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:

  1. Mariano Rivera, NYY: $15 million
  2. Daniel Bard, BOS: $505,000
  3. David Robertson, NYY: $460,450
  4. Jonathan Papelbon, BOS: $12 million
  5. Koji Uehara, BAL/TEX: $3 million
  6. Jonny Venters, ATL: $429,500
  7. Jim Jonson, BAL: $975,000
  8. Mike Adams, SDP/TEX: $2.535 million
  9. Greg Holland KCR: League Minimum
  10. 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.

Comments (49)

  1. Yeah, if the Jays are going to spend to win this winter at all, please let it not be on a reliever.

    • Anybody know how Jose Valverde didn’t get on this list? He had 49 saves in the regular season, and 3 in the post season. I don’t think he blew a single save, and he’s making 7 million next year.

  2. Referenced for all future stupid conversations this winter.

  3. Please make Carson read this…and all of Carson’s loyal followers!

  4. Parkes,

    I usually tend to agree with the arguments that you make in your blog and even the ones that I don’t I can see how they make sense. However you want to break down the blown saves is just symantics. It can’t be computed in any of the stats you find on fan graphs the importantce of having a guy at the end of the game to shut it down has on the other 24 players on the roster, let alone the pen. If AA goes out and signs a closer it pushes everyone farther down the chart as to when the come in and possibly into roles they are more suited for. I’m not saying that AA should spend 15 mill a year on Paps or Madson, but sometimes you have to look past your stats to see the value a player can have on the rest of the roster.

    • @jim, the argument isn’t they have no value. If the payroll was to $500M then the Blue Jays would absolutely need to sign the best available everything.

      Is there any proof it is more important to the other 24 guys to have a “proven closer”? I would think it would only be the losses that affect the players, and this article tries to show these type of players aren’t providing the most impact on the W/L

      Tampa Bay and St. Louis didn’t have typical closers late in the year and they barely lost.

  5. I need to send this article to a lot of people.

  6. To translate from Jimglish for everybody: “Parkes, when I already agree with a position you’re taking, I agree with you, and I really like how you use all those fancy stats and logic to support the arguments we both believe in. But this time I don’t already agree with you, so you can stuff your WPA/LI in a sack. GIVE ME A CLOSER!”

  7. baaaaahahahahaha…Kevin Gregg.

  8. Kyuji Fujikawa. Either in 2012 if he is posted or in 2013 when he becomes a free agent. End of discussion (or not).

  9. you use too much logic/statistical backing for ‘major’ sports coverage to understand. gotta love mainstream media always playing to the lowest common denominator.

    Thanks for this great piece

  10. Soend the money to clone Jannsen a couple more times, then give the 9th to Frankie.

  11. Parkes – you knocked this one out of the park just like Blue Jays future left fielder Yeonis Cespedes.

  12. The Cardinals had 26 blown saves in 2011. Just sayin…..

  13. Saying the Jays should stay away from Papelbon and Bell because other teams were stupid with their money on relievers last year is absurd. It’s like saying teams should stay away from Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder because A-Rod is not living up to his contract. You`re retarded for making such a statement.

    What caused the Jays pen to be such a mess last year was a lack of organizaion. Such organization begins by having one person as the closer, which was not the case in Toronto last year. If the Jays did spend a few dollars (heaven forbid!) on a proven closer like Papelbon or Bell, that would provide organization and everyone would know their job and fall in line.

    I know a closer won’t make all the blown saves disappear, but telling the Jays to pass on one of the best in the league is just stupid. The Jays should consider this given that Rogers has the money. If AA thinks it’s a good deal, I’ll take his word over yours since he was the one who passed up on all those overpaid relievers last year.

    • Throughout the history of baseball, show me five long term contracts handed out to relievers that have worked out well for the team handing them out.

      • Not even long term, just multi-year free agent contracts.

      • How about Mariano Rivera for 3 years at $45MM? I think that contract he signed in 2007 worked out rather well for the Yankees, don’t you?

        With the exception of his year on the DL, Minnesota got their money’s worth from Joe Nathan’s 4 year, $47MM contract.

        Ditto for Trevor Hoffman and his many years of great service with the Padres before Bell took over.

        I think Papelbon earned his money the last several years he’s been pitching for Boston.

        That’s four righ thtere. All I’m saying is there are some closers who are capable of being good investments out there. Just because last year’s class wasn’t that good and some GM’s were too stupid and desperate to notice that doesn’t mean the Jays should pass up on a chance that might never present itself again.

