The Recent History of High-Profile Reliever Acquisitions

The Chicago Cubs paid one hell of a price to acquire Aroldis Chapman yesterday. Maybe the highest we’ve ever seen for a reliever; certainly the highest for a half-season rental. What this post won’t do is answer whether the Cubs paid too much, not enough, or just a little for Chapman’s services. What it won’t do is give you any kind of added indication of how Chapman might perform down the stretch; Chapman’s not only his own person, but he’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. To be honest, this isn’t going to answer much of anything, really, but I’m interested in checking on how similar reliever acquisitions have gone recently. Or, more importantly, seeing if we can even answer that question at all.

I used MLBTradeRumors’ Transaction Tracker to span the last few years for reliever trades and free-agent signings by contenders. The names I picked were subjective, but I hope you all can trust me enough to correctly identify the big ones. Once I had my names, I decided to look for… something.

See, that’s the thing about this. It’s clear now more than ever that a divide exists between the way the public has analyzed elite relievers and/or bullpens, and the way front offices are currently doing the same. Dave Cameron will have a post up on reliever valuation in the not too distant future, but even without reading that post, you’re probably already aware of the fact that teams and the public don’t exactly agree on how much a reliever is worth.

Truthfully, I’m not even sure where to start when trying to evaluate these high-profile relief acquisitions after the fact. It almost becomes a philosophical question. Take the Chapman move, for example. The Cubs acquired him to help them win a World Series. They’ve pretty much got the division locked up. If he runs an 8.00 ERA over these last couple months, openly chastises the fans or the clubhouse or the front office, is just mediocre in lower-leverage postseason innings, but then strikes out the side with the bases loaded in Game 7 of each of the NLDS, NLCS and World Series and the Cubs win it all, is the trade a success?

After the fact, do we even care about anything besides high-leverage innings? Are those the only reliever stats that should count when trying to suss out “what really happened” regarding the impact of that elite, late-inning arm? Is the best way to evaluate a closer during a World Series run literally save percentage? OK, maybe I’m overthinking things. But I’m comfortable in saying we don’t really know.

Like, okay. Here’s a good one. In 2014, the Boston Red Sox had Andrew Miller, when he was really starting to become Andrew Miller. The Orioles wanted Andrew Miller to play for their team, because the Orioles were on a road to the playoffs, and, you know. So the Orioles paid a price. They gave up Eduardo Rodriguez, an exciting young pitching prospect, with the idea in mind of Miller pitching like a relief ace down the stretch and striking out the side in high-leverage postseason innings. He’d help them win it all! And Miller pitched like a relief ace. In 20 regular-season innings, he ran a 1.35 ERA and a 1.13 FIP. Utterly dominant. The Orioles won the division, which was the plan.

Then, in the postseason, Miller pitched in a game the Orioles won 12-3 over Detroit, skipped Game 2, and got five high-leverage outs in Game 3 for a sweep. That took them to a series against Royals in the ALCS, where the Orioles got swept so hard Miller never pitched with a lead. Miller did everything he was asked, but that’s the thing about relievers: they’re the only player whose importance can be predetermined by the results of the games.

At the deadline of that same year, the Detroit Tigers gave pitching prospects Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel to the Rangers for Joakim Soria, with the same intentions as Baltimore with Miller. Soria had been absolutely unhittable for Texas (33.1 IP, 2.70 ERA, 1.06 FIP). He was absolutely hittable for Detroit (11.0 IP, 4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP), but then also, in his highest-leverage Tigers appearance of the season, he got his two outs without trouble, and then Joba Chamberlain blew it. In his third-highest-leverage appearance, he recorded a clean inning. Fourth-highest leverage, perfect inning. Fifth-highest, another perfect inning.

The regular-season numbers were ugly, but less so when the stakes were high. In Game 1 of the NLDS, Soria had a blowup, but the Tigers also had a win probability of 2% when he entered the game. He really cost the Tigers in Game 2 with a walk and a bases-clearing double. Mostly solid in the high-leverage spots, with two costly blowups. Life of a reliever.

Soria was again dealt at the deadline last year, this time to the Pirates for prospect JaCoby Jones, and was excellent down the stretch for a Pirates team that already had something like an 80% chance of making the playoffs at the time of his acquisition, and then he pitched one scoreless eighth inning with his team trailing, 4-0, being given a 3% chance to win.

How about the contracts? Andrew Miller’s four-year, $36 million deal from last year looks pretty great from a value standpoint. Jonathan Papelbon’s five-year, $63 million contract that started in 2012 actually looks perfectly defensible from a dollars per WAR/WPA viewpoint, but then again, Papelbon hasn’t thrown a single postseason inning during that timeframe, and he didn’t net the Phillies anything significant when they cut bait, so what exactly was it that the Phillies paid for? The White Sox giving David Robertson 4/$46M last year looks like it could be heading down a similar path.

The jury is still out on the Ken Giles move. Again, like Chapman, it sure looks like the team acquiring the reliever gave up a ton; Vincent Velasquez could be a star, and Giles has been mostly shaky. But the story changes real quick if Giles throws four or five clean, high-leverage postseason innings — the innings Miller and Papelbon didn’t get much of a chance to seize — and the Astros bring home a trophy. And that’s what makes this all so difficult. We’re talking about a limited sample of innings to begin with — and then breaking them down into a smaller sample that’s actually deemed important. There’s also the issue of evaluating with hindsight, which can be inherently flawed.

Teams make moves for big-name relievers, and due to the entire nature of relief pitching and sample sizes, they’re almost impossible to figure out at the time, and more interestingly, even after the fact. Notice I didn’t get much into the business of declaring winners or losers of the big trades above. Because I really don’t know. The Cubs could win thanks to Chapman, or lose thanks to Chapman, or win in spite of Chapman, or lose all the same, and there still wouldn’t be agreement on the value of his role. Those scenarios have all happened before, and here we are. Teams pay in terms of prospects to increase their odds of winning, which is exactly what happens when the move is made. The odds go up. Adding the elite reliever always increases the odds. That’s the whole point. But odds are just odds, and the opportunities still have to exist, and even then, relievers are fickle. Evaluating them, even moreso. Everything matters, but then so can nothing.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at

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7 years ago

“Maybe the highest we’ve ever seen for a reliever”

I think that what the Red Sox gave up for Kimbrel is more than what the Cubs gave up for Chapman

7 years ago
Reply to  nicholasj

While the Sox may have given more they also got a lot more control back. This is what 30 IPs of Chapman for a legit prospect package. I think that makes this a higehr payment….

7 years ago
Reply to  alang3131982

That doesn’t change whether or not it was the highest we’ve ever seen for a reliever. Your point is addressed in the next portion of that sentence in the article.

7 years ago
Reply to  nicholasj

Or what about Varitek and Lowe for Slocumb? This “highest ever” hyperbole is unnecessary and inaccurate.

7 years ago
Reply to  tunglashr

OMG! let’s clutch some pearls!!!!!

7 years ago
Reply to  nicholasj

Yeah, the narrative has swung a little too far in my opinion. The Cubs definitely overpaid given the small rental period (barring the details of a rumored extension), but McKinney’s prospect status has largely evaporated while Rashad Crawford likely never makes the majors. Gleyber Torres is a fantastic get for three months of Chapman, but his ETA is probably 2019.