December 18, 2013
Signed RHP Grant Balfour for two years and a reported $15 million. [12/17]
Back in 2010, a win cost about $4.5 million on the free agent market. At the time, though, Rich Lederer at Baseball Analysts wrote a review of the cost per win that argued that we were actually using a flawed figure. Yes, teams might pay $4.5 million per win, overall, but they didn’t pay $4.5 million per win consistently, across positions. Rather, they paid much more for relievers and less for everybody else.
Based on $/WAR, the major outliers were relievers John Grabow ($37.5M), Mike Gonzalez ($13.95M), Fernando Rodney ($11M), Rafael Soriano ($9.06M), Jose Valverde ($7.78M), and Billy Wagner ($7M), all of whom had a higher $/WAR than Jason Bay ($6.88M), the highest-paid position player based on the average WAR for 2007-09. It's pretty obvious to me that there is virtually no correlation between the salaries of relief pitchers (be it closers or setup men) and WAR. As a result, I believe it makes sense to exclude them when trying to determine what a free agent is worth. Nonetheless, I have calculated the arithmetic mean, weighted average, and median $/WAR including and excluding relief pitchers.
This has seemed (at least anecdotally) to be true since, a persistently confounding behavior by a smart, rational group of successful men. So confounding, in fact, that on Effectively Wild one time Ben and I basically threw up our hands and concluded that, heck, there must just be something we out here don’t know or can’t appreciate. How else to explain that people with their jobs on the line keep ignoring me and Ben on Twitter?
But this year’s group seems different. Few long-term deals. More reasonable moves. No relievers have received four-year contracts (let along five-year contracts). No Brandon League move has rocked us completely. I’ll bet the data will back this anecdotal review up!
I looked at all the free agent relievers who have signed for more than $1.5 million per year so far this winter: Ryan Webb, Ronald Belisario, Matt Belisle, Joba Chamberlain, Jason Frasor, Latroy Hawkins, Matt Lindstrom, Chad Qualls, Joe Smith, Matt Thornton, John Axford, Grant Balfour, Edward Mujica, Joe Nathan, Boone Logan, Javier Lopez, Manny Parra, Matt Albers. I left out Brian Wilson for his special circumstances: Tommy John surgery, hobo squatters in beard.
For extreme simplicity, I eschewed projections and focused on what they had done recently, taking their average WARP over the previous two seasons to establish a performance level, and the AAV of their new contract to establish a cost per win. Negative WARP seasons were counted as 0.
Then I took a bunch of quasi-randomly selected free agents at all the other positions, basically just sorting MLBTradeRumors’ free agent tracker by position and taking the first two signed names that showed up, alphabetically, and the first eight starting pitchers who showed up. Then did the same thing as with relievers. The group of 21 (only one third baseman) included guys whose value was skewed toward 2013 (Juan Uribe) and guys whose value was skewed toward 2012 (David Murphy). Guys like Josh Johnson and guys like Bartolo Colon, like James Loney and like Coco Crisp and like Jacoby Ellsbury. All sorts of guys.
So, anyway, the point:
The data have failed to replicate my anecdotal evidence! My anecdotal evidence is uncompelling! And, alas, relief pitchers seem to still exist outside the normal market. If there’s no Brandon League this year, there’s also no Koji Uehara—and there is a Boone Logan. Proportionately, the difference has shrunk somewhat since Lederer’s article, but the evidence suggests that, when it comes to reviewing relief contracts, we still have two options: Shrug and figure there’s more to it than we know, or throw our hands up and conclude that almost every move sucks.
(Meanwhile, we might be cautious about using $7 million per win as anything like a going rate for the rest of the league’s players.)
As for Grant Balfour, he’s now pitched 55 innings or more in each of the past six seasons, a staggering achievement based on what we knew of him through age 29. In three years with the A’s, his ERA was roughly a run lower than his xFIP, evidence that he’s that guy or suggestive of a player who benefited from a rangy outfield unit, deep home fences, and baseball’s 13th-lowest BABIP on line drives (of 221 pitchers with at least 100 liners allowed since 2011). Whether baseball teams are getting smarter about relievers—whether they even need to get smarter about relievers—it’s probably a good sign that Balfour, at least, didn’t get the full Big Time Closer package. —Sam Miller
Not too much movement either way for the ragin' Australian. However, with Camden Yards being a much friendlier ballpark for home runs than the Coliseum, Balfour may be let down by his fly ball tendencies slightly more often next season. With that said, his job should be fairly safe by ninth-inning reliever, and he should be confidently drafted as a top-20 closer.
