[Sorry for the late posting. Chris and I had a technical screwup. Enjoy! -Mark]
By Chris Glover
Reed McPhail over at FanGraphs had a recent post questioning why teams continue to overpay relievers when all the evidence suggests that the wins they add to the team over the course of a season rarely justify their lofty price tags. McPhail notes:
Over the past three years, teams have paid an average of 4.8 million per win for relievers on one-year deals.That figure increases to 7.0 million per win on multi-year deals.
Based on their average Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the past three years, top line starters like Halladay ($2.8m per win), Sabathia ($3.6m) and Lee ($3.5m) should all deliver considerably better value this year despite signing the three biggest pitcher contracts of the past few years. Looking further down the list at the next level of starters shows an even greater gulf in value with Lincecum ($2.0m), Weaver ($1.5m), Verlander (1.8m) and Shields ($0.8m) all delivering great value at a fraction of the cost of an average reliever. To really put the difference in perspective, A.J.Burnett – whose $82.5m over 5 year contract is one of the worst in recent history – would still rank way ahead of the mean if he were a reliever ($4.8m per win).
So why do most teams continue to overpay for relievers and where do the Rays fit into this pattern? On the first point, let’s go back to McPhail again:
When the team we’re rooting for has a lead, we correctly identify that our team’s probability of winning has increased, and the reference point comes to reflect a high probability of winning. We now expect our team to win. What makes losing late leads so tough to deal with is that we had already begun to mentally bank the win.
Owners and GMs are human too and so they react to crushing losses in a similar way to the average fan: overreacting and trying to ensure they avoid similar losses in the future. McPhail cites the example of a gambler feeling better if he lost $100 one day only to win back $50 the next than if he won $50 but then lost $100. It hurts to lose things you thought were yours and a bullpen collapse always somehow stings more than a 7-2 blowout. The decade long dominance of Mariano Rivera recording big outs in the ninth has surely played into this mentality of needing a big name closer too.
Think about how we all felt about the walk-off loss to the Indians last Tuesday. Despite pitching their way out of trouble in the 8th, the lasting memory of that game is a walk-single-intentional walk opening by Peralta followed by a ground out and a walk by Farnsworth to end the game. That’s why you re-up for Rafael Soriano and why a shaky player like Farnsworth can never be relied upon, right? Well, no, not really. As walks go, Farnsworth’s effort was admittedly ugly – throwing 4 straight balls including a final bouncer after being 0-2 up – but it was his first walk of the year. Even Rivera has two free passes! The point being of course is that we tend to remember a player’s failures over his successes if we are constantly waiting for such failures to happen.
The story so far
The bullpen currently finds themselves in the middle of the pack in Wins Above Replacement (0.4) but this is in large part thanks to the lack of work they have received (102.2 innings) which ranks as the fourth lowest behind only Oakland (99.0), Philadelphia (100.1) and Detroit (101.0) and significantly ahead of AFC East [Mark: Nice catch by Travis in the comments. We'll chalk this one up to my failures in editing. Who would think a kid from England that lives in Canada would have football on the brain?] rivals New York (117.0) and Boston (122.2).
In the AL East, it’s no surprise to see the Yankees leading the pack in WAR thanks to their high profile combination of Chamberlain, Soriano and Rivera, but at what cost does this ‘success’ come? To get their 1.5 WAR (just over one win more than the Rays’ unit) the Yankees have spent $35.8m on their relievers this year, which isn’t too far away from the Rays’ total payroll ($41.7m). Two of their ‘pen (Rivera and Soriano) make more individually than the entire Rays ‘pen ($7.6m) and six make more than anyone outside of Farnsworth for Tampa. It would take all the suits on Wall St to justify that as a sound investment.
Further up the I-95, the Red Sox have the 6th rated unit in terms of WAR (1.4) coming at a total cost of $28.6m. Again, their closer (Papelbon) costs more in 2011 than the Rays entire ‘pen and they have four guys making more than Longoria in 2011.
The poster child for not paying for your bullpen so far in 2011 may well be the Toronto Blue Jays. They acquired several household names in the off season including Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel, who had all enjoyed a spell closing last year. The result is a $19m bullpen which has the same WAR as Tampa (0.4) despite being used for 137.1 innings. Their top four relievers in terms of WAR (Rzepczynski, Camp, Janssen and Frasor) were all already on the roster last year with the aforementioned additions accounting for -0.7 WAR. $10.5m to be almost a game worse off than lining up scrubs from the waiver wire
Picking your spots
When trying to manage a major league roster on a tight payroll, some area of the team is going to have to be weaker than others, or at least have more long shots. There is an abundance of evidence that cutting costs in the ‘pen is a sensible approach and the Rays seem to be one of the leaders in following this ideology. Paying top dollar for players like Joaquin Benoit (0.1 WAR), Grant Balfour (0.2), Dan Wheeler (-0.2) and Rafael Soriano (-0.1) may have been tempting for some clubs, but with a combined price tag for 2011 of $22.3m and a total contract outlay of $62.6m, the money will surely be better used elsewhere.
With the starters continuing to go deep into ball games and the imminent return of J.P Howell there is reason to believe that the relative success of this unit should continue and the decision to invest scarce resources elsewhere appears to have been vindicated already. Though not exactly using a closer-by-committee approach (only Farnsworth has registered a save this year), Maddon is clearly more willing to use players based on matchups rather than defined roles which seems to be another way for the Rays to stretch their resources even further and, ahem, gain that extra 2%.