Mailbag: Joel Zumaya

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Jon asks: Should the Yankees have any interest in Joel Zumaya?

Oh yes, absolutely. There’s no way they could give him anything more than a minor league contract though, the guy just can not stay healthy. Zumaya hasn’t pitched in a game since suffering that scary injury against the Twins in June of 2010 (video), a fractured elbow that required two surgeries. He’s also missed time with numerous shoulder surgeries and a finger problem throughout the years. Paying the new $100k retention bonus will suck, but that’s the cost of doing business these days.

Despite all those arm problems, Zumaya was still sitting (sitting!) right around 99-101 mph with his fastball at the time of his injury last season. It’s been five years since he’s thrown more than 40 IP in a season, so we have no idea what his current performance level is like. If he gets back to what he was in 2010, we’re talking about a guy with a good (but not great) strikeout rate (7.98 K/9) and a strong walk rate (2.58 BB/9) to go along with a lot of fly balls (just 35.8% grounders in his career). Typical power pitcher kinda stuff.

It’s tough to consider Zumaya anything more than a total wildcard at this point, he’s the definition of a scrap heap pickup. One thing he has going for him is age, having just turned 27 last month (five months older than David Robertson). Zumaya is scheduled to work out for teams later this month, and about ten clubs are expected to attend the showcase. It’s unclear if the Yankees will be one of those teams, but I would guess yes. They seem to scout basically everyone. It’s just a question of Zumaya’s preference, since he figures to get a whole lot of minor league offers.

Contracts For Relievers: Paying For Consistency

Very few things in baseball receive quite as much derision as large contracts given to relievers. Relievers have come to be seen as fungible, volatile assets who are poor investments. Many view the contracts given to established closers as being entirely based on saves, a stat that is rightfully maligned and makes a poor basis for a multi-year multi-million dollar contract. However, the logic underlying these complaints has holes large enough to push Phil Hughes through, and a closer look suggests that the truly large reliever contracts may actually make a modicum of sense.

My theory is that general managers who hand relievers big money have not been looking for saves per se. Rather, they have been looking for pitchers who have provided consistent performance on a regular basis. To test this hypothesis, I decided to take a look at the largest contracts given to relievers since 2000, as well as the most consistent performers over the same time period. For the contracts, I limited my search to 3+ year contracts worth at least $7 million per season. 3+ year deals tend to reflect a level of trust by the club in the player, and $7 million struck me as a reasonable cutoff between the deals handed to top players and to those a level down on the talent chain. For measuring performance, I used a simple ERA+ and IP combination to try and isolate the most consistent performers (a search for relievers who have racked up 35+ saves on a yearly basis unearthed a similar list. Players who provide that many saves regularly tend to have strong underlying numbers, so saves can serve as a proxy for performance when addressing a multi-year sample).

Here’s the list of pitchers who had at least 3 seasons with an ERA+ of 150 or better and at least 65 innings pitched:

1 Joe Nathan
2 Billy Wagner
3 Mariano Rivera
4 Francisco Rodriguez
5 Keith Foulke
6 Mike Adams
7 Joakim Soria
8 Carlos Marmol
9 Jonathan Papelbon
10 Jonathan Broxton
11 B.J. Ryan
12 Juan Rincon
13 Brad Lidge
14 Francisco Cordero
15 LaTroy Hawkins
16 Luis Ayala
17 Eric Gagne
18 Jason Isringhausen
19 Octavio Dotel
20 Armando Benitez

It is important to note that when the search was expanded to players with at least 2 seasons of this sort of performance, an obvious drop in quality could be perceived. To my eye, 3 seasons turned out to be a very good parameter by which to evaluate consistent success. Looking at the list, Adams, Soria, and Marmol have not yet reached free agency, while Broxton, Dotel, Rincon, Gagne and Ayala all suffered injuries that hurt their performance and value before they could cash in. That leaves us with 12 pitchers relevant to our purposes.

Here is the list of relievers who have received large contracts, meaning deals for 3 or more seasons at an AAV of at least 7 million dollars (this is the list I was able to construct. It may not be complete. Please correct me if possible):

Jonathan Papelbon
Mariano Rivera
Rafael Soriano
Francisco Rodriguez
Francsico Cordero
Joe Nathan
Heath Bell
Brad Lidge
Billy Wagner
BJ Ryan
Armando Benitez
Jason Isringhausen

Soriano and Bell are the only players on the “got paid” list not on the “consistently performed” list, and Bell has two seasons of requisite performance and a third that falls just short (146 ERA+). Soriano is the only real outlier here, as he has never had a season meeting the performance criteria yet was paid like the more consistent elite performers. Conversely, Foulke and Hawkins are the only two of the 12 relevant players from the “consistently performed” list who failed to make the “got paid” list, and Foulke missed it by .25 million (3 years, 20.75 million).

Basically, when looking at the two lists, we find that the pitchers who have performed at a high level on a regular basis are the ones who are getting the big money. Now, correlation is not causation, but it does seem reasonable to say that large contracts for relievers have been largely reserved for pitchers with established levels of consistency and performance. Now, the next question to ask is whether it makes sense to be giving those pitchers large contracts. The obvious retort to this is that:

1) relievers are a volatile commodity, and
2) past performance does not guarantee future results, and
3) relievers are fungible and good relief can be acquired cheaply.

As for #1, Stephen Rhoads addressed this very issue in this space a few weeks ago:

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.

