We wrote about this at length during the season, but as it’s once again become popular to mention the 25 times Blue Jays relievers blew saves this past year as some sort of proof that the team is in desperate need of a legitimate closer, it likely bears looking at those ominous 25 blown saves once again.
But before we do, let’s take a quick look at the most effective relievers pitching in high leverage situations this season according to FanGraphs’ WPA/LI along with their 2011 salary:
- Mariano Rivera, NYY: $15 million
- Daniel Bard, BOS: $505,000
- David Robertson, NYY: $460,450
- Jonathan Papelbon, BOS: $12 million
- Koji Uehara, BAL/TEX: $3 million
- Jonny Venters, ATL: $429,500
- Jim Jonson, BAL: $975,000
- Mike Adams, SDP/TEX: $2.535 million
- Greg Holland KCR: League Minimum
- Tyler Clippard, WAS: $443,000
The effectiveness of big money relievers is one of the biggest myths in baseball. Year in and year out, the most effective pitchers coming out of the bullpen are not the most highly paid on the team. In the top ten list above, Rivera and Papelbon are the exceptions, not the norm. This, in combination with the way that long term deals with relievers have a way of almost always hurting the club, is why teams shouldn’t be investing a lot of money or years in a free agent reliever.
A little less than a year ago, these relief pitchers all signed deals as free agents that guaranteed them at least $10 million:
- Rafael Soriano, NYY: 3 years/$35 million
- Mariano Rivera, NYY: 2 years/$30 million
- Joaquin Benoit, DET: 3 years/$16 million
- Scott Downs, LAA: 3 years/$15 million
- Jesse Crain, CHW: 3 years/$13 million
- Matt Guerrier, LAD: 3 years/$12 million
- Bobby Jenks, BOS: 2 years/$12 million
- Brian Fuentes, OAK: 2 years/$10.5 million
- Kevin Gregg, BAL: 2 years/$10 million
One year into their new deals, only two of the pitchers listed appear in the top 50 for WPA/LI among the 134 qualified relievers, and only one is ranked in the top 50 for clutch performances. Of the nine, only three are being used in enough high leverage situations to rank in the top 50 among relievers for highest average leverage when entering the game.
In other words, teams that have spent a lot of money on relievers, aren’t getting the high leverage performances that they presumably expected, and in most cases, aren’t even using those pitchers in the highest leverage situations. So much for the proven closer thing.
Despite this evidence, many fans carry an earnest belief that throwing money at a bullpen problem will automatically solve it. The Toronto Blue Jays and their often quoted 25 blown saves are a perfect example of this. The levels of frustration from the blown saves tend to blind a fan base to reason, and generally cause an unreasonable demand for a “proven closer” type to anchor the bullpen and ensure that late game collapses don’t happen.
As we see above, it simply doesn’t work that way. By looking at the 25 blown saves, we further learn that even with the addition of a mythical closing saviour, 25 blown saves doesn’t equal 25 more victories or 25 less losses.
First of all, of the 25 blown saves that Blue Jays relievers committed last season, three times two blown saves occurred in the same game. Of the 23 games in which a blown save occurred, seven of those games still resulted in a Toronto Blue Jays victory. Of the sixteen losses resulting from a blown save, only half of the blown saves occurred in the ninth inning or later, when a “proven closer” type would be more likely to have been used. Of the eight saves blown in the ninth inning or later, two were blown by non-closers who were only pitching because the closer wasn’t available. This leaves us with six losses in which the team’s closer blew a save or was taken out of the game in the ninth inning and the replacement reliever blew a save.
Six times this happened all season. Let’s pretend that the Blue Jays closers were perfect last season. It would add a whopping total of six wins and take away six losses. Let’s extend this fantasy even further and say that Toronto’s closers were perfect and every other teams’ closers were their regular selves. The Toronto Blue Jays would have an 87-75 record, still ten games back of the division winners, and four games back of the Wild Card.
Of the 25 relievers last season who had more than 20 saves (which, for the record I’m not suggesting is the best measurement for a reliever’s performance), a dozen blew six or more saves on their own.
The answer to the Blue Jays problems isn’t a “proven closer.” Like most teams, they need additional bullpen depth that one pitcher can’t provide. Forget names like Papelbon, Heath Bell or Joe Nathan. Think about relievers like Todd Coffey, Mike Gonzalez, Darren Oliver, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler or Michael Wuertz. And dare I say, even the criminally underappreciated Frank Francisco. Toronto should be looking at relievers who aren’t likely to get multiple year deals that drain finances.
Additionally, when it comes to relief pitchers, teams must look at a wider sample than merely the last season. If the value of high priced relievers is the biggest myth in baseball, then the second biggest is that relievers are a volatile lot. When people talk about the volatility of relief pitchers, it has more to do with smaller sample sizes than a particular unique quality. Relievers simply pitch less innings and face fewer batters in a single season than starters, meaning that their performances from year to year might appear more volatile, but it’s just that their true talent level takes longer to emerge.
That’s why homework into signing relievers is so important, and why so often, a Triple A player or a Minor League contract guy can perform just as well over a single season as the highest paid reliever available. And that’s why my own preference is for avoiding long term/big dollar contracts for relievers in most situations (not all), even when it might seem as though the largely fictional “proven closer” type is exactly what an organization is missing.
Which brings us back to the Blue Jays again. In addition to free agent acquisitions, there are internal options to consider as well. If the team is serious about improving its bullpen, Toronto should comprise its bullpen of the best available relief pitchers. Obviously, there’s a balance between getting starting pitching prospects their innings in the Minor Leagues and introducing them to Major League hitters, but if the team is seriously considering itself a contender this coming year (and as we discussed yesterday, it better be if the Jays are willing to hang on to Jose Bautista) there’s no excuse for building a bullpen based on how many Minor League options a reliever has instead of their true talent.
It may seem redundant to point out that relievers aren’t starting pitchers or even position players. They face high leverage situations, but it must be remembered that the most batters a closer faced last season was Carlos Marmol’s 327. He had 327 chances to succeed or fail.
That’s less plate appearances than Corey Patterson made for the Blue Jays last season. And it’s in line with the amount of batters that Jesse Litsch faced in 2011. Adding a reliever, even one of the highest quality available, isn’t like adding an important bat or a quality starting pitcher. Their limited work, the higher replacement level and the smaller sample size that they offer combine to make them a riskier investment that’s simply not worth what some teams in the market are willing to pay.