Relief Pitchers:Why are Teams Giving Up So Much for Them?

imagesBy: Greg Goldstein

The relief pitching market has been a main focus of this offseason. Teams have made many trades and signings to improve the back end of their respective bullpens. The surprising thing is that a lot of these teams that are acquiring these relievers already have proven players in place and for contracts that have been larger than ever before. With the recent success of the Kansas City Royals and their great bullpen, it is clear that many teams see value in beefing up their own bullpen. My personal view is that the value of having a premier bullpen is being overhyped because of the Royal’s recent success, and the way many teams are adding bullpen pieces shows a major flaw in how teams think they should build their roster. I’m going to take a look at some the individual bullpen moves from this offseason and also explain why teams are focusing on getting multiple relievers that have closer ability and have been willing to spend the money to do so.

Bullpen Offseason Activity

Boston Red Sox trade for RHP Craig Kimbrel (Breakdown here)

Houston Astros trade for RHP Ken Giles

New York Yankees trade for LHP Aroldis Chapman

Seattle Mariners trade for RHP Joaquin Benoit (Breakdown here)

Detroit Tigers trade for RHP Fransisco Rodriguez (Breakdown here)

Baltimore Orioles sign RHP Darren O’Day to a 4 yr $31 million contract

Oakland Athletics sign right-handed pitchers Ryan Madson to a 3 yr $22 million contract and John Axford to a 2 yr $10 million contract

Houston Astros sign LHP Tony Sipp to a 3 yr $18 million contract

Washington Nationals sign RHP Shawn Kelley to a 3 yr $16 million contract

Seattle Mariners sign RHP Steve Cishek to a 2 yr $10 million contract

The Analysis

There has been a lot of movement of highly valued relievers this offseason, more than I can ever remember. High-end closers like Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Ken Giles have all switched teams, while all stars like Andrew Miller, Mark Melancon and Greg Holland have also been speculated of being traded. In addition to the great returns these closers have fetched in trades (besides Chapman because of his possible suspension), teams have also had to give up a lot of money on the open market to add formidable closers, but for late inning relievers as well. Darren O’Day accepted a deal for four seasons that averages just under $8 million a year and Ryan Madson, who agreed to a minor league deal with the Royals last season, was able to get a three-year contract that averages a little over $7 million a season. Giving this kind of money to a non-closer is something that is relatively new on the free agent market. I can see the value in investing big money into relievers because they cost significantly less than starters off the same caliber. But while these relievers have performed well for most of there career, the performance of relief pitchers are just much more volatile than that of starting pitchers, meaning that investing big money and expecting similar performance than in the past is much more risky for a player who normally only plays one inning every two nights or so.

Looking at recent contracts given to relief pitchers on the free agent market, you can see why I may be skeptical of signing a highly-priced reliever, and some that weren’t even paid to close at that.

2014 (2015 stats)
David Robertson (4 yr,$46 mil)-3.41 ERA,34 saves,7 blown saves

Andrew Miller (4 yr,$36 mil)-2.04 ERA,36 saves,2 blown saves

Luke Gregerson (3 yrs,$18.5 mil)-3.10 ERA,31 saves,6 blown saves

Zach Duke (3 yrs,$15 mil)-3.41 ERA,26 holds

Sergio Romo (2 yr,$15 mil)-2.98 ERA,34 holds

Fransisco Rodriguez (2 yr,$13 mil)-2.21 ERA,38 saves,2 blown saves

Pat Neshek (2 yr,$12.5 mil)-3.62 ERA,26 holds

2013 (Stats with team since signing)

images-1Joe Nathan (2 yr,$20 mil)-4.81 ERA,35 saves,7 blown saves

Boone Logan (3 yr,$16.5 mil)-5.54 ERA,30 holds

Joe Smith (3 yr,$15.75 mil)-2.65 ERA,50 holds

Fernando Rodney (2 yr,$14 mil)-3.72 ERA,64 saves,10 blown saves

Javier Lopez (3 yr,$13 mil)-2.36 ERA,32 holds

Grant Balfour (2 yr,$12 mil)-5.03 ERA,12 saves,3 blown saves

JP Howell (2 yr,$11.5 mil)-1.94 ERA,36 holds

Brian Wilson (1 yr,$10 mil)-4.66 ERA,22 holds

2012 (Stats with team since signing)

