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April 20, 2009

You Could Look It Up

No Relief in Sight

by Steven Goldman

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The next time you're sitting on your sofa contemplating the parade of busted moves by the assembled general managers of your favorite franchise-say, the Mets-and are tempted to proclaim that you could do a better job than that clown in the executive suite, think twice. Anyone can make the easy calls and buy or trade at the top of the market, fishing for the Pujols and Sabathias when they're available. The aspect of the job that earns GMs their end-of-day bourbon and Maalox cocktail is putting together a bullpen. Even the abstemious Branch Rickey might have been driven to drink by relievers had he been forced to give them more than cursory attention; they're just too unpredictable for comfort.

A T-shirt recently spotted at Yankee Stadium read, "Anyone but Farnsworth." As this holdover garment from 2008 testifies, reliever acquisition is the part of the roster where GMs are most likely to spend millions and get burned. Brian Cashman bids $17 million over three years for the 2005 version of Farnsworth, and gets one of the few pitchers capable of personally inflating the league home-run rate instead. Given Farnsworth's career, Cashman probably should have known better, but the Farnsworth Dilemma extends across the class of relievers as a whole. In truth, there are only a handful of relievers who are solid bets on more than a year by year basis: Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, perhaps Scot Shields, and Chad Qualls. Once past that quintet, a team takes its chances.

In 2006, Baseball Prospectus took a look at reliever consistency over the previous 30 years. We used Fair Run Average to rank the top 50 relievers in baseball in each season from 1975 to 2005 who had a minimum of 50 innings pitched. Fair RA is a way of compensating for the distorted nature of reliever RA by adjusting it for expected runs allowed on inherited and bequeathed baserunners. What we found was massive turnover in the top 50. In any given year, an average of 30 relievers drop off the list, and the changes grow with each added year. For example, of the top 50 relievers in 2005, 37 of them did not rank in the top 50 in 2004, 38 of them didn't rank there in 2003, and 45 of them did not rank there in 2002. Overall, the average change was 76 percent every three years, 70 percent every two years, and 60 percent every year. Even if a GM spent each winter shopping exclusively among the top 50 relievers in baseball, he would still have a six in ten chance of choosing incorrectly.

Since 2005, the turnover of the top 50 has only accelerated, making the GM's job even harder. Here are the figures for reliever reliability from 2006 through 2008:


Year  Year-1  Year-2  Year-3
2006    20      10       5
2007    15       8       4
2008    14       4       4  

AVG     16.3     7.3     4.3

Using 2006 as an example, only 20 of the top 50 relievers from 2006 were still on the list in 2005, just 10 of them were on the list in 2004, and only five of them remained on the list from 2003 through 2006. The four who made it from 2005-2008: the aforementioned Rivera, Nathan, Rodriguez, and Qualls.

The lack of reliever reliability persists regardless of the standard you use. Ranking the top 50 according to BP's reliever statistic WXRL, or expected wins added by each reliever above replacement-lineup adjusted, a more useful stat than saves and holds, shows a similarly steep turnover, with only Shields and Huston Street joining the list of 2005-2008 hangers on. Taking a broader view also reveals the instability of the relief corps. Here are the top relievers for 2003 through 2005, again ranked by Fair RA, followed by their 2006-2008 performances. There is a dramatic change for the worse in Fair RA:


Pitcher                 03-05                06-08
                      IP     FRA   RANK    IP     FRA   CHANGE
Eric Gagne           178.0  1.73     1    100.3  4.15    +2.42
Mariano Rivera       228.7  2.04     2    217.0  2.12    +0.08
Billy Wagner         212.0  2.10     3    188.7  3.09    +0.99
Joe Nathan           221.3  2.22     4    208.7  1.83    -0.39
Scott Linebrink      221.0  2.52     5    192.3  3.61    +1.09
Brad Lidge           250.3  2.55     6    211.3  4.03    +1.48
Jason Isringhausen   176.3  2.59     7    166.3  4.28    +1.69
B.J. Ryan            208.7  2.62     8    135.7  2.28    -0.34
Brendan Donnelly     181.3  2.64     9     98.3  4.77    +2.13
Tom Gordon           244.3  2.72    10    129.0  4.38    +1.66
Francisco Rodriguez  237.3  2.74    11    209.7  2.82    +0.08
Chad Cordero         168.0  2.79    12    153.7  3.41    +0.62
Armando Benitez      173.7  2.91    13     95.0  5.64    +2.73
Keith Foulke         215.7  2.93    14     81.7  4.39    +1.46
Rheal Cormier        213.0  3.03    15     51.0  4.95    +1.92
David Riske          225.7  3.03    15    156.0  4.11    +1.08
Scott Eyre           178.0  3.11    17    139.3  4.34    +1.23
Ryan Madson          165.3  3.13    18    183.7  3.69    +0.56
Scot Shields         267.7  3.14    19    228.0  3.45    +0.31
Juan Rincon          245.7  3.16    20    189.3  5.48    +2.32
LaTroy Hawkins       216.7  3.17    21    178.7  3.79    +0.62
Eddie Guardado       167.0  3.22    22    107.0  4.87    +1.65
Octavio Dotel        188.7  3.24    23    108.7  5.27    +2.03
Shigetoshi Hasegawa  208.7  3.27    24      N/A   N/A      N/A
Luis Ayala           232.3  3.31    25    118.0  5.56    +2.25
Damaso Marte         199.7  3.33    26    169.7  3.37    +0.04
Guillermo Mota       269.7  3.43    27    172.0  5.09    +1.66
Francisco Cordero    223.3  3.45    28    209.0  3.85    +0.40
Justin Duchscherer   184.0  3.45    28     72.0  3.08    -0.37
Salomon Torres       226.0  3.46    30    226.0  4.22    +0.76

So what is a general manager to do if he wants to end up with the Phillies '08 bullpen and not the Mets '08 bullpen? Prayer might help-that, and a gambler's mentality. For though the instability at the top of the reliever corps is great, the pitchers that move onto the list have to come from somewhere. Quite often, they come from the minor leagues, be they prospects or journeymen. This means that a GM's best option is often also his cheapest option. When we examined the top reliever ranks in 2006, we found that from 1975 through 2005 on average the top 50 contained only 20 pitchers who had thrown more than 10 innings in the majors the previous year. This particular form of turnover seems to have slowed in recent years, with only one-fifth of the list yielding to pitchers who, through injury, inexperience, or ineffectiveness, were largely absent from the major leagues the year before.

Standard reliever statistics contain almost as much noise as signal. Their ERAs indicate little, their saves totals not much more, as any Indians fan who saw Joe Borowski lead the AL in saves in 2007 can tell you. Even more indicative statistics, like hits- and strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratios, are subject to enormous fluctuation due to the increased bearing of luck on pitchers who throw only 50 to 90 innings per year. No team has ever bought a great bullpen. Those come about through luck-one or two front-line arms are backed by a series of second-line, bargain-bin refugees who happen to click behind them. Alternatively, you can hope that the Yankees let you have Mariano Rivera, or failing that, some hapless GM deals you Chad Qualls for Jose Valverde. It's not as glamorous a solution, but that's the whole point.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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