The following article is a guest post from Getting Blanked contributor Travis Reitsma.  Travis is the creator and operator of Baseball Canadiana.

There has been much controversy this offseason over the signing of relievers.  Since the Tigers drastically overpaid for Joaquin Benoit to the tune of a 3yr/$16.5-million, the market for middle-relievers and mediocre closers has gone up dramatically.

J.J Putz (2yr/$10-million), Scott Downs (3yr/$15-million), Jesse Crain (3yr/$13-million), Matt Guerrier (3yr/$12-million), Bobby Jenks (2yr/$12-million), and Pedro Feliciano (2yr/$8-million) have all been signed to multi-year deals for what seems like a lot of coin.  This assuredly means Rafael Soriano, widely considered the best reliever on the market, will receive a ludicrously lucrative payday.  Have general managers lost their minds this offseason (seems probable) or are we all missing something?  Are relievers more valuable than we think?

There has been some great analysis on the subject and most have come to the conclusion that spending a lot of money on relievers over multiple years is a terrible plan that almost never works out.  But just how bad is it, really?

How do the contracts of these players stack up to other bad contracts at other positions?  What about expensive contracts that most consider “good value deals” such as Jeter’s or Pujols’?

It may be simplistic and it’s probably somewhat flawed, but I did some research on these questions.

I took the ten richest contracts ever given out to relief pitchers (in terms of average annual salary) and divided their total amount of money-made by their WAR rating.  This gives a $/WAR number.  In other words, how much money did teams have to spend to get one win above replacement player on each of these deals?

This should allow for at least a simplistic look at the best and worst big-money contracts given out to relievers.

A few of these deals are still in progress so in those cases I took the average annual salary of the years completed in the deal so far, rather than the actual dollar figure paid to the player.  I feel like this allows for more predictability for the remaining years of the deal and more accurately represents the return value of the players.

Highest Annual Salary for Relievers (Not including deals signed this offseason)

Player Team Annual $ Years of deal
1 Mariano Rivera NYY $15.00-million 2008-2010
2 Brad Lidge PHI $12.50-million 2009-2011
3 Francisco Rodriguez NYM $12.33-million 2009-2011
4 Joe Nathan MIN $11.75-million 2008-2011
5 Francisco Cordero CIN $11.50-million 2008-2011
6 Billy Wagner NYM $10.75-million 2006-2009
7 Kerry Wood CLE $10.25-million 2009-2010
8 B.J. Ryan TOR $9.40-million 2006-2010
9 Jonathan Papelbon BOS $9.35-million 2010
10 Brian Fuentes LAA $8.75-million 2009-2010

Highest Guaranteed Contracts for Relievers

Player Team Guaranteed $ Years of Deal
1 Joe Nathan MIN $47-million 2008-2011
1 B.J. Ryan TOR $47-million 2006-2010
3 Francisco Cordero CIN $46-million 2008-2011
4 Mariano Rivera NYY $45-million 2008-2010
5 Billy Wagner NYM $43-million 2006-2009

Just a quick glance at this and you might think that the worst reliever contract ever given out belonged to none other than J.P. Riccardi’s signature signing, B.J. Ryan, but hold on.  Here is the $/WAR chart:

Highest $/WAR among the richest 10 contracts given to relievers (Annual Salary)

Player Team tWAR $/WAR
1 Brad Lidge PHI -0.4 INF ($25-million)
2 Kerry Wood CLE 0.5 $41.00-million
3 Brian Fuentes LAA 0.7 $25.00-million
4 B.J. Ryan TOR 3.0 $15.67-million
5 Francisco Rodriguez NYM 1.7 $14.51-million
6 Francisco Cordero CIN 2.8 $12.32-million
7 Joe Nathan MIN 4.0 $8.81-million
8 Billy Wagner NYM 5.0 $8.60-million
9 Jonathan Papelbon BOS 1.2 $7.79-million
10 Mariano Rivera NYY 6.9 $6.52-million

Given Brad Lidge’s negative WAR rating so far in his deal with Philadelphia, his contracts is infinitely bad.  Some of those numbers are pretty interesting, but they don’t mean much until you give them some context, so how do other contracts stack up?  Mike Hampton was signed to a huge extension by the Colorado Rockies prior to the 2001 season, a contract that is considered one of the worst ever given out.  His $/WAR value for those 8 years is $11.30-million, making his monstrous contract of 8-years and $121-million more valued than 6 of these relievers.

