Without the browbeating effect of staring my own written words in the face—whoa, whoa, do you want to say this?—I occasionally release into the world a statement that is, let’s say, not wholly considered. So it was that I boldly questioned a friend—a Yankees fan—about his favorable evaluation of the recent trade for Tommy Kahnle.
The breakout White Sox reliever’s remaining team control may or may not have made him the most expensive part of the deal in which the Yankees also acquired David Robertson and Todd Frazier, while jettisoning human heart palpitation Tyler Clippard.
“What are the odds,” I asked, haughtily, “that Kahnle is even pitching as well as Clippard a year from now?”
That’s a hole I dug for myself. This, then, is a more considered way of wondering what the wacky history of hot commodity relievers says about the 2018 versions of Kahnle or Brad Hand.
We’re going to let the numbers select a hot reliever for each of the past 10 seasons. We’ll be examining the pitcher (minimum 40 relief innings) with the lowest DRA who had never previously posted a DRA below 3.00. That qualifying threshold, over our timeframe, has typically covered about 40 relievers per year—a group that you could safely call the “good” bullpen options. Thus, in our small, unscientific way, we’re looking at the volatility of relievers who skipped right past good and went straight to great.
This method will render the selections fair and objective, but blind to whatever narratives may have swirled at the time. It will also widen the field beyond relievers who were traded, so we can mull over the larger question: Are breakout relievers’ follow-up acts worth paying extra for?
2008: Grant Balfour
How good was he? During a breakout that came on as suddenly as the Rays’ World Series run, Balfour excelled at hit prevention and whiffs. His strikeout rate was elite at the time, and his DRA slotted in third among relievers, behind division rivals Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon.
Was the next season worth paying for? In 2009, Balfour regressed to something like a league-average pitcher. But the dominance returned. He posted two more seasons of excellence and two more solid ones. There was no time between 2008 and 2013 where a team would have been upset to have Balfour in the pen.
2009: Michael Wuertz
How good was he? The two most notable names here were Wuertz—whose season was a blip of control in a career full of high walk rates—and his A’s teammate Andrew Bailey, who was the much more memorable case. DRA pegged Wuertz as the second-best reliever to Rivera, as he set career bests in virtually every skill a pitcher can have.
The other guys: Bailey fired 83 1/3 get-your-hopes-up innings, recording 26 saves. He maintained enough intrigue to actually be traded to Boston two years later, at which point injuries derailed his career.
Was the next season worth paying for? Wuertz’s walk issues came back. He pitched fewer than 40 innings the next two seasons and then was gone.
2010: Joaquin Benoit
How good was he? At age 32, and in his first season outside of Texas, Benoit figured something—or some combination of things—out and flung 60 1/3 innings for the Rays with a 1.34 ERA.
The other guys: Well, he didn’t meet the criteria because of his good 2008, but Carlos Marmol was the best relief pitcher in baseball in 2010. So tread carefully.
Was the next season worth paying for? Had Benoit in fact been a controllable asset, some alternate universe trade partner would have been very happy. As it was, the Tigers signed him to a three-year deal. He quietly put together excellent numbers for the next half-decade, and remains a thoroughly unobjectionable bullpen piece.
2011: Craig Kimbrel
How good was he? The 23-year-old Kimbrel basically arrived fully formed after a brief stint in the majors in 2010. This was by far his heaviest workload of any season—77 innings.
The other guys: Sergio Romo was the best reliever in baseball by DRA, and that’s not the fun part of this season. Here is the unabridged list of pitchers who followed Kimbrel on our DRA leaderboard: Al Alburquerque, Kenley Jansen, Jonny Venters, Mariano Rivera, Daniel Bard, Sergio Santos, Greg Holland. OK!
Was the next season worth paying for? Kimbrel’s 2012 may very well be the greatest relief season of our one-inning-focused era. It remains the only season on record where a pitcher who threw 60 or more innings struck out more than half the batters he faced. Of course, we didn’t get to see the market value of Kimbrel after one season or half a season. By the time he was actually traded, we had four years worth of scorched opponents as evidence of his abilities—a stipulation that also applies to the Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman deals that seem to have shifted sellers’ expectations in this arena, despite the scarce nature of similar situations.
