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February 1, 2011

Overthinking It

Springer Springs Eternal

by Ben Lindbergh

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Those of you without Google Alerts set for “Russ Springer” may have missed a startling development in the ever-changing middle-relief landscape this past Sunday, as one of the few bullpen constants of the last two decades gracefully passed from the stage. If Springer's official retirement announcement escaped your notice, you needn’t feel inattentive; the news caught my eye only because in an indirect way it made me look good—or more accurately, saved me from looking bad. As the author who drew the Cincinnati straw in the Baseball Prospectus 2011 chapter lottery, I had the pleasure of putting something on paper for nearly every player who finished last season with the Reds (up to and including Gary Matthews, Jr., who summered in Triple-A Louisville before opting for unemployment), which placed Springer under my purview. Like a far more celebrated retiring Red, Jim Edmonds, Springer merited only a “lineout,” our term for a brief, chapter-concluding blurb that comes without the added benefit of a PECOTA projection. Here's what I set down for Springer, who at the time had only informally expressed his intention to hang up his spikes (if you enjoy this taste of the annual, keep in mind that the remaining 300,000 words or so will cost you only $13.97):

“Russ Springer added a 10th major-league team to his résumé when he signed with Louisville in July and tossed a couple innings for the big club in August. He underwent season-ending hip surgery later that month, and set sail for bullpen Valhalla shortly after the anesthesia wore off.”

Since the book has been sent packing to the publisher (and should reach a bookstore or online retailer near you in under two weeks), it would have caused some consternation at BP HQ had Springer risen from his floating funeral pyre, extinguished any lingering embers, and begun to throw from flat ground in time to prove our comment wrong. In that sense, I was glad to see him go. Still, whatever his warts, Springer wore a major-league uniform for as long as I've followed the game, so it was with a twinge of nascent nostalgia that I watched him pass into the realm of unheralded players whose names summon knowing smirks from those who saw them play and blank stares from those came along too late. But this article isn't really about Springer—it's about what Springer represents (and if you hadn't suspected that there were hidden depths to Russ Springer, you're probably one of those people who blew their college tuition on practical courses).

Whenever a particularly grizzled major leaguer calls it quits, it’s customary for his baseball obituaries to contain some trivial tokens of his longevity, so let’s play along. During his rookie season, Springer retired both Robin Yount and Rob Deer, as good an indication as any that it’s been some time since he found himself on the receiving end of a hazing ritual. As Cliff Corcoran observed yesterday, Springer had been the only remaining active player to have suited up for a losing Yankees team, and the only active player outside of the so-called “Core Four” to have predated Joe Torre’s fitting for pinstripes—which means that the 42-year-old reliever had reached an age advanced enough that every non-Springer member of not only the ’92 Yankees, but also the ’93 and ’94 editions, had gone the way of the dodo before he finally got around to riding off in a sunset-bound bullpen cart.

Springer’s career was notable for a number of reasons, although most of them can be traced back to the fact that he refused to fade away, despite occupying a role with a frighteningly high attrition rate. The Louisiana native attended high school in Dry Prong, LA (a town that would have been located in Kentucky and followed by “KY,” if the universe had a sense of humor), and spent some time at LSU before being drafted by New York in 1989. Although he qualified as a prospect thereafter, repeatedly ranking among the top one hundred tyros in Baseball America’s early-'90s estimation, Springer flamed out as a starter, taking less than a full season’s complement of sporadic starts to establish that he was meant for smaller things.

Thanks to the unremarkable nature of Springer's contributions, he never so much as made an All-Star team, an achievement even Dan Kolb can claim. Nevertheless, in light of his humble seventh-round origins, anything exceeding replacement level would have constituted a coup, so his career should be considered a rousing success, especially since he lacked the left-handedness that often enables such long-running journeyman acts to stay on tour (more on that in an upcoming article). In contravention of aging models everywhere, Springer improved with age well after exiting any analyst’s definition of “prime,” passing muster as an above-average reliever only after leaving his twenties behind. Perhaps even more improbably—and here I’m speaking from experience—he spent his late thirties flirting with fantasy relevance for desperate owners in deep leagues seeking to improve their peripherals by any means necessary.

