,000

Even if Kimbrel were the pitcher of 2011-2012 that would still be an astronomically high price to pay for a reliever who throws 60-70 innings per year. Now that Kimbrel is a 2-WAR reliever, it’s even worse.

THE SMITH TRADE

After acquiring Kimbrel, Dombrowski wasn’t finished remaking the Red Sox bullpen. On December 7, 2015 he traded left-handed starter Wade Miley and right-handed reliever Jonathan Aro to the Seattle Mariners for right-handed reliever Carson Smith and left-handed pitcher Roenis Elias. Aro is currently pitching at Triple-A Tacoma and Elias has a grand total of three appearances for the Red Sox this season, so the crux of the trade is Smith for Miley.

Based on their salaries and performances in 2015, Smith and Miley were both valuable pitchers and trade assets. Relying heavily on his slider, Smith held opposing hitters to a .194/.278/.262 batting line. He struck out 32.4% of opposing hitters with a 2.12 FIP and finished fifth among relievers with a 2.1 WAR. Additionally, Smith comes with five more years of team control. He isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2018 and won’t become a free agent until 2021. In 2015, Miley was a 2.6-WAR pitcher, best among any qualified starter on the Red Sox. From 2012-2015, Miley threw an average of 198 innings per season. Prior to the 2015 season, he signed a team-friendly three-year, $19.5-million contract from 2015-2017 with a $12-million club option in 2018.

After signing David Price to a seven-year contract in December 2015, the Red Sox believed they had an excess of starting pitching. With Price, Rick Porcello, Miley, Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, and Eduardo Rodriguez, they had six starters for five rotation spots. Additionally they had prospects Henry Owens, Brian Johnson, and knuckleballer Steven Wright waiting in the wings. In order to bolster the bullpen, Dombrowski decided to trade Miley, recognizing that he was the most valuable trade chip among the remaining starters. Porcello had just underperformed in 2015 and was entering the first year of a four-year, $82.5-million extension. Joe Kelly, while having an electrifying arm, had not really shown himself to be an effective starter. While Buchholz had pitched well in 2015, he managed only 18 starts. And Eduardo Rodriguez, the 23-year-old left-hander and potential top-of-the-rotation starter, was untouchable. This left Miley as the most logical trade chip.

By trading Miley, a serviceable innings eater, the Red Sox left themselves open to injuries and ineffectiveness. While Steven Wright effectively stepped into the rotation after Rodriguez dislocated his kneecap in spring training, Buchholz and Kelly were disasters. In 22.1 innings as a starter, Kelly allowed opposing hitters to hit .316/.437/.564 for a wOBA of .419 or the equivalent of Mike Trout this season. He sported a walk rate of 16% and a 5.88 FIP. In his 88 IP as a starter, Buchholz allowed opposing hitters to hit .268/.347/.470, good for a .349 wOBA and a 5.68 FIP. Since 2010, Buchholz has never been healthy and effective at the same time. For all of the talk about Kelly improving last season, a look at his peripheral numbers revealed a pitcher that was merely getting lucky with stranding runners as opposed to improving his underlying performance. By trading away Miley, the Red Sox cost themselves a cushion for the failures of Buchholz and Kelly. In order to fill the rotation void, Dombrowski traded highly-regarded pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza (the 19th-best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America) to San Diego for Drew Pomeranz. Carson Smith, meanwhile, underwent Tommy John surgery in May after straining a flexor muscle in spring training.

In trading for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, Dave Dombrowski has revealed that his biggest weakness remains properly valuing bullpen talent. For a baseball executive with a generally sterling record, this may seem like a minor flaw, but it’s one that caused him to overpay for a declining closer, to trade Miley while relying on a pair of risky starters, and then to swap a prospect who garners comparisons to Pedro Martinez to fill the resulting void in the rotation. With Smith’s injury and the failings of Buchholz and Kelly, Dombrowski has little to show for all his bullpen efforts other than generously restocking the Padres’ farm system.



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I have a PhD in History and a lifelong love of analytics. On twitter @ChrisHBouton.

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eyesoverthecity
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You had me until you brought relief pitchers WAR into the argument. In 2015, Kimbrel was indeed 19th in WAR, but that is out of 137 qualified RP… which would put him in the top 14% of all RP league wide. Have his numbered dropped off, clearly. Even so, he is still well above league average. His price tag is pretty steep for a RP, but the league is heading that way anyhow.

WAR is a great statistic when the sample size is large enough. 60-70 IP is not enough of a sample size to really glean anything of value from the WAR number.

Your point about Dombrowski’s weakness in building bullpens is solid though.

Tony Wisconsin
Member
Tony Wisconsin

Miley’s been awful this season, though, so much so that the Mariners dumped him off on the Orioles for a 27 year old non-prospect. Even if Dombrowski hypothetically traded Buchholz instead of Miley to get Smith, you would still have had the same issue with injuries/underperformance in the rotation (Rodriguez being hurt, Buchholz/Miley being ineffective) that necessitated the Pomeranz trade. Maybe this was a mismanagement of rotation assets from the start, but, even if that’s the case, it still doesn’t prove your original thesis – Dombrowski can’t build a bullpen.

Kimbrel may have been an overpay, but there weren’t a lot of clear alternatives. Maybe you go for Chapman, suspension and all, or outbid the Orioles and give a 4 year/$32 million contract to a 33 year old Darren O’Day. Instead, Dombrowski went for the guy with no injury, character, or age questions, and who has performed well so far.

Most of the bullpen arms the Red Sox have were brought in by Cherington or Epstein – Barnes, Hembree, Layne, Ross Jr., Tazawa, Uehara. Kimbrel, Smith, Ziegler, and Abad are the only Dombrowski acquisitions. Kimbrel’s been good, Smith has been hurt, Ziegler’s been fine, Abad’s been something of a bust. Too few data points to say one way or the other. If you do want to use this year, however, the Red Sox rank 13th in bullpen fWAR, despite the notable struggles by some of the key guys.

Next year, when he has to replace Tazawa, Uehara, and Ziegler, is when you’ll really be able to judge his ability to build a complete pitching staff.