        • Papelbon has never been a free agent before this season. Hoffman had one four year deal in his career, and the Padres opted out of the fifth because he had two terrible years out of the four. Nathan’s deal is a monstrosity of a failure. The fact that you’d bring it up as a success shows how little you know.

        • Joe Nathan? You mean when the Twins spent $47 million on a grand total of four wins above replacement?

          • He’s obviously basing his argument on the amount of saves these guys had, not their WAR.

          • 47 Saves and a trip to the ALDS the first year in to the deal?
            Want to know what stat is better than WAR?
            It’s called winning; something the Jays seem to have convinced the stats fans is a random occurrence attributable largely to luck,

          • Winning certainly isn’t attributable to handing out large contracts to relievers. Which is kind of the point.

          • How about the flip side of that argument, please list the winning teams (divisional finalists at least) over the past 10 years that didn’t have a significant amount of dollars assigned to the bullpen.
            Do the Twins make the ALDS that year without Nathan and his 47 saves?
            BTW, I do agree with the premise of the article which is bullpen depth is more important than having an expensive closer.
            I just disagree with some of the comments about the article (ie-Nathan being overpaid).

  14. Really well written piece.

    I agree entirely with what you’ve written as it relates to saves, but one thing you keep reiterating about Bautista is bothering the hell out of me.

    Explain to me how it holding onto Bautista can’t be a sign that the team will be happy if things go their way and they do compete this year, but the real aim is gearing up to compete in 2013? That seems to me like the likeliest scenario, and I still have no idea why hanging onto Bautista isn’t an intelligent part of that plan. Your insinuation that it’s compete this year or trade Bautista lacks the logical consistency of most of your writing.

    • I don’t think he’s saying it wouldn’t be great if they’re ready to compete in 2013, but do we honestly think they will be ready? They’re still banking on some unproven guys to make 2013 the year… and if 2014 or 2015 happen to be when/if it all comes together, will Bautista, at age 34/35 be the same guy – because it’s nearly unimaginable he’ll still have the same trade value that he would today.

      And he might net long-term stars in two or three positions, which makes up for one out-of-this-world (but probably fading) star in one position.

      • Parkes:

        “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.”

        That claim suggests that if the team isn’t ready to compete this coming year, then we should trade Bautista. I’m just saying that statement is unsupported and illogical. If there is a good possibility that they are ready to compete two years from now, which strikes me as a real possibility given their current controlled assets, then Parkes is just dead wrong.

    • I agree that this sounds strange, but I think parkes is looking at this issue from the perspective of the Jays going “all in” in 2012 or not. His assumption seems to be that a traditional small-market team like the Jays having Bautista on the payroll (and making really good money in 2012 when he’s turning 32…) just doesn’t make sense financially unless they’re really going for it. So, he may not be implying that the Jays will trade Bautista, but that they have a time-limited window of opportunity and if they’re not going for it, then why did they give the 31-year old Bautista the big contract in the first place?

  15. When Francisco finally got healthy he did a great job over the last couple months,spend the money on a bat to protect Bautista in the lineup.

    • I assume you mean, “try to keep Francisco AND get Bautista some protection.” I think most Jays fans want the same thing, but reality is more complicated: we’re unlikely to corral Francisco for another year without paying big bucks, and none of the #1, #2 or #3 off-season priorities for the Jays (SP, 2B and closer) is likely to qualify as “protection” for Joey Bats. So, for 2012, Jose will likely be stuck with whoever’s the next-best hitter in the lineup behind him. And odds are very good that will be Lind, so you’d better hope Adam’s back to form, or we’re screwed.

  16. of the 16 games the Jays ended up losing due to blown saves, how many were to divisional opponents? then you can have a better gauge at how far away they were (W-L) from being in the mix with TB/NYY/BOS

  17. Here here, Parkes. Spending on a closer or high priced relief talent is a waste. AND it leaves the manager little choice if the high priced closer is ineffective.

  18. great article , agree with the view spend the money on somebody to give Bautista more protection.

  19. The whole “blown saves” argument has casual fans all mixed up due in part to the convoluted stat system that governs how and when a reliever “earns” a save or “blows” a save. As you point out, a blown save does not equate that the team “lost” the game, it just means that a reliever failed to keep a lead during said game. On a less prominent level (but equally important), is the interpretation of how many “holds” a bullpen kept or blew during the course of a season. You need a bridge to get to the 9th inning as starters just don’t go for 8 innings and then hand it over to the “closer” for the save (hello David Robertson).

