Nov
10

What does it take to get a save in this place?

By

It would be hard to find a segment of the free agent market in which saber-minded analysts and general managers differ more than on the value of relief pitchers. Second only to the uselessness of the pitcher win stat, the futility of paying relievers big money and chasing the save statistic is likely the biggest saber cause célèbre in town. The argument goes something like: “The save stat is stupid, and relievers are volatile. Don’t chase the save, and don’t pay relievers big money, because they’ll likely just blow up in your face”.

By and large, this line of thinking is correct. Yet if its constantly regurgitated by the masses with no critical thinking behind it, and if no attempt is made to understand why teams do what they do, then we’ll never really advance the proverbial baserunners. We’re just spinning our wheels, beating the same old dead horse and never learning anything or trying to understand the people making the big decisions.

In any walk of life, one quick way to open yourself up to embarrassment is to assume that those around you are either unable or unwilling to comprehend the complexities of your worldview, to borrow a turn of phrase from Confederacy of Dunces. I’d wager that most General Managers have a pretty good idea that relievers are volatile creatures, and that they are also aware of the failure of these relievers to live up to the contracts given to them. So, avoiding the arrogance that would suggest that they’re just irrational actors, what would drive a GM to pay a premium for a reliever? It boils down to predictability.

Paradoxically, the volatile nature of relief pitchers drives GMs to pay big money for relievers whom they don’t believe will be volatile. Thus, relievers with a long track record of health and consistently superb performance are the most likely candidates to get big money. Like it or not, teams also value closer experience. Late inning relievers with a track record of ably manning the ninth inning will pull in a premium over those without it. Anecdotally, relievers with fewer than ten saves signing multi-year deals after the 2010 season averaged $3.8M per year. Relievers with more than ten saves averaged $8.3M, although this number is driven higher by the Soriano and Rivera deals. This illustrates the point that for whatever reason, most clubs are averse to handing big money to someone to close out games if they’ve never seen them close out games before.

This is all perfectly illustrated by the Phillies pursuit of Ryan Madson. Madson has a long track record of being an excellent reliever, and has shown a decent enough health record. Yet not too long ago, the Phillies weren’t interested in committing big money to Madson because he lacked the “closer’s mentality”. After a solid year closing out games for the Phils they were on the verge of guaranteeing him of $44M over 4 years. The deal has since been put on hold, but Madson will likely see a huge payday.

Teams crave predictability, which is why you’ll often see teams with decent budgets pursue relievers whom they believe to be predictable. They’re looking for relievers who can make a nine inning game an eight inning game, and when they find them or believe they’ve found them, they’re willing to pay a bit more than one might expect. It’s just the way it is. As our understanding of how to properly value relievers evolves and develops, it’s important to keep in mind the principles under which various organizations appear to operate.  Who knows, we might even learn something from the people who are doing this for a living.

  • http://itsaboutthemoney.net Brien Jackson

    “Paradoxically, the volatile nature of relief pitchers drives GMs to pay big money for relievers whom they don’t believe will be volatile. Thus, relievers with a long track record of health and consistently superb performance are the most likely candidates to get big money. Like it or not, teams also value closer experience.”

    So we shouldn’t call these GMs irrational because…they do irrational things?

  • Steve H

    The major flaw in the “relievers are getting overpaid” argument that some morons will use when thumbing through fangraphs is that there is a very limited supply of good, consistent relievers, so simple economics drive the price up. While in any given year you can easily pinpoint a ton of very good relievers, that list is not fluid from year to year. If you find one guy who is consistently on that list, they are worth more than some Fangraphs creation says they are. The Phillies found a guy who they have in house who has shown an ability to be trusted. The deal may or may not pan out down the road. I think fantasy baseball plays into this a little, there is always the belief that “you can find saves”, which, while true to a fantasy owner, doesn’t help a GM mid-season if his title contending team is trying to find a closer. Better to “overpay: now (again for something with a limited supply) then be caught with your pants down later.

    • YankeesJunkie

      I understand that point, but the fact of the matter is that saves and the closer mentality are still a strong hold of the old way of thinking. The difference between a “closer” and your average Joe at closing a game is about 2%. Closers have shown time and time again that they burn out sooner rather than later and then they move on the next big thing, he gets overpaid, and then he burns out. Cashman has had an extremely solid philosophy on relief pitching (lefties excluded) in believing that a team can get valuable relievers from the scrap heap, cheap buys, and the minors. If the Yankees can continue this then they will have a comparative advantage in the pen since they are not spending too much money for 5-6 WAR.

      • Cuban B

        Congratulations! You are the only person who managed a coherent, intelligent response!

        kidding aside though, I completely agree with what you’re saying – relievers are a dime a dozen – I think yankee fans have a problem accepting this because we’ve been spoiled for so long with one of the TRULY greatest relief pitchers who ever played the game. And yes, when mo is gone it will be difficult to replace him – as a person and a teammate and a role model – but it wont be that difficult to replace his production on the field.

  • Bill

    “Second only to the uselessness of the pitcher win stat, the futility of paying relievers big money and chasing the save statistic is likely the biggest saber cause célèbre in town.”

    Incorrect. Getting Tim Raines into the Hall of Fame is the biggest saber cause celebre in town. This is in the top five though. Good read.

  • D Perdue

    Thank you so much!
    I am so grateful anytime someone tries to understand the other side rather than just bashing it. We do far too little seeking understanding in our society.

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    If sabermetrics ruled the world half of the late 19th century and early 20th century players that are in would not be in HOF. As it is it appears that everything is turned upside down from what it was. As Ralph Kiner often said singles hitters drive Volkswagons and HR hitters drive Cadillacs. Now it is the opposite.