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January 27, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Why Are Smart Teams Spending Money on Relievers?

by Russell A. Carleton


Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays signed Grant Balfour to be their closer for 2014 (and presumably 2015), committing to pay him $12 million over the next two seasons. It’s not an expensive closer contract, as these things go. But for the cost-conscious Rays, it seemed a little strange. The team also re-signed Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) and traded for Heath Bell over the winter. Another sabermetric darling team, the Oakland A’s, signed Eric O’Flaherty last week and, earlier in the winter, traded for Josh Lindblom and Jim Johnson.

Wait a minute, these are the two franchises that have had books written about them and how they embrace advanced analytics. It was the A’s who practically invented the Billy Taylor/Huston Street model of “developing a closer” (i.e., getting someone a bunch of saves) and then flipping him for other pieces. I thought that the official sabermetric orthodoxy was that teams shouldn’t allocate any of their precious resources on chasing relievers. Isn’t the wisdom that when a trade involves a reliever and something else, the team that gave up the reliever won? Bullpen guys are too volatile! For them, the traditional metrics used to evaluate pitchers (ERA, saves) are either not very reliable and/or are junk stats. When you look at relievers through the lens of WAR(P), they don’t produce anywhere near on par with elite starters or position players, so why pay them similarly? Teams would be better off getting a couple of fire-balling pre-arbitration guys and some guys with checkered records, and spending the money saved elsewhere. Then, they can hope that a couple of them have a BABIP-driven amazing season. Why blow money or prospects on a guy who’s going to pitch only 70 innings at most?

I’d argue that WAR(P), as we have defined it, doesn’t do a very good job of describing relievers. The disconnect can be summed up by looking first at this chart and then at this one. In case you don’t want to click through, the first chart is a listing of the top WARs of 2013, while the second is the top win probability added (WPA) scores of 2013. The WAR chart Top 30 doesn’t contain any relievers at all. The WPA chart alternates between elite starters and back-end relievers, mostly closers. There’s a lesson in here, if you’re careful to look for it.

WAR answers (or attempts to answer) the question “What is Smith worth over and above our common baseline, replacement level?” It does that by specifically trying to isolate the contributions that Smith made independent of any context. The reason that RBI totals are a bad way to compare players is that batters who happen to play on teams where they hit behind guys who are always on base will have big numbers. Those whose managers stick them in the leadoff spot and those who are just stuck on bad teams will have lower numbers. WAR also ignores any information about when in the game the event happened. To WAR, a single is a single is a single, no matter whether it was to lead off the first or to drive in the winning run of Game 7 of the World… sorry, bad Edgar Renteria flashbacks.

For position players, you can make the case that it all sort of evens out. You can’t really leverage a specific hitter to a specific situation (pinch hitting aside). Hitters take their appointed turn in the order, no matter the circumstances. If it’s the bottom of the ninth, two on, two out, down by one, and the no. 7 spot is due up, the cleanup hitter can’t just say “I got this one.” Hitters have little control over what situation they will find themselves in about the best prediction going forward is that they will have some big situations, some little situations, and some good old average situations to deal with. You might make the same sort of argument with starting pitchers as well. Relievers, on the other hand…

In the modern bullpen, it’s generally known ahead of time who will pitch in what situation. There is plenty to say about the way the modern bullpen is constructed, both good and bad, and let’s just lay that aside for now. Closers will pitch in the ninth inning with their teams up 1-3 runs, whether we like that or not. There are other relievers who only suck up low-leverage innings when it’s 10-3. That brings us to the WPA chart. We know that Greg Holland, who finished second in MLB in WPA last year behind Clayton Kershaw, did so because he was placed into a lot of high-leverage situations where there was a lot of win probability available. It would be a mistake to assume that because of that fact (and that fact alone) that Greg Holland was the best reliever in baseball last year. (Then again, it wouldn’t be a silly statement either!)

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Minor League Update: I... (01/27)
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Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Buil... (01/13)
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Scouting the Draft: Po... (01/27)

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