    What is most important is having a deep pool of talented arms that can pitch effectively in late innings. I mean, really, who cares how many “saves” the team’s closer got in one season? Sometimes, you need to roll out how is better suited to shut down the opposing line up. Oh, that reminds me, when was the last time that you saw a 4 inning save? (protecting the lead, no matter how great).

    Having said that, in a perfect world, having a bona fide “closer” is the still an important element. With an established “closer”, each member of the bullpen contingent knows what their roles are in late inning situations before handing the ball to the “guy” or the “man” (ie: closer) who is asked to nail it down in the 9th inning. It allows the manager to schedule his bullpen totem pole so to speak.

    There is also the overall psyche factor. A starter hates to see a good 7-8 inning performance go up in smoke when the bullpen “blows” the game. It puts more pressure on the starter to max out their efforts in stressful late inning situations. This is not a good thing in today’s game of pitch count and inning limitations.

    The Jays have young arms in the rotation and while they need to be seasoned and tested, it can really drain their confidence when a bullpen keeps pissing away games.

    I’m all for the Jays brass to go and get a bona fide closer, but not at the expense of putting one A list guy to close and six B and C list guys to act as the bridge. Much like building a strong rotation (having five number 2 starters for example as opposed to one “ace” and four “back end” guys), the bullpen needs to be assembled using the best arms available. If we blow Papelbon type money for a “big name” closer, does it really make a difference when you have four or five “Shawn Camps” or “Brian Tallets” and only one “Janssen”?

    Let’s not forget that the Jays may already have a true bona fide “closer” within the organization (ie: cheap and controllable), only we don’t know who yet. On that level, I would be happy with Joe Nathan on a two year deal (1 year + option) as a stop gap.

  20. relax guys…J.P. Retardy just signed BJ Ryan as our closer for the future…er…oh…wait…nevermind.

  21. sign rich harden to close

  22. Great post! I hope AA reads this

  23. well, I’m not a fancy pants stats nerd or anything but the last time the Jays were any good, they had an awesome closers and bullpens.
    I think when it comes to relievers, you are paying for ability not results and, I would venture to say that approach over time (ie multiple seasons) would prove to be more successful than just plugging in whoever you can afford and hoping for the best.
    But, like I said; I’m no stats nerd. I just want a winning team and blown saves just seem like missed opportunities to be one. Whatever the answer is, I expect AA to address it this year.

    • And those awesome closers and relievers where Jays farmhands or plucked form other teams with no closing or awesomeness relieving experience

      • That’s true. I don’t really care how we get the arms just as long as we get them. If that means buying them, then buy them. Henke was a 1st round pick, Ward was a 1st round pick and Eichorn was a 2nd round pick.

  24. Parkes very solid posting I don’t agree with all the stats as complete basis but it works. I think Romero, Morrow ect become greater pitchers when they know the nights they don’t have there best stuff that a pen that takes over in 6th inning can hold it 95% of the time.

  25. Damn, Parkes, you’re on a roll this week!

  26. What I don’t get about the closer role is that there isn’t ONE pitcher on a roster who is capable of getting 3 outs, missing tons of bats, night after night. The closer by committee is a good option – use guys with strengths in certain situations to pitch in those situations. For example, what happens if you have a fly-ball closer who isn’t great against left-handed hitters pitching the 9th at Yankee Stadium when they have Granderson, Cano and Teixiera coming up? He’s going to get slaughtered. But hey, he’s your closer, so throw him out there, right? If the Jays stack their pen with good, reliable arms, and use guys to close where the given situation speaks to their strengths, they’ll be in good shape. No sense wasting money on a bad closer contract.

  27. I get what you’re saying but where do you draw the line? 3/35 is probably too much, is 3/25 still too much? is 3/15 too much? is 3/10 too much? is paying anyone in the bullpen above mlb minimum too much? Yeah I agree, giving out longterm contracts to relievers probably isn’t a good idea, but where is that comfort level? 20 million bullpen? 15?30?

    WPA/LI the top 4 are the NYY/BOS 9th and 8th inning guys. Explain? (Coincidence and four best relievers, find awfully hard to believe)

  28. My reaction of “Who the fuck is Greg Holland?” probably proves this point more than anything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *