Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Disproportionate Spending In MLB Bullpens

There has been much debate over the giant contract Jonathan Papelbon received from the Philadelphia Phillies last week. Some media analysts contend it is worth too much per season AND too long a contract for a 31 year-old reliever. The contract is worth $50 million over four years with a fifth year vesting option worth another $10 million. Earlier in the same week, the Phillies reportedly had a handshake agreement with their 2011 closer Ryan Madson worth $44 million over four years. It was later denied by Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., but no matter whom the Phillies chose they decided they were going after the "best" and more expensive relievers available in free agency.

The closer position is not as stable as teams would like it to be. Seventy-four players recorded 2 or more saves last season. Forty-nine had 5 or more. Some were short-lived fill-ins due to injury or unavailability of the dubbed closer. However, eleven players lost their opening day role as closer. Only six players who took over the role held it from that point until the end of the season. Two players who lost the role (Joe Nathan & Joakim Soria) regained it later in the year. The World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals had eight players record saves in 2011. Five of those players were given at least five true save opportunities. Jason Motte, who ended the season as closer, recorded his first save on August 28th.

The only consistency regarding closers is the flux of the position and Major League Baseball teams' continual pursuit of veteran pitchers to be closers, requiring large contracts in both average annual salary and length of contract. Teams obviously feel they need an established reliever in the closer role and subsequently pay handsomely for it. What confuses me is that some of these teams have incredibly reliable arms sitting on their roster which cost much less and provide less risk (typically based on age alone). When are teams going to realize they are paying exorbitant amounts of money to "closers" who are sometimes no better than the players setting them up?

The Phillies may not be the best example because they are among a handful of teams who will spend well over $100 million on their 2012 roster. But, their mindset shows what can be a huge disparity between the salary of the experienced reliever and the reliever on the rise. Take the Phillies' 25 year-old lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo, who saved 8 games in 2011. Bastardo made $419K last season and is not eligible for arbitration until 2013. The Phillies could have utilized the money invested on Papelbon to tender an offer to Jose Reyes or assure themselves of re-signing Jimmy Rollins to fill their vacancy at shortstop. They would have enough to lure Michael Cuddyer to take over the vacancy in the outfield. Plus, the leftover cash could be spent elsewhere on the roster or utilized to handle future contracts with position players in the future. Isn't that a better use of resources?

Teams may want to consider utilizing the draft to build depth in their systems with the role of the reliever. The major point of staying in house with development of the closer role (or any bullpen role for that matter) is weighing the cost of a player with his worth to the team. Take Madson and Bastardo. Madson had a 2.2 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) according to and Bastardo generated a 1.4 WAR. The difference is hardly worth the extra $4.4 million they paid to Madson last season, let alone the over $10.5 million swing had the Phillies stuck with Madson. Instead, they signed Papelbon whose WAR for 2011 was 2.0. He will cost the Phillies $12.5 million this season. Get my point yet?

On a grander scale, in relation to WAR rankings, six of the top ten relievers in 2011 were not "closers" but the eighth inning set up man. David Robertson of the New York Yankees led all relievers with a 3.9 WAR in 2011. He set up Mariano Rivera, who had a 3.5 WAR. Rivera incidentally was the highest ranking closer in terms of WAR.

Another metric which should have a bearing on how relievers are paid is WPA (Win Probability Added). Eleven of the top twenty relievers in this category were predominantly eighth inning pitchers (some occasionally pitched the ninth inning). The average dollar value of the contracts for the eleven 8th inning relievers was just over $1.2 million and for the eight closers was just over $5.8 million. The disparity is further evidenced with Madson and Bastardo. Each had a 2.6 WPA in 2011.

Further, of the eleven players who pitched the eighth inning mentioned above, five are not arbitration eligible until the 2013 season. In other words they are inexpensive. Two closers in the top twenty in WPA, Milwaukee Brewers' reliever John Axford and Washington Nationals' reliever Drew Storen are also not eligible for arbitration until 2013. The Brewers and the Nationals decided to utilize young talent in the closer role allowing for spending elsewhere on the roster. The Los Angeles Dodgers rolled with a rookie, Javy Guerra, from the middle of July and he posted 21 saves in 23 chances. Guerra registered a 1.4 WAR and 1.3 WPA and was not on the major league roster until May 15th.

Do MLB teams need to step back and review where they are spending their money in the bullpen? I would say so. I'm not suggesting the general manager work with a fully loaded pen of relievers who have less than 3 years of major league experience. But, I am suggesting that they take a long look at how they draft and work players through the minor league system and into the major league roster. They could develop notch pitchers who are able to fill roles as end game relievers at a relatively inexpensive cost. Teams may argue that they are saving enough already by utilizing their younger arms in middle relief. They may say that experience in the closer role is worth the extra money. Possibly, but not 10 times the amount of money!

If the team feels they have a gem on their hands, they could sign the player to a low cost contract that eats up some arbitration eligible seasons much like Sergio Santos' deal with the Chicago White Sox. Santos closed out 30 games for the White Sox last season and was signed to a 3-year/$8.25 million contract through 2014 with club options through 2017 (his second year of free agency). The White Sox can stick with him when he turns 30 (2014) or buyout the contract and then rotate in the next reliever(s) they developed.

This process could limit the amount of money teams invest in relievers hitting their 30's due to the inherent turnover that will ensue as players become eligible for free agency. Instead of overpaying for experience, relievers' salaries would level off by the time free agency rolls around. The top young and inexpensive relievers would be holding closer roles based on performance alone. This ensures teams do not dole out large contracts to the older arms in the bullpen. It would limit the salary disparity between relievers based on their true worth to the team. Teams could set new standards for the pay scale of relief pitchers. The player dubbed the closer will still get paid well and maybe more compared to other members of the bullpen. But, he won't saddle the team with a 'break the bank' salary a 31-year old reliever doesn't deserve when there are similar or better options already on the roster.

All stats courtesy of