It’s not that Springer was utterly without redeeming qualities, despite his unsightly 4.52 career ERA; after making allowances for the high-octane offensive environments in which he plied his trade and dismissing his forays into starting as the regrettable indiscretions of youth, his contributions come out looking borderline useful, in a disposable sort of way. Throughout his career, Springer was consistently effective enough to find work, if not quite good enough to merit a long-term commitment; no more than three consecutive seasons ever elapsed before his most recent employer placed him on the discard pile. As a result, he retired just two franchises short of all-time itinerancy, close to $20 million the richer (without accounting for the fact that in the case of a career as lengthy as his, adjusting for inflation would provide a significant boost to the total in present-day dollars).

Springer’s timing was his greatest ally. The big righty came of age during the only period in baseball history in which a man of his limited talents could make a convincing claim to a roster spot for nearly 20 years running. Transported to any previous era, his stat line would appear more anachronistic than Don Draper in Hammer pants: Traditional roster construction left little room on pitching staffs for players with ceilings of small-sample mediocrity. Had he been lucky enough to receive the same abbreviated rotation audition in an earlier era, his next destination after flunking out likely would have been the breadline, since the role of short reliever had yet to be written into baseball’s script. You don’t need me to tell you that middle relievers have staked their claim to an increasing percentage of innings over the past few decades, but here’s another way to think about the trend. Consider the complete list of pitchers who have spent parts of at least fifteen seasons in the majors without reaching the 100-inning threshold in a single campaign:

Name

# Years

First Year

Dan Plesac

18

1986

Mike Maddux

15

1986

Rudy Seanez

17

1989

Mike Fetters

16

1989

Mike Stanton

19

1989

Arthur Rhodes

18

1991

Roberto Hernandez

17

1991

Alan Embree

16

1992

Russ Springer

17

1992

Jeff Nelson

15

1992

Eddie Guardado

17

1993

Trevor Hoffman

17

1993

Todd Jones

16

1993

Armando Benitez

15

1994

Billy Wagner

15

1995

 

Plesac and Maddux may have pioneered the art of earning major-league meal money with a minimum of time spent on the mound, but Springer was still among the vanguard of a new breed; even a decade earlier, the majors simply weren’t capable of supporting Springer-like life. In today’s game, someone has to absorb those low- or no-leverage innings left vacant by evolving starter usage patterns, and Springer embodied the persona of Mr. Low Leverage, finishing with an underwhelming career 0.9 LEV and 4.1 WXRL. Engaging Springer’s services allowed many a team to lose with dignity, rather than roll with an unknown (if equally effective) quantity on the mound. Clearly, this list boasts a few names far more distinguished than Springer’s, but it’s fair to wonder (as Goose Gossage would delight in telling anyone within earshot) whether Hoffman and Wagner would come off quite so Cooperstown-caliber if they’d been saddled with more demanding circumstances.

Springer is almost unquestionably a solid citizen, given the difficulty of playing for as many teams as he did over as long a period without possessing either the skill of Gary Sheffield or a smile that can light up a clubhouse; any lingering doubt about which talent Springer possessed was dispelled when he won the major-league equivalent of a Miss Congeniality award in 2007. That said, according to the soon-to-be-supplanted implementation of WARP available on our website, Springer’s 18-year career yielded a grand total of 8.5 wins above replacement, a fair approximation of the value Albert Pujols mustered in his mildly disappointing 2010. To paraphrase a political legend, many roster spots died to bring us this information, which raises the question of whether we mightn’t have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way to bestowing decades’ worth of guaranteed contracts upon pitchers who have little to recommend them other than a pleasant personality and the directional good sense not to get lost on the way to the stadium.

Is the retirement of a middling middle reliever enough to make teams rethink their bullpen best practices? Probably not, and it would be overly simplistic to declare that low-leverage relievers should be banished to the minors where they belong, since their prevalence on major-league rosters is in response to changes in play that have made their presence desirable from a competitive perspective, if not that of the pitching-change-weary spectator. Still, without begrudging him his MLB experience, it’s fair to wonder whether a league that allows marginal talents such as Springer to survive has gone too far in the direction of specialized roles. The next time you notice a still-strong starter acquiescing to an arbitrary pitch limit or an unadventurous skipper sacrificing bench flexibility for yet another situational arm, spare a thought for Russ Springer as he settles into his leisure years, financed by such instances of managerial largesse.

Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.

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

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