Great closers, overpaying for them, and saberbickering

By Bill

I started a bit of a fracas on Twitter a couple weeks ago, primarily with a couple guys I really like and think are brilliant guys and good analysts, Patrick Sullivan and Moshe Mandel. I won’t link to the discussion or anything, because Twitter fights are always confusing and really, really dull, but here’s the gist:

1) As you probably know, most sabermetric types have a generally low opinion of relief pitchers and, more than that, of the large, multi-year contracts free agent ones are given.

2) A few, like Patrick and Moshe, have a problem with the sometimes rote and knee-jerk way point no. 1 is applied. There are quite a few points and I won’t do justice to them, but some of the keys are: (a) GMs are generally smart people, and it’s arrogant to assume you know a bunch of things they don’t; (b) saying things like “relievers are fungible,” at least with regard to the really, consistently good ones, is stupid and reductive; and (c) we’re not really sure how to properly measure relievers yet, so we should stop acting like we are. A common tack is to mock the idea that the Rays’ tactic of building a bullpen on the cheap is “smart,” pointing out that by xFIP, the Rays had the second-worst ‘pen in baseball in 2011.

3) I eventually tired of the way this extremely vocal minority presented their otherwise perfectly valid and worthwhile opinion: mostly in really sarcastic preemptive-strike subtweets which I thought unfairly belittled the (sabermetric) majority position and put words in people’s mouths that seriously oversimplified what was actually being said. You’d think, from reading these comments, that the average sabermetrically-minded person didn’t think relievers had any value, that they were literally all exactly alike, and that a signing like Papelbon didn’t actually make the Phillies any better. So I spoke up, and it became this big thing.

Twitter is wonderful, but Twitter fights, as I’ve said, are awful (especially among intelligent people who can’t be dismantled and dismissed in 140 characters the way, say, a Jon Heyman can). So I thought I’d try to lay out my thoughts in a more coherent form here. Moshe has some thoughts on it in an excellent post here, which will be the focus of a lot of this, and for some additional perspective on “the other side,” Moshe approvingly cites this from the same blog a few weeks earlier.

So here are a few thoughts on this, at more than 140 characters a pop:

1. This is really a pretty minor quibble. I think the chief reason I got so tired of the vitriol and sarcasm on this issue is that when you boil it down, we’re not disagreeing over much. From the Moshe link above and some things Patrick has written (like this), and what I know about these guys generally, I don’t think they’d put up much of a disagreement with the notion that handing three-year, $13-$20 million contracts to middling, inconsistent guys like Matt Guerrier and Scott Linebrink is a terrible idea. Throw eight readily available minor league live arms at the wall, and you really are likely to find one or two who can perform as well as you’d reasonably expect those guys to in a given season. What we’re arguing over (I think) is whether, in those few instances when a real elite, top-flight closer is available, he’s “worth” the big multi-year contract he can usually get. It’s the existence or non-existence of an exception to a rule that arises (the exception, that is) with regard to, on average, probably one player every two years. Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’s worth insulting a group of obviously pretty smart people’s intelligence over, but that’s what people on both sides are doing.

2. You can dress it up however you like, but it’s still an appeal to authority. I said I wasn’t going to link to Twitter, but I thought this was a good one from Patrick: “There’s ample room between ‘appealing to authority’ and assuming super-accomplished people are total morons.” Of course there is. There’s also ample room, though, between arguing that a GM spent more than he should’ve on a reliever and assuming the same GM is “a total moron.”

On the other hand, demanding that we assume GMs have good reasons for spending the money they do on relievers based solely on the fact that they’re GMs and they decided to spend that money is the very definition of a fallacious appeal to authority. These are people who are very smart and very successful for a wide variety of different reasons; not all of them are particularly strong in the area of free agent contracts. We know they make some profoundly silly decisions; nobody made the same arguments when GMs signed Barry Zito, Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Howard and Vernon Wells to contracts anyone with a basic understanding of statistics or historical precedent could tell you were doomed to fail spectacularly. And if a given GM isn’t one of “those guys,” he’s competing against a bunch of them in bidding for the same pool of players, and he might make a rational decision to overpay now and then (see below).

On the specific subject of relievers, we know that a lot of GMs — even otherwise really smart ones, like Terry Ryan — believe silly, demonstrably false things like that saves are meaningful or that “closing experience” is important in and of itself. So, no, taking their word for it is a bad idea. It’s possible (necessary, I’d say) to acknowledge (a) that GMs are very smart and are much better than I would be at most aspects of their jobs, and also (b) that they sometimes make dumb decisions for silly reasons.

3. You know what? The Rays are really smart. I’d argue, with full knowledge of the xFIP and everything else, that the Rays’ scrap-heap bullpen strategy is something they absolutely could not compete without. A few considerations:

          (a) Actually, I don’t think the bullpen was bad at all in 2011. Just 0.7 fWAR thanks to the bad FIP, but they did have two very good relievers, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, and those were the guys who got the most high-leverage innings. Most of the damage to the overall numbers was done by mopup types (and one was Jake McGee, then a top prospect).
          (b) More to the point, even if the bullpen was a weak spot in 2011, not spending there allows the Rays to use what little money they do have in areas where the wins come more cheaply. I don’t think there’s any doubt that before the fact, they figured to gain more from Casey Kotchman, Johnny Damon, and Manny Ramirez (as well as that one ultimately worked out) than if they’d spent the same money on veteran bullpen arms.
          (c) Not having much invested in your bullpen, I’d guess, also means you don’t invest a lot of your hopes in the bullpen, either. You’re a lot better prepared to handle a bullpen collapse — which is a possibility any team faces — if you weren’t really counting on it for much in the first place.