Like you thought they were going to let him close once the season got going. Left-handed batters have hit .294/.343/.500 against Hunter for his career, and he was absolutely dominant against right-handers out of the pen in 2013—his .344 OPS allowed was the best in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings. —Bret Sayre
Signed 2B-S Brian Roberts for one year and a reported $2 million. [12/17]
Signed LHP Matt Thornton for two years and a reported $7 million. [12/17]
Surely you’ve heard the one about second basemen not aging well? No? You haven’t heard the one about second basemen not aging well? Oh, man, you’ve got to hear the one about second basemen not aging well. Goes like this:
The money’s not a factor in the Roberts deal—just $2 million, the sort of commitment any team can make without getting second-guessed. The only real risk for the Yankees is that they would consider second base resolved now, and it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. Second base is certainly not resolved.
Over the past three seasons, 29 players have picked up at least 500 plate appearances while playing two-thirds of their games at second base. Of those 29, Brian Roberts ranks 28th in OPS+. Right above him is Robert Andino, and right below him is Chris Getz.
Of those same 29 players, Roberts also ranks 28th in playing time. Right above and below him are players who were rookies in 2013 and 2012. Next lowest is Orlando Hudson. D.J. LeMahieu.
And of those same 29 players, Roberts ranks 29th in wins above replacement. He’s the only one who is in negativeland, in fact, depending on your total-value metric. Above him are Jemile Weeks, Orlando Hudson, Donovan Solano, Getz.
So just imagine the Yankees signing Getz, Andino, or Hudson. That’s this!
We once talked about the unbearable sadness of Brian Roberts on Effectively Wild, too. I don’t recall what we concluded.
Since his early-30s breakthrough, Matt Thornton has never had a bad year, really, and yet Boston left him off its postseason roster entirely this fall. His strikeout rates have gotten perilously low, and you can understand the Red Sox looking at the direction of his swinging strike rates—he's gone from 13th best in 2010 to 315th best in 2013; the FIP has just about doubled in that time—and concluding that his first bad year is coming any moment. —Sam Miller
Primed to get all the playing time he can handle, Roberts finds himself in another hotspot for offense at Yankee Stadium. He had a surprising eight homers in under 80 games in 2013, but he also has effectively stopped stealing bases at a rate that matters for fantasy. The best-case scenario here is that he plays in 120 games and sneaks into double-double territory with a non-helpful average. But unfortunately, betting on Roberts to play in that many games is likely to be a fool's errand. Even at a shallow position, he will barely crack the top 20—and if you end up with him in a deep league, you'll need to draft a good backup.
At first glance, this might suggest more limited playing time for Johnson, but before Robinson Cano departed for the Mariners, it was assumed that Johnson would play third base in Alex Rodriguez' absence. Between the time that A-Rod and B-Rob are likely to miss (What's the over/under on their combined games for 2014? 75? 20?), there should still be plenty of plate appearances in his future. I'd still confidently draft Johnson over Roberts. —Bret Sayre
Signed RHP Jose Veras for one year and a reported $4 million [12/17]
Last-place team signs Jose Veras for $2 million, pumps him full of saves, trades him to contender; contender uses him as seventh-inning guy, lets him walk as free agent;
New last-place team signs Jose Veras for $4 million, pumps him full of saves, trades him to contender; contender uses him as seventh-inning guy, let’s him walk as free agent;
New last-place team signs Jose Veras for $6 million, pumps him full of saves, trades him…
The Cubs didn’t find a trade match for lame duck closer Kevin Gregg last summer, but Veras has the potential to be a bit more than that. Indeed, the difference between Veras and Balfour has been, to FIP’s eye at least, quite small:
Veras has had the less forgiving ballparks, though Balfour has faced a slightly better level of opponent. Regardless, by FIP’s standards that works out to about one or one and a half runs difference per season, which makes a) Balfour a bad deal or b) Veras a bargain or c) FIP slightly less than conclusive. B seems as good an explanation as any, so for now veras numquam perit. —Sam Miller
Looks like there's a new sheriff in town. Veras was a success in the closer's role in Houston last year, and there's no reason why he can't be equally successful for a more talented Cubs team in 2014. It's not a lock that he'll run with the job, but with the lack of any clear alternative on the North Side, the financial incentives to have Veras racking up the saves, and the trade value he could have at the deadline if the Cubs don't take a big step forward, he should get every opportunity to win it. Assuming that happens, he'll likely slot in just outside of the top 20 closers, with his value depressed due to a high likelihood of a mid-season trade and a decently-sized flameout risk.
He'll get a shot at this job eventually, so dynasty leaguers holding onto Strop shouldn't be too worried, but he loses just about all of his mixed league value for the time being. With a 2.83 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 42 strikeouts versus 11 walks in 35 innings for the Cubs in 2013, his time remains near, and he is a strong handcuff, if you're into that sort of thing. —Bret Sayre
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBB