Fantasy baseball owners, for years, have sworn by the adage, “Don’t pay for saves.” Relievers come and go, the theory states, and are so fungible that there’s too much risk involved in spending a high draft pick or big dollars on a closer who could lose his value almost immediately through an injury or a couple of rocky outings that relieve him of his role at the back of the bullpen.
Many sabermetricians have argued that relievers are overpaid in the real game as well, as the inherent instability of a pitcher expected to go roughly 50 innings per season can make large bullpen investments a risky proposition.
Still available on the free agent market today are a number of skilled righty relievers, many of whom have had no publicly reported interest at all despite effective 2012 seasons. Because teams are more and more wary of pouring money into their bullpens, right-handed relievers like Kyle Farnsworth, Brandon Lyon and Jon Rauch remain unsigned despite excellent 2012 campaigns.
I wanted to consider this problem from a more global scale than simply looking at contracts for a single reliever. In this article, I hope to examine whether more expensive bullpens are actually better. Some teams spend huge sums looking for a lockdown ‘pen, while others scrape the bottom of the barrel in free agency and rely on pre-arb and arbitration-eligible players to form a much cheaper relief corps.
The following table shows the top and bottom five teams in bullpen spending, from Cot’s Contracts Opening Day numbers. There are probably a few prorated portions of major league minimum salaries not included here, but this should give a pretty good sense of what teams are spending on their bullpens. I considered any player who made over half of his appearances in relief to be a member of the bullpen.
The table also displays the top and bottom five teams in bullpen runs allowed per nine innings, and Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement. While neither statistic is perfect for evaluating a reliever (or a bullpen in general), both offer useful information about the performance of the teams’ bullpens.
RA/9 is a rate stat, considering what bullpens did on a per-inning basis. While that’s probably more useful information than WAR, which is notoriously fickle in the small samples being considered with relievers, it leaves out the important consideration of how many innings the bullpen pitched. In general, bullpens that pitch fewer innings will be able to concentrate those innings in their best relievers, resulting in much lower run-scoring rates. WAR, on the other hand, gives strong consideration to the number of innings the bullpen pitched as well as how the relievers pitched in those innings, which is how the Rockies can end up in the bottom five in RA/9 (thanks to their starting experiment that put a huge number of innings on the team’s bullpen), but in the top five in WAR, after pitching more than 100 innings more than any other bullpen in baseball.
Top 5 Bullpen Payroll Top 5 Bullpen RA/9 Top 5 Bullpen WAR Yankees $37,873,925 Reds 2.99 Royals 7.3 Giants $25,199,350 Braves 3.02 Rays 6.7 Astros $21,441,000 Rays 3.13 Rockies 6.7 Tigers $21,032,000 Athletics 3.16 Braves 6.6 Reds $20,872,833 Orioles 3.32 Orioles 6.4 Bottom 5 Bottom 5 Bottom 5 Twins $9,740,000 Astros 4.84 Astros 1.7 Pirates $9,626,000 Rockies 4.85 Cardinal 1.6 Mariners $8,623,600 Cubs 4.88 Angels 0.9 Cardinals $7,558,000 Mets 5.11 Mets -0.1 Braves $7,205,500 Brewers 5.11 Cubs -1.5
Immediately, we see some big issues with teams that spend big on their bullpens. Just between the two of them, Mariano Rivera and Rafael Soriano earned $26 million last year, more than any bullpen in the game. The unfortunate injury to Rivera sent more than half of that dollar figure down the drain just over a month into the season. With Rivera out, the Yankees finished 10th in RA/9 and ninth in WAR, which certainly isn’t what they expected for a nearly $40 million investment in their relief corps.
On the other hand, the Braves had one of the cheapest bullpens in baseball, as well as one of the best. At just under $2.5 million, Eric O’Flaherty was the most expensive reliever on the team. Ridiculous production from pre-arbitration players like Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters allowed Atlanta’s bullpen to be dominant at a fraction of the cost of the ‘pens of divisional rivals like Miami and Philadelphia.
These charts show the correlation between the two statistics and bullpen payroll. As you saw in the table, there more or less isn’t one.
This isn’t to say, of course, that there’s no value in signing a top reliever. If a team wants to improve its bullpen, and doesn’t feel like dipping into its roster or prospect pool to do so, signing a good reliever is probably going to make the team’s bullpen better (duh). However, the teams with the most effective bullpens, at least last year, were largely able to dominate through their accumulation of young relievers who can lock down the late innings without breaking the bank. Teams are starting to get wise to the fact that a bullpen doesn’t have to be expensive to be good, and several prominent relievers appear to be suffering the consequences.