2012: Fernando Rodney
How good was he? In mulling over the names and numbers at the top of the reliever leaderboards, I briefly developed a half-baked theory that there was some sort of age cutoff after which consistency could not be expected. A sort of late-bloomer, early-decliner theory for the position that seems least tied to the aging curve. Rodney’s existence is a reminder that any and every easy explanation your mind conjures should be messier if you hope to reflect reality. He leveled up at age 35.
The other guys: Remember Ryan Cook?
Was the next season worth paying for? Yes! Rodney was extremely solid, if more stressful thanks to the return of his wildness, for the next two seasons. Lots of things have happened since then. But Rodney remains a quintessential example of the reliever archetype.
2013: Danny Farquhar
How good was he? DRA, which did not exist then, says he had an elite season! His 1.88 FIP did, too. His 4.20 ERA means basically no one cared.
The other guys: Trevor Rosenthal looked set to join the ranks of Kimbrel and Holland and Chapman.
Was the next season worth paying for? You would have been perfectly happy with his 2014. And then you would have been very sad.
2014: Dellin Betances
How good was he? He was 90 innings worth of completely befuddled hitters.
The other guys: A wild Ken Giles appeared! Giles surfaced in a partial season and struck out 64 batters in 45 2/3 innings, laying the groundwork for a massive, much-discussed trade of which he is still undeniably the better half.
Was the next season worth paying for? Despite some recent hand-wringing, Betances remains one of the game’s best relievers. Arbitration, smarbitration.
2015: Carson Smith
How good was he? In his only season eclipsing the 10-inning mark, Smith was legitimately excellent, racking up 92 strikeouts in 70 innings while allowing just two homers.
The other guys: Sam Dyson earned a role in one of recent history’s weirdest and most memorable innings.
Was the next season worth paying for? We’ve seen fewer than three innings of Smith since. Which means no.
2016: Kyle Barraclough
How good was he? Look, even this came with some red flags. If you’re going to be wild, you have to have a lot of other things going for you. Barraclough’s excellent 2016 featured a strikeout rate that mirrored Kimbrel’s worst, and a walk rate that overshot Kimbrel’s wildest full year. It didn’t look like Barraclough was in control. And that was probably his ceiling.
Was the next season worth paying for? The jury is still out, obviously. The walks give teams a very good reason to shy away from Barraclough as the closer, for instance, but he’d be a reasonable addition to just about any bullpen.
2017: Tommy Kahnle
How good has he been? An absurd, second-to-Kimbrel strikeout rate is a great place to start. His absurd chase rate spike doesn’t seem likely to stick around at its current level, but there is something different about him that, at age 27, could very well stick.
Was the next season worth paying for? We’re going to find out together, of course. But I’ll admit that my mind has been changed by reconsidering just how good Kahnle has been. Despite some of the names we’ve just uttered, history is kind enough to pitchers who reach this stratosphere that my skepticism was probably overblown.
The Yankees gave up a faraway but notable position player prospect, Blake Rutherford, who seemed to my judgmental brain less risky than a reliever with half a season of dominant performance. However, that is a trick, a danger inflated by Tyler Thornburg trades and Andrew Bailey disappearances. Even 40 or so innings of this type of brilliance make Kahnle an asset worth having. And some slightly lesser trade could make the same true of Hand.
For everything that can go wrong, demonstrated ability does matter—even if it seems more fragile and fleeting when it originates in the bullpen. If anything, we might stare a little too long at dominant relievers before believing. I’m guilty of that tendency, while the Yankees appear cognizant of the chance to exploit it, to whatever extent front offices might be guilty. And for taking the leap without looking over the edge twice, they could get a vastly better deal than their recent trade partners. All in all, that’s probably worth the ever-present chance that it all blows up.
Consider this my mea culpa.