As an understanding of advanced metrics has taken hold in major-league front offices, the market for free-agent relievers has shrunk considerably, even allowing for the harsh economic climate of the past two winters. Teams that were once willing to shell out multi-year contracts for closers and top set-up men are increasingly shying away from such deals, realizing that reliever performances are fairly volatile from year to year due to sample sizes (to say nothing of injuries), that free-agent compensation rules disproportionately penalize teams for signing relievers, and that they can do just about as well by hunting for bargains or giving opportunities to their own youngsters.
Consider this data from the past three winters compiled via ESPN’s Free Agent Tracker:
Year Guar Years Avg $ per Avg Years 1 2 3 4 2007 36 55 $3.34 mil 1.53 24 6 5 1 2008 28 43 $5.12 mil 1.54 19 5 2 2 2009 32 44 $3.83 mil 1.38 22 8 2 0
All years refer to the seasons for which the contracts took effect, which differs from the Tracker’s view of attaching the numbers to the season just past; this makes more sense, I think. The number of relievers who were guaranteed contracts (Guar) rose slightly from 2008 to 2009, but the average length declined by 10 percent and the average guaranteed salary fell by 25 percent. Furthermore, where 15 percent of reliever contracts in 2007 and 2008 were for more than two years, just six percent of the ones signed for 2009 were.
Among the current crop of free-agent firemen, there’s a considerable chasm between the top six and the rest of the field, as injuries, platoon issues, and lower strikeout rates make it much harder to distinguish which pitchers are worthy investments. Given the volatility of single-season sample sizes, all data presented in the table below is for 2007 through 2009, all bases on balls rates have been adjusted to exclude intentional walks, and all batted ball rates both in the table and elsewhere in the piece refer to the MLB Advanced Media data we use for our sortables; you’ll see different numbers on FanGraphs, Hardball Times, and elsewhere. Asterisks denote left-handers:
Rk Pitcher IP ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K/BB GB% QERA FRA_r WXRL 1 Billy Wagner* 131.0 2.40 10.9 2.5 0.8 4.4 38.7% 2.94 3.28 5.5 2 Rafael Betancourt 206.1 3.05 8.9 1.8 0.8 5.0 30.7% 3.58 3.12 9.3 3 Rafael Soriano 161.2 2.95 10.5 2.4 1.1 4.4 32.5% 3.22 3.07 7.8 4 Jose Valverde 190.1 2.84 10.3 2.9 1.0 3.5 38.9% 3.39 2.94 10.0 5 Darren Oliver* 209.1 3.10 7.1 2.1 0.6 3.4 47.6% 4.01 3.47 6.2 6 Mike Gonzalez* 125.0 2.81 10.6 3.2 0.9 3.3 38.5% 3.61 3.56 4.8 7 Brandon Lyon 212.0 3.31 6.0 2.3 0.7 2.6 44.5% 4.92 3.67 7.6 8 LaTroy Hawkins 180.2 3.14 6.1 2.3 0.8 2.6 52.2% 4.28 3.19 3.2 10 Brian Shouse* 127.0 3.26 5.8 1.6 0.7 3.6 60.4% 4.10 3.57 2.7 Chan Ho Park 182.2 4.14 7.7 3.0 0.9 2.6 49.1% 4.18 3.49 3.0 Octavio Dotel 160.0 3.66 11.7 3.9 1.3 3.0 36.8% 3.48 4.52 3.3 Fernando Rodney 166.2 4.48 8.9 4.5 0.9 2.0 52.2% 4.33 4.74 4.8 J.J. Putz 147.1 2.93 9.6 3.3 0.7 2.9 43.4% 3.63 2.91 7.3 Russ Springer 173.1 2.86 8.8 2.6 0.8 3.4 28.3% 3.97 3.09 2.4
1. Billy Wagner: Even at 37 years old and coming off Tommy John surgery, and pitching primarily in a lower-leverage role (0.98 LEV) in the AL East, Billy Wags blew hitters away during his late-season return. He struck out 26 in 15
2. Rafael Betancourt: Splitting his 2009 season between Cleveland and Colorado, Betancourt put in a performance that was almost exactly halfway between his incredible 2007 (1.47 ERA, 8.9 K/BB ratio, and 6.9 WXRL, the AL’s second-highest total) and his lousy 2008 (5.07 ERA, 2.6 K/BB, and 0.6 WXRL). He was particularly strong in the heat of the NL Wild Card race, surviving his time at altitude without allowing a single home run at Coors Field. Betancourt misses plenty of bats, keeps the walks to a bare minimum, and generates a ton of popups (11.7 percent over the last three years, about 50 percent above the MLB average) to offset his extremely low ground-ball rate. The Rockies declined a $5.4 million option on him, but his marketability could be hamstrung if they offer arbitration, as he’s a Type A free agent.