Kosuke Fukudome has a $/WAR value of $6.42-million for his contract to date, making him better than all ten of these deals, including Rivera’s, while the Athletics’ deal with Eric Chavez provided an $8.05-million/WAR value.

Gary Sheffield’s two-year deal with the Tigers prior to 2008 garnered Detroit a $140-million/WAR value and then they released him the next offseason and Julio Lugo’s massive deal with the Red Sox gave a return of $120-million/WAR on a deal the Red Sox are still paying for.

These were all considered bad contracts and some of them are considered pretty good values when compared to the richest reliever deals.

So what then of rich contracts considered somewhat fair?  How do they stand up?

Alex Rodriguez’s $252-million contract signed by the Rangers in 2001 (which ended up paying A-Rod $185.45-million after the opt-out) provided a $/WAR value at $3.31-million and Derek Jeter’s $189-million contract provided the Yankees with a value of $4.09-million/WAR.

Manny Ramirez’s $160-million deal inked with Boston garnered a $4.45-million/WAR return.

What are some of the best returns?  How about Joe Mauer’s deal from 2007-2010 which provided the Twins with a $/WAR value of $1.5-million, or Jimmy Rollins’ deal with the Phillies from 2006-2010 which provided a return of $1.63-million/WAR.  Albert Pujols’ 7-yr/$100-million? $1.73-million/WAR

What does all this mean?  You probably shouldn’t pay relievers a lot of money over multiple years, you’re not likely to get a good return on your investment.  This makes teams like Tampa Bay look brilliant for letting their two major relievers walk and signing Joel Peralta for $900-k and bringing back J.P. Howell for cheap.

It also tells you why teams are seeking to acquire cheap bullpen help in trades rather than on the market.  Toronto, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Florida, Oakland, Arizona, and Kansas City have all made trades to improve their bullpen cheaply without spending on guys like Benoit and Crain.

For anyone’s curiosity, here’s a $/WAR chart of some of the bigger contracts:

Player Years of deal tWAR Guaranteed $ $/WAR
Jason Schmidt 2007-2009 0.0 $47.00-million Infinite
Jose Guillen 2008-2010 -1.1 $36.00-million Infinite
Khalil Greene 2008-2009 -1.3 $11.00-million Infinite
Gary Sheffield 2008-2009 0.2 $28.00-million $140.00-million
Julio Lugo 2007-2010 0.3 $36.00-million $120.00-million
Mike Hampton 2001-2008 10.7 $121.00-million $11.30-million
Manny Ramirez 2009-2010 4.1 $45.00-million $10.96-million
Eric Chavez 2005-2010 8.2 $66.00-million $8.05-million
Bronson Arroyo 2009-2010 3.4 $25.00-million $7.35-million
Kosuke Fukudome 2008-2010 5.6 $36.00-million $6.42-million
Paul Konerko 2006-2010 13.9 $62.50-million $4.50-million
Carlos Delgado 2005-2008 11.6 $52.00-million $4.48-million
Manny Ramirez 2001-2008 35.8 $160.00-million $4.45-million
Derrek Lee 2006-2010 15.1 $65.00-million $4.30-million
Derek Jeter 2001-2010 46.2 $189.00-million $4.09-million
David  Ortiz 2007-2010 12.8 $52.00-million $4.06-million
Kevin Millwood 2006-2010 14.8 $60.00-million $4.05-million
Ichiro Suzuki 2008-2010 13.8 $54.00-million $3.91-million
Adrian Beltre 2005-2009 16.9 $64.00-million $3.79-million
Alex Rodriguez 2001-2007 56.0 $185.45-million $3.31-million
Lance Berkman 2005-2010 26.8 $85.00-million $3.17-million
Miguel Tejada 2004-2009 25.7 $72.00-million $2.80-million
Albert Pujols 2004-2010 57.8 $100.00-million $1.73-million
Jimmy Rollins 2006-2010 21.5 $35.00-million $1.63-million
Joe Mauer 2007-2010 22.0 $33.00-million $1.50-million

Statistical information acquired from FanGraphs.