I suspect what people are really lashing out against is the sense that the Rays’ method is the only way that any team should build a bullpen. Which, if anyone is actually saying that, is absurd — I think a lot of small- to mid-market or non-competing teams could take a page from the Rays’ book, but certainly not everyone. It’s far from the only smart way to approach a bullpen, but it’s still a very smart way to build a bullpen, especially for a team operating on a shoestring budget. But:

4. These contracts might make sense for some teams, even if (though) they’re overpays. Another thing I’ve seen is an insinuation (probably in response to the everyone-should-be-the-Rays sentiment mentioned just above) that because one believes Ben Cherington or Ruben Amaro is smart to sign an ace reliever to a big contract, it necessarily makes Friedman and company less smart than those guys are. In reality, though, they’re just playing two very different games.

Even if you think (as I continue to) that free agent relievers are typically overpaid, the fact is that there are 29 other GMs out there, many of whom will be more than willing to overpay them. If you’ve got the money, figure to compete for the playoffs, and don’t see any comparable upgrades at other positions, one can certainly argue that it makes sense for the smart GM to outbid the others for that one ace reliever you could really use. That is: maybe Papelbon represents only a 1-1.5 win improvement over your next best, cheap-as-free option, but there are instances in which that extra win and a half could be really important, and then there’s a huge benefit to having a guy like that in the playoffs. A move like that could cripple the Rays if it doesn’t work out (or maybe even if it does), but is just icing for the Phillies or Red Sox. (Interestingly, you could argue the Rays themselves did that in 2010 on a much smaller scale, acquiring Rafael Soriano for a bit more than they’d really want to pay ($7 million) because the fit was right for where the team was just then.)

So they’ve got a very good point here; if you’re just knocking a team like the Phillies for paying too much to Jonathan Papelbon or Ryan Madson, and you don’t consider what it means to their total payroll/revenue, their chances to compete for and/or succeed in the playoffs, and what other upgrade options were out there, you’re doing it wrong. And a lot of people seem to do that, especially in quick bursts on Twitter. That said:

5. They’re still paying too much, if only in a philosophical sense. There’s still room to debate how much closers are really “worth,” but I think we know enough to be pretty confident that it’s very, very hard for a guy who pitches 60-75 innings in a season to continuously be worth much more than two wins, and generally, you could get those two wins for a lot less money than you’re going to have to pay a Papelbon type. Jack Moore argued yesterday that it might make more sense to view GMs as paying for Win Probability Added than for WAR…but he hasn’t gotten yet to the question of whether they should, and I don’t see the argument that they should; the easiest way to get WPA is by pitching fairly well in later innings of a close game, so paying closers by WPA becomes kind of a circular proposition, in the same way that paying a closer for the saves you plan to hand him would be.

Moshe’s main point in the post linked above is that teams “pay for consistency”; they tend to save the big contracts for guys who have been especially productive for at least three years in a row. This, I think Moshe would admit, leaves some big questions unanswered, including the biggest one: do they go on to earn those contracts? Moshe tosses this aside with “while some of these contracts have flopped, that is a risk that comes with any free agent contract.”

But it sure seems like the risk is greater — much, much greater — with closer contracts than with those others. Of the pitchers who make Moshe’s list, the contracts of Brad Lidge, Francisco Rodriguez, B.J. Ryan, and Armando Benitez stick out as total or near-total disasters due to injury or ineffectiveness. Francisco Cordero has been the definition of inconsistency with the Reds, and you’d have to say Joe Nathan‘s big extension was a near-total flop due to the missed 2010 and relatively poor 2011. Of the remaining six, three are just getting started. That’s a pretty astonishingly high “flop” rate. Teams may be paying for perceived consistency, but I don’t think they’re getting it, at all. What they’re really buying is past consistency, which, Moshe’s list suggests, isn’t worth a whole lot going forward.

Which is just ammunition for the common-sense point that guys who pitch no more than 5% of their teams’ innings, who aren’t Mariano Rivera (and no, Papelbon isn’t Rivera, or at least it’s not remotely safe to assume he is at this point), aren’t worth the same high salaries and multi-year contracts you’d hand to an above-average starting position player. It’s entirely fair, though, to acknowledge both that they aren’t “worth” that kind of money and that given the current market, in certain situations for certain teams, it makes sense to pay those exorbitant prices anyway. That’s not what a lot of people in the sabermetric community are doing, which is why Moshe, Patrick et al. have a perfectly legitimate point to make. But it can be done.____________________________________________So in summary: I’m convinced that free agent relievers are overpaid, and that in the abstract, handing a large, multi-year contract to any reliever is a bad idea. It’s hard to imagine being convinced otherwise, but I look forward to reading any research or analysis that makes an attempt. 
But teams don’t operate “in the abstract,” and for some teams, it might make perfect sense to deliberately overspend to land an elite closer (like any other free agent). “Analysis” that slams (e.g.) the Papelbon contract without taking the context into account is ridiculous and lazy, and it’s right to criticize that. 
What I don’t get is criticizing all suggestions that maybe relievers (even great ones) get paid more than they “should” be, or the suggestion that the highly successful (and probably absolutely necessary) tactics the Rays have pursued are somehow less legitimate than throwing a bunch of money at a Papelbon or Madson. I just think both “sides” here could benefit from a little equivocation, and the sarcasm and insults could be brought down a notch or twelve.

This isn’t meant as a treatise on free agent relievers or anything. I’m not an authority, just felt the need to spell things out the way I see them. I’ll welcome all opposing viewpoints, corrections, ridicule, etc.
Thanks to @TRancel for his input on this post.


About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.