3. Rafael Soriano: Soriano’s got outstanding stuff, striking out well over a hitter per inning over the last three years while putting up the third-best strikeout/walk ratio among free-agent relievers. The big question about him has always been health, and at least in 2009, he answered that one in a resoundingly positive manner. Returning from 2008 surgery to repair a bone spur and transpose his ulnar nerve, he cracked the NL’s top 10 in appearances and WXRL, ranked second among relievers in strikeouts, and-more importantly for his financial outlook than for any performance evaluation-proved he could survive “regular closer” detail. Another Type A, he’ll cash in whether or not he signs with a team that views him as a closer, because the Yankees and Red Sox are both sniffing around with the idea of making him a well-compensated set-up man.
4. Jose Valverde: With a 96 mph average fastball velocity and about 40 percent more saves from 2007-2009 than any other free agent, Valverde’s this market’s classic heat-throwing Proven Closer. While he’s got a reputation for being erratic thanks to his continuing dominance of the all-important Crazy Face category, Valverde’s actually been quite reliable, ranking ninth in the majors in WXRL and 14th in reliever Fair Run Average over the past three years despite missing seven weeks in 2009 due to a calf injury. He’s probably in line for the biggest payday among these relievers, and extremely unlikely to be offered arbitration by the Astros given their desire to cut payroll.
5. Darren Oliver: An all-too-hittable starter for the first decade of his big-league career, Oliver’s become an exceptional reliever in recent years thanks to his ability to handle both righties and lefties. In his three years with the Angels, he’s actually shown a reverse platoon split (.233/.304/.317 versus righties, .257/.303/.415 versus lefties), making him better suited to multi-inning work than to LOOGYdom. Unlike most of the guys on this list, he generates a good number of ground balls, and even in his age-38 season, he posted his highest strikeout rate since 2004. I suspect this is a case where Type A status steers him back to his 2009 team, perhaps on a two-year deal, even given his age.
6. Mike Gonzalez: Gonzalez teamed with Soriano to form an effective lefty/righty late-inning combo in Atlanta this past season, and while the latter assumed most of the closer duties midway through the year, Gonzalez did crack the league’s top 20 in WXRL while ranking third in appearances and fifth in strikeouts among relievers. Though he’s left-handed, platoon splits aren’t really an issue for Gonzalez; his career splits are separated by just 32 points of OPS. In 2009, he held lefties to a .194/.255/.327 line, while limiting righties to .218/.340/.359, with that latter OBP inflated via eight intentional walks. To an even greater degree than his tandem-mate, health is an issue for Gonzalez; this was the first time since 2004 that he avoided the disabled list. He’s drawing interest as a set-up man from the beasts of the AL East; viewed as a closer, he’s likely limited to the teams whose first-round picks are protected.
