Baseball logic: It’s important to have a good bullpen. Bullpens are comprised of relievers. Brandon League is a very good reliever. Therefore, it’s important to have Brandon League in your bullpen.
That’s a fairly airtight argument. What’s not an airtight argument is that Brandon League is so important to have in your bullpen that you should pay him more annually than all but sixteen other relief pitchers in the history of baseball.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have signed Brandon League to a three-year contract worth $22.5 million, with an option for 2016 worth $7.5 million that will vest if he finishes 55 games in 2015. It’s a tidy raise from the $5 million that League earned last season in his final year of arbitration, but what’s more astounding than the average annual value of the deal is the $22.5 million commitment.
League has proven himself to be a good reliever, but he’s not one that even begins to approach a level that might be considered elite, which would be the only way to justify spending so much money on a member of the bullpen. In fact, when we say that League has been good, what we’re likely referring to is the way in which he hasn’t allowed very many runs to score over the last two seasons. In this department, he ranks 51st out of 121 qualified relievers over the last two years. So, he’s slightly above average.
However, we’ve learned that Earned Run Average isn’t actually the best indicator of future performance. We’ve also learned that relievers are often referred to as volatile, which actually means that their performances are incredibly hard to project because the samples that they offer are often only a third of what a starting pitcher might give us. A simple predictor is strike out rate. It should come as no surprise that pitchers who strike out a lot of batters tend to do better over a particular period of time than pitcher who don’t.
Over the last two seasons, the two best of his career, League has only struck out 18% of the batters he’s faced. Of the 121 relievers that count as qualified from 2011 and 2012 combined, he ranks 98th. That doesn’t bode well for his future performance.
Making this signing even more questionable for the Dodgers is the relative inexpensiveness with which teams are able to compile effective bullpens through free agent reclamation projects and pre-arbitrarion pitchers. As we also learned last year, the teams signing relievers early into free agency drastically overpaid for value in comparison to those that were signed in the new year. However, we don’t even really need to work up a massive comparison for this. Just look across baseball at the best bullpens. Look at the mediocre bullpens. Look at the awful bullpens. No teams are locking up relievers of League’s quality at that price.
The only arguments that can be formed in favor of this signing have to start with the idea that fiscal responsibility isn’t a necessary virtue for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That may very well be the case for now, but it’s difficult to imagine this philosophy being a sustainable one moving forward, and the Dodgers aren’t just taking on contracts for the near future, they’re absorbing costs that others want to rid themselves of before the value of the deals are gone.
Our current way of thinking is that taking on such contracts in an effort to capitalize on preexisting circumstances, as Los Angeles did during late July and early August, makes sense if you’re using #YOLO hashtags while suggesting that flags fly forever. While the Dodgers and their money situation may be the game changer we thought it would be in terms of dollars per WAR analysis, this type of outspending can’t hold forever. At least, this is how we’ve looked at things in the past.
I have no idea if Los Angeles is going to change things so entirely that deals like League’s don’t end up so outrageous as they seem. It’s entirely possible, because after all, this isn’t the New York Yankees of the West Coast that we’re dealing with here. Even the Yankees have shown some regard for prudent money handling. The Los Angeles Dodgers are entering new territory of financial disregard with every dollar that they spend.