The Multi-Year Relievers at Mid-Season

Handing out multi-year deals to relievers is a dicey proposition, but every year we see teams hand them out. This past offseason 10 teams handed out multi-year deals to 15 relief pitchers, totaling $160.5 million total and $54.7 million in 2011 salary. Yet to date they’ve produced just 3.9 WAR among them. Maybe WAR isn’t the best measure of relief pitchers, but the other stats don’t make the signings look much better. They have also combined for 162 shutdowns, but 71 meltdowns — or a meltdown every 6.5 games pitched. Here’s how they break down.

A few observations:

  • Randy Choate is absolutely killing it. Signed for the lowest salary, both in 2011 and total, of any multi-year reliever, he’s produced a half win above replacement despite pitching the fewest innings among the healthy crew. But the most important aspect of his game is his inherited runners scored percentage. Not only is it lowest among the healthy relievers, but he has inherited the most runners. True, he’s only facing a batter, maybe two, at a time, but he’s certainly making the most of those opportunities.
  • The Yankees have already paid Pedro Feliciano more this year than Choate will make in his two years with the Marlins. My colleague and RotoGraphs contributor Mike Axisa argued the case for the Yankees signing Choate this winter. We might yet see Choate in pinstripes: they have asked the Marlins about his availability.
  • Rafael Soriano is obviously the biggest bust of the group, though no one needs a chart to know that. There was little chance he’d live up to his $35 million contract (22% of the the $160.5 million total), but his injury makes it a near impossibility. His contract would have crippled a less financially sound team. Overall the Yankees paid $43 million for five years of two relievers, and have gotten just 15 mostly horrible innings so far.
  • Scott Downs pitched just three games in April, yet has recovered to be the most valuable reliever in this group. He might be tied with Crain in WAR, but Downs has done it in far fewer innings. He has also done a better job keeping his inherited runners at bay, something that doesn’t show up in his ERA-. Even more impressive: through his first 16.1 innings (18 G) he struck out just seven batters, or 3.9 per nine. In his next 16 appearances (13.1 IP) he has struck out 13, or just under a batter per ining.
  • Since a little break after getting shellacked against Toronto on May 16, Joaquin Benoit has thrown 19.1 innings and has struck out 20 while walking five, with a 1.40 ERA total (14 inherited runners, 3 scored). He’s still probably not worth that long-term investment, but it’s looking better than it did earlier in the season.
  • After the A’s signed Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes, Dave Cameron asked why Billy Beane was buying relief pitchers. Fat lot of good it did him. Balfour has been OK, while Fuentes has been predictably mediocre. Maybe he can get a return on one or both of them at the deadline or during the offseason. But it likely wasn’t worth the financial outlay, or, in the case of Balfour, the forfeited draft pick.
  • The two former Twins relievers are having different experiences after signing similar contracts. Jesse Crain has good traditional numbers, but has allowed a few too many inherited runners to score on his watch. The six meltdowns are also a bit troubling. Then again, Matt Guerrier has been far worse in both categories.
  • As a group these 15 pitchers do a better than average job of holding inherited runners. The league rate is 29%, while they’re at 22.5%. Yet they’re melting down at a slightly above-average rate. The league melts down once every 6.8 games, while, as mentioned, this group melts down once every 6.5 games.

This group has plenty of time to recover for the second half, but at the same time they have plenty of time to falter, too. The performance as a whole might improve, as guys like Benoit put their slow starts further behind them, and guys like Soriano get healthy. But there are also opportunities for guys to go from good to bad, or from mediocre to bad. We see it so often with relief pitchers. It remains a wonder that general managers deem them fit for multi-year agreements.

We hoped you liked reading The Multi-Year Relievers at Mid-Season by Joe Pawlikowski!

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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What’s the definition of a meltdown for the purposes of this article?

lex logan
lex logan

Good question — there was an article about shutdowns/meltdowns earlier this year, but there ought to be a definition in the Glossary. My memory is that these are based on changes in Win Probability, with a 6% swing qualifying as a Shutdown or Meltdown. I remember the article did not make it clear if that was an absolute difference or a proportional change.

Small Sample Goodness
Small Sample Goodness

There’s a whole section in the glossary dedicated to SD/MD.