We interrupt this article to bring you a visual representation of the gap between the pitchers below it and the ones above. Admittedly, the gap’s not quite that large, so we’ve re-sized the photo from the original
7. Brandon Lyon: Lyon’s strikeout rate isn’t what you’d hope for in a late-inning reliever, but he generated a career-high 49.1 percent ground-ball rate with the Tigers in 2009, and battled his way out of a five-month tailspin (from July 2008 through May 2009) that saw him post an astronomical 6.93 ERA in 47
8. LaTroy Hawkins: His early-2008 stint in the Bronx was a disaster, but Hawkins put up eye-popping numbers as an Astro: a 1.71 ERA and a 70/18 K/UIBB ratio in 84
9. Bob Howry: Even more so than the two guys above, it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re getting here. Moving from the Cubs to the Giants, Howry’s BABIP dropped more than 100 points from 2008 (.345) to 2009 (.238), and his HR/FB rate plummeted as well, from 15.7 percent to 6.4 percent. Howry’s three-year numbers are strong, as he has the fourth-best walk rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio (both excluding intentional) among the pool of free-agent relievers. That said, his trends are moving in the wrong direction; his unintentional walk rate doubled to a still-reasonable 2.4 per nine, while his strikeout rate dipped to 6.5 K/9.
10. Brian Shouse: For what it’s worth, Shouse is the best lefty specialist available. Over the past three years, he’s held lefty hitters to a .203/.233/.302 line, good for the lowest OPS among this class. During the same time period, righties have beaten him like a Rent-A-LOOGY (.309/.382/.439), and he’s actually faced exactly one more of the latter than the former. In other words, an opposing manager easily neutralizes Shouse with a righty pinch-hitter stashed away on the bench. Caveat emptor.
The Sleeper: Chan Ho Park. Park reportedly wants to return to the rotation, but the numbers simply aren’t in his favor. Leaving aside a clinker of a start in his lone 2007 outing, he’s put up a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts over the past two years, and a 3.29 ERA in 87 relief appearances. He’s also shown a significant platoon split during that time (.242/.304/.367 against righties, .290/.373/.432 against lefties), suggesting managers are better off picking his spots for him. Add to that the fact that Park’s stuff plays better coming out of the bullpen; his 2009 PITCHf/x numbers from 2009 show that his average fastball velocity increased by 2.3 mph when he worked in relief, and his breaking pitches benefited as well. If he can be coaxed to sign with a team that views him as a reliever, he’s a worthwhile gambit, particularly if he keeps rocking that bad-ass beard.
Buyer Beware: Octavio Dotel. Dotel’s got the highest strikeout rate of any free-agent reliever, but also the highest home-run rate. That’s not just function of his time spent pitching at the South Side homer haven known as the Cell; his 2008-2009 road homer rate is 1.33 per nine, 0.01 above his home rate. Dotel’s a Type A free agent, but having made $6 million in 2009, he’s unlikely to be offered arbitration. Even without the loss of a draft pick attached, he’s more of a headache than he’s worth.
Not Even If He Straightens His Cap: Fernando Rodney. Rodney went 37 for 38 in save opportunities in 2009, but he put up a 4.40 ERA and walked nearly five guys per nine while putting up the lowest strikeout rate and worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career. Fair Run Average, QERA, FIP, and tRA-not a single estimate places his 2007-2009 run prevention abilities below four runs per nine. Take the hint.
Worth an Incentive-Laden Deal: J.J. Putz. Putz was a fantastic closer in 2006-2007, but he was hampered by oblique and elbow problems in 2008, and his 2009 was a complete disasterpiece thanks to the combination of a bone spur that required surgery and a sprained ulnar collateral ligament sustained while rehabbing. If healthy, he’d rank in the upper tier here, but given his lengthy history of elbow woes and the distance from his last effective full season, signing him to anything other than an incentive-laden deal is fairly crazy. A team that can assume some risk can always hope it finds itself with someone resembling the guy who posted a 186/26 K/BB ratio in 150 innings in 2006-2007.
Righty Specialists Are People, Too: Russ Springer. Springer was excellent in 2007-2008 as a member of the Cardinals‘ bullpen, but he struggled upon moving to the AL in 2009, surrendering nine homers in 57 innings. He’s held righties to a .200/.246/.291 line over the last three years, though lefties have hit him at a .291/.370/.474 clip, and his 2009 numbers were slightly more discomforting (righties .263/.282/.428, lefties .350/.430/.550). A senior circuit team that can afford the luxury of carrying a veteran righty specialist could do worse than this senior citizen.