images-1Rafael Soriano (2 yr,$28 mil)-3.16 ERA,75 saves, 15 blown saves

Jonathan Broxton (3 yr,$21 mil)-4.11 ERA,12 holds

Jeremy Affeldt (3 yr,$18 mil)-3.72 ERA,38 holds

Joe Blanton (2 yr, $15 mil)-6.04 ERA,

Mike Adams (2 yr,$12 mil)-3.96 ERA,14 holds

Mariano Rivera (1 yr,$10 mil)-2.11 ERA,44 saves,7 blown saves

If you look at this list of relief pitchers, you can see how varied the results are for all of these pitchers no matter the amount of money they got. In some cases, closers who got big contracts performed up to that level, see Andrew Miller and Mariano Rivera, however there have been many relievers that have not performed to the value they got on the open market. Guys like David Robertson (2014) and Jeremy Affeldt (2012) have been solid over the course of their contracts so far, but when teams signed these relievers to the contracts they did, I’m sure they were expecting better results. There have also been guys like Grant Balfour (2013), Boone Logan (2013) and Joe Nathan (2013) who were complete busts for their franchises. There have also been relievers that have over-performed in terms of how much they got on their deals. Fransisco Rodriguez (2014) gave the Brewers a good performance after signing a modest deal. Lefties JP Howell (2013) and Javier Lopez (2013) have pitched great since signing as well, especially when comparing them to some relievers who got significantly more more money in free agency. But when looking at all these relievers’ contracts, it is clear that there is a lot of unpredictability and spending big on relievers, not just closers, have had mixed results, and I didn’t even get into the disaster of that contract that the Phillies gave Jonathan Papelbon in 2011. There have been many relievers that have provided the same value for their teams at much less of a cost, and the big contracts teams sign these proven pitchers to do not provide value because, in my opinion, a pitcher who can be signed to less money can and have performed very similarly in recent seasons.

So Why are Teams Giving Out Big Deals to Relievers?

The sudden value that teams see in having an elite bullpen stems from the success of the Kansas City Royals with their bullpen the past couple of seasons. A lot of the teams in the MLB seem to think that spending more on proven relievers means that they’ll have a better bullpen. However, teams don’t seem to understand how the Royals were able to form that dominant pen. Here is the Royals bullpen and how they were acquired…

Closer-Wade Davis (Acquired in a trade with the Rays that involved James Shields)

Setup man-Kelvin Herrera (signed as an amateur free agent in 2006)

Luke Hochevar (Signed to a 2 year $10 million deal last offseason)

Ryan Madson (Signed to a minor league contract last offseason)

Franlkin Morales (Signed to a minor league contract last offseason)

Kris Medlen (Signed to a 2 year $8.5 million deal with incentives last offseason)

Joe Blanton (Signed to a minor league deal contract last offseason)

As you can see, none of the relievers that the Royals had in their dominant bullpen last offseason were acquired in blockbuster deals or were signed to big free agent contracts. In fact, most of them were reclamation projects that agreed to minor league deals to prove themselves. All-star Wade Davis was a smaller piece in a larger deal to acquire a quality pitcher in James Shields. Kelvin Herrera was signed to a small contract as an amateur and Luke Hochevar didn’t even pitch in 2014. Morales, Medlen and Blanton were converted starters who provided very good value. Yet all of these pitchers are a big reason why teams are spending and giving away so much to have a bullpen as good as theirs. This list doesn’t even include Greg Holland, whom the defending world champs drafted in the 10th round of the 2007 MLB draft. There will always be a few dominant relievers where teams know what they are going to get, but and it is difficult to find successful relievers off the scrap heap, but relief pitchers are very unpredictable by nature because of the sputtering one bad performance can cause and how one mistake can cost them in a big way.

Even with the unpredictability of many relief pitchers, I do also see great value in the bullpen when trying to build a World Series caliber team. There have been many relievers, such as the pitchers listed above, that have come out of no where to pitch very well for not that much money. Last season, Mark Melancon saved the most games of any relief pitcher. Pittsburgh traded for the all-star in a deal to get rid of highly priced reliever Joel Hanrahan. Trevor Rosenthal, who was second in saves, was drafted by the Cardinals, and does not command a lot of money yet. Other All-Stars in 2015 like Brad Boxberger, Dellin Betances, Zach Britton, Darren O’Day and Glen Perkins were not acquired through a big trade or signing by their respective teams. The list of surprising seasons from relievers in 2015 goes on and on and it really shows that productive relievers can be found at a very good value.

My main takeaway from all of this is not that relievers are not valuable, but that teams do not need to sign relievers to big contracts to have a successful bullpen, and in many cases relievers who sign for less perform close to the guys getting a much greater amount of money. The value can come from converting failed starters to relievers, like Zach Britton, drafting pitchers with electric stuff, like Ken Giles or seeing value in a pitcher coming back from injury, like Kris Medlen or Luke Hochevar. Back-end-of the bullpen talent, not just closers, have been acquired for a greater amount of money this offseason than in years past. In my opinion, I rather try to sign multiple guys that have the potential of a Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales, in addition to trying to find young studs in my minor league system like Jake McGee or Ken Giles, rather than spend a lot of money or give up key prospects for a slightly better-than-average season from David Robertson or the reliability Craig Kimbrel, when that money could be spent on beefing up your starting rotation or lineup.

Many teams are now feeling pressured to add multiple relievers who would be closers for many other teams and have been giving up a great amount of value to do so, while sacrificing making improvements in other areas. There may be a great reason why so many teams are spending to get that dominant bullpen that the Royals have, but I think that may just be what the defending World Series Champions want.

Do you think it’s wise to spend big one free agent relievers? What free agent reliever do you think will surprise in 2016?




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