Relievers Are Not Worth Multi-Year Deals

While we’ve seen prices going up for free agents across the board, nowhere has the inflationary market been more clear than in the bullpen. After Joaquin Benoit set the market by landing a three year contrat with Detroit, teams have felt obligated to match the length of that deal in order to get the guys perceived to be the best bullpen arms on the market. Scott Downs, Matt Guerrier, and now Jesse Crain have all landed three year deals since Benoit signed, and Rafael Soriano is widely expected to get a deal of at least three years as well. After several years of restraint, teams have found themselves spending on the bullpen like its 2006.

Unfortunately for the teams with the open wallets, recent history suggests that giving contracts of 3+ years to a relief pitcher is generally a terrible idea. Here’s a list of free agent relievers who have received deals for three or more years since over the last four off-seasons.

Danys Baez (2007-2009), 3 years, $19 million: -0.4 WAR
Justin Speier (2007-2010), 4 years, $18 million: -0.2 WAR
Jamie Walker (2007-2009), 3 years, $12 million: -0.5 WAR
Scott Schoeneweis (2007-2009), 3 years, $11 million: -1.5 WAR
Chad Bradford (2007-2009), 3 years, $11 million: +2.0 WAR
Francisco Cordero (2008-2011), 4 years, $46 million: +2.8 WAR
Mariano Rivera (2008-2010), 3 years, $45 million: +7.8 WAR
Scott Linebrink (2008-2011), 4 years, $18 million: +0.5 WAR
David Riske (2008-2010), 3 years, $13 million: -0.6 WAR
Francisco Rodriguez (2009-2011), 3 years, $36 million: +1.7 WAR
Damaso Marte (2009-2011), 3 years, $12 million: -0.2 WAR
Brandon Lyon (2010-2012), 3 years, $15 million: +1.0 WAR

12 relievers were deemed worthy of long term deals as free agents. Half of them performed below replacement level and were a complete waste of money. Four of them were simply disappointments, ending up as semi-productive relievers making far too much money. One of them had a good first year, but still has to justify the decision with two years remaining on the deal. And the other is Mariano Rivera.

If you take Rivera out of the sample, as he’s just something totally different than the rest of these guys, the other 11 combined for +4.6 WAR over 30 player seasons. That’s an average of +0.15 WAR per year. It gets worse. K-Rod and Cordero, the other two closers in the sample, make up +4.5 of that +4.6 WAR. Yes, that means that the nine setup men who have signed deals for 3+ years since 2006 have combined for +0.1 WAR.

As a group, teams have paid for premium production and instead received the same level of performance that they could have expected if they had signed minor league free agents. The evidence couldn’t be any stronger: signing guys like Guerrier and Crain to three year deals is just throwing money away. It’s not that they’re bad pitchers; it’s that relief pitchers are so prone to huge swings in performance that trying to project the long term future of any of these guys is simply folly.

After going crazy in the winter of 2006, teams calmed down drastically on long term deals for relievers. But it appears that we’re right back in silly season mode, as more relievers have gotten three year deals this year than the last two winters combined. For all the talk about how major league teams are getting smarter – and they are – you’d never know it from the way money is being thrown around this winter.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

The market is a joke right now for RP

13 years ago
Reply to  Pirateball

The market is a joke right now.

13 years ago
Reply to  Pirateball

Well, it’s a combination of supply and demand, expectation management, the evolution of the game, the way sabremetrics measures value and visibility.

When a guy does his job and gets three outs in the 7th or 8th everybody just assumes that’s what he was supposed to do and he really gets little credit. It’s hard to rack up WAR pitching 2 or 3 innings a week and you don’t even get saves to show for it.

On the other hand, give up two runs without getting three guys out just one time out of five and you stand out like a sore thumb. The fanbase wants to run you out of town. Maybe relievers need short memories, but fans and front offices never forget. Yet the average team still needs one or two of these guys to not spit the bit almost every night.

Add to that the fact that just about all relievers are guys not good enough to be starters and set up men are guys not even good enough to be closers and you have a perfect storm of marginal pitchers who dissappoint all too often. If these guys could pitch 6 innings without giving up 3 or 4 runs they’d be in the rotation. Anybody who shows the glimmer of a hope of regularly getting three outs late in a game will be overvalued.