Contractual information acquired from Cot’s Baseball Contacts.

Comments (17)

  1. You have any compareable numbers for the Zito San Francisco blasphemy?

    Worst contract ever.

  2. Zito’s compiled 7.5 fWAR while earning a cool $65 million, good for a tidy $8.3 / WAR. Efficient!

  3. Reading this reminded me just how good BJ Ryan was. From 2004-2006, he was EASILY the best reliever in baseball. Crazy to think he’s already out of the game.

  4. @Drew: Steroids are a wonderful thing, haha.

  5. Interesting take Travis. I wonder however if this system gives full value to relievers as ,at least in my humble opinion , relievers tend to get the short end of the stick in terms of WAR. Either way I think we can safely say that relievers are poor investment options.

  6. PS I love that you can use math to say that a win “cost” infinite dollars. Beautiful.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately and it seems that the effectiveness of a team’s bullpen depends a lot more on its manager’s ability to use it properly than any other part of the team. Look at the Rays this year – they’ve lost pretty much every single one of their relievers, yet it’s generally believed that they’ll still have an above average bullpen while other teams around the league pay exorbitant amounts of money to the guys they let go. I’m sure their bullpen will be much better than “replacement level”, but in reality isn’t that kind of exactly what it’s going to be made up of? They’re losing pretty much every effective relief arm they had last year, and they’re not spending big money – or any money, really – to replace them. And they’re going to be fine.

    I guess what I mean is, the idea of “replacement level” is kind of hard to quantify for relief pitchers because of the inherent volatility of their performance from year to year, and the fact that, for many of them, their degree of success is very much dependent on their field manager’s ability to use them properly. Unless we’re talking about someone like Mariano Rivera, they’re all so close to replacement level (at least according to WAR) that it’s almost insane to ever pay anybody more than the league minimum. In practice that seems like it’d be a sure-fire way to throw away a ton of games, though.

    It’ll be interesting to compare the performance of, say, the Rays bullpen (and the Jays probably fall into the same category, really) vs. high-priced relief groups (Detroit, Boston, etc.) and see how they stack up.

  8. I agree – WAR isn’t necessarily the best tool for evaluating the quality of relievers but it works perfectly for an exercise like this as you can so easily tie it to $ value.

    The idea of replacement for relievers is much trickier. I know Fangraphs accounts for this it still re-frames the entire context of valuing relievers.

  9. Relievers are such a volatile commodity. It seems to me that the best strategy is to throw enough shit against the wall and see what sticks.

  10. I am not the most familiar with how WAR is calculated but I’d assume that it is based on the previous year’s stats, so when putting together a bullpen a team still faces a ton of uncertainty. It would add to the analysis if you randomly selected a bunch of replacement level relievers for comparison. Since relievers stats are so volatile, it may be that replacement level relievers have a hugely negative expected WAR.

  11. Yeah, WAR isn’t the best thing for evaluating relievers, but I still thought it was an interesting things to do. Anyway, I’m going to the land of no internet until tomorrow night. Bye everyone!!

  12. Travis

    How do these numbers work out with the much-maligned Vernon Wells?

  13. For VWells looks like the 2003-2007 contract (5 years 14.7M) paid off at $1.22M/Win as he generated over 17 wins during that time. He’s been paid $40M so far in the 7yr deal and generated 4 wins in 2008-2010 so $/Win is up to $7.27. If he keeps putting up 4+ win years he’s being paid close to fair value at $5/Win.

  14. @meistermb: Thanks for fielding that one. I didn’t have the internet for a few days. I want to do a similar analysis for some cheap contracts in the near future. Takes a lot of time to compile all of them and then come to conclusions. Thanks for reading everybody!

  15. Another case of a team getting a quality reliever for cheap: The Rockies acquired Matt Lindstrom from the Rockies for a bag of peanuts.

  16. *from the Astros…too much turkey

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