Are Relief Pitcher Contracts Too Damn High?
It’s of no shock to anyone in the baseball-watching world that free agent contracts increase over time. We’re now in the days where it is almost routine for a free agent to get at least $50 million, no matter how mediocre they are, especially in a year where the market is thin, for that matter. The demand for talent may be lower, but there will always be about five teams or so that will seriously compete for any given player. In this market those players happen to be relievers. Three massive relief contracts were handed out this offseason: Mark Melancon, for four years and $60 million; Kenley Jansen, for five years and $80 million; and Aroldis Chapman, for five years and $86 million. Does this make any sense? Based on the history of relief pitchers in baseball: not at all.
It is one of the first rules of roster construction that relievers are transient. Let’s pretend we’re creating five year contracts for relief pitchers as if they would be free agent pitchers. The top ten pitchers by fWAR (as problematic as it is, but it works in this case) in 2011 were: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Sean Marshall, David Robertson, Mariano Rivera, John Axford, Mike Adams, Joel Hanrahan, Ryan Madson, and Greg Holland. Here are their aggregate fWAR totals from 2012 to 2016: 10.6, 5.1, 1.8, 7.7, 1.9, 0.3, 0.8, -1.1, 1.2, and 8.1 We can toss out Rivera’s numbers because of retirement, but you get the idea: it is almost impossible to predict how good relievers will be five years from now.
Now, think about the best relievers from 2006. JJ Putz, Jonathan Papelbon, Huston Street, Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, and Billy Wagner are examples. Would you give these players five-year contracts? Other than Rivera and Papelbon, you probably wouldn’t. That means that in a given generation, there are usually a handful of relievers that can stick around long term, thus justifying an extended contract in free agency.
The question, I suppose, is whether Chapman, Melancon, and Jansen are those pitchers. Are they? On Melancon: probably not. He has a track record of four very good relief seasons, and that’s it. He has a fastball that has been slowly declining, and his only benefit is that he’s hopping from one pitcher-friendly park to another. On Jansen, that’s possible. His entire service time has been excellent, all the way since 2010, and he has a more age-durable pitch in the cutter, which is the best since Rivera himself. Chapman may also, depending on the aging of his fastball. If he can stay dominant even after his velocity dips below 100 consistently, then he’s here to stay. If not, then his poor command average slider could very well sink him.
Honestly, though, this is a more philosophical debate, though. Relief pitching, as I said, is an incredibly fickle thing, the least reliable from year to year. It’s also the one most prone to random swings unrelated performance, because a bad five-to-ten inning stretch could wreck an entire season, or waste nearly $15 million in resources. It’s also been shown that closers aren’t as inherently valuable as a fireman, where “save situations” are often the difference of a few percentage points success rate between average and elite closers.
Not to mention, because closers rely so heavily on leverage as a metric for success, it becomes moot if the team is poor. There’s always a need for a position player, or a starting pitcher to fill innings, but no one needs an elite closer if the team isn’t providing leads that are close or that matter; offense juggernauts and poor teams alike inversely suffer from not needing a closer as much as a contender in a tight pennant race consisting of small margins.
This goes to the actual question in the title: are free agent relief pitchers overpriced? For the truly elite, the ones that can stand up to that historical scrutiny: no. If arbitration costs for a closer can sit around $10 million, for example, is it that much of a stretch to say they deserve $15 million on the free market. Given the average value of a win; sure, that makes sense. For anyone else (I’m looking at you, Melancon): yes.
Relievers are fleeting and there is now an actual hard luxury tax cap, so wasting about 8% of payroll on a guy who may disappear from baseball or fade into mediocrity isn’t smart. And, in years, length usually doesn’t make sense. Going to five years is unfathomable because, like I said, relievers just don’t stick around. There will always be a demand for the tippy-top of elite relief pitchers, especially when those innings are in October. Those innings are nearly priceless in value. But if you pick incorrectly, and that reliever is not one of the best of that era, then you’re likely to get burned. Choose wisely.