Essentially, reliever volatility actually makes handing big contracts to those relievers who have proven to be more of a sure thing a logical decision. As for #2 and #3, they can both be answered by the same point. While it is easy to look back at the end of a season and find relievers who provided great results for few dollars, it is much more difficult to identify those pitchers ahead of time. For every Joaquin Benoit there are 10 Buddy Carlyles and Lance Pendeltons, pitchers who are blanks in the game of reliever roulette. Additionally, while some of these large contracts have flopped, that is a risk that comes with any free agent contract. In the right context, it makes sense for clubs to take that risk rather than cross their fingers and hope to stumble upon the right reliever. Although past performance does not guarantee future results, it does make good results significantly more likely and predictable.

Relievers being fungible and volatile does not mean that their talent changes yearly. It means that in a small sample, you can often get statistical anomalies in both directions. Since relieving is by nature a small sample, there is more volatility and more risk. But if you have identified relievers who you think are more talented and more consistent, you lower that risk of volatility. There is value in that certainty, such that it makes sense to pay those relievers more than a pure talent to dollars evaluation might suggest. This added level of predictability is why general managers have been paying a premium for top relievers on the free agent market.

Open Thread: Baseball In Space

We tend to take baseball seriously around these parts, probably too seriously. That’s why I thought the video above was so great, it’s a nice little reminder that at the end of the day, baseball is just a game. I think we forget that far too often. Once you’re done watching, use this as your open thread. There’s a ton of college football on, plus all three hockey locals are in action. Talk about anything you like.

(h/t TedQuarters)

Rosenthal: Darvish likely to be posted after winter meetings

Via Ken Rosenthal, the Nippon Ham Fighters are likely to post Yu Darvish after the winter meetings next week. The move isn’t 100% official, but it’s likely. We’ve discussed the 25-year-old right-hander ad nauseam here, so I suspect you know all about him by now. Just a reminder: the posting fee will not be counted towards the luxury, nor will he require any kind of draft pick compensation. Those are favorable terms for the Yankees.

Cashman doesn’t have high hopes for completing a deal next week

Via Chad Jennings, Brian Cashman isn’t very optimistic about being able to finish off some deals at the winter meetings next week. “I just think there’s a lot of players out there that I would be interested in acquiring, but I prefer trying to do that under the radar if you can,” said the GM. “The realistic aspect of actually being able to conclude something (next week), I don’t have high hopes.”

“At the end of the day, we’re ready to move on something if it makes sense,” added Cashman. “I’ll make a recommendation to ownership and they can bless it or they can tell me no, but right now we’re going to go to Dallas, we’re going to continue to engage — I’ve stayed engaged via email, text, phone, in person, it doesn’t matter – but we’re set in a lot of places, we really are. Could it be better? It’s my job to try to find ways to make it better.”

I suspect some of this is posturing, but the offseason as a whole (for all teams) has been moving slowly. The Yankees will probably make a minor move or two next week, perhaps getting rid of one of their out-of-options outfielders, but I’m not expecting anything significant. I’m welcome to being surprised though.

Sabathia on same conditioning program as last offseason

Via Jack Curry, CC Sabathia is using the same conditioning and nutrition program this offseason that he used last offseason. Insert Cap’n Crunch joke here. Sabathia lost 30 lbs. last winter but gained most, if not all of it back during the season. As far as we know, there are no weight clauses in his new contract extension, but that’s not terribly surprising. Hopefully Sabathia does a better job of keeping the weight of next year, but I remain unconvinced that it had much impact on his pitching anyway.

Open Thread: Al Aceves

The Mexican Gangster rides again.

The Yankees have always been big players on the international market, and their current big league roster shows the fruits of their labor in the Dominican Republic (Robinson Cano, Ivan Nova), Venezuela (Jesus Montero, Frankie Cervelli), and Panama (Mariano Rivera). They’ve also started to emphasize Mexico in recent years, with scout Lee Sigman heading up the operation down there. They were reportedly prepared to select a little know Mexican League right-hander named Joakim Soria in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft at Sigman’s behest, but the Royals beat them to it.

A few years ago, Sigman and the Yankees worked out a package deal to acquire four players from one Mexican League club for a total of $450k. One of those players was top pitching prospect Manny Banuelos, and another was the veteran Al Aceves. Less than ten months after signing, Aceves was in the big leagues, starting games down the stretch in 2008. He established himself as a bullpen extraordinaire in 2009, proving capable of throwing four pitches or four innings in an outing at a moment’s notice. The Mexican Gangster was invaluable in bridging the gap between the starting pitcher and the Phil Hughes-Mariano Rivera tandem at the end of the game as the Yankees stormed to the World Series.

Aceves never came close to achieving that kind of success in New York again. Following a lengthy rain delay at Fenway Park on May 8th of last season, Joe Girardi called on the righty in the fifth inning. He worked out of a jam then came back for the sixth, but he slipped a bit while delivering a pitch and his back locked up on him. We never saw Aceves in pinstripes again. The back problems — which were nothing new — and numerous setbacks kept him on the shelf for the rest of the season, and during the offseason he made things worse by falling off his bike and breaking his collarbone.

The injury was expected to keep Aceves out of action for three months, meaning he was going to miss the majority of Spring Training. The Yankees non-tendered Aceves one year ago today, just one day after the injury was reported. “Because of the back issue, we could not give him [a major league contract],” said Brian Cashman, who later tried to re-sign him to a minor league deal. The move to cut Aceves loose looks mind-numbingly stupid in hindsight, as he showed up to camp not only healthy and ready to go on the first day, but he did so for the Red Sox. The Gangster threw 122 total innings for Boston this past season (majors and minors), so either he healed better than expected or the Yankees’ doctors completely mis-evaluated him. Either way, there’s nothing they can do now other than learn from their mistakes.

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Here’s your open thread for the night. Both the Devils and Islanders are in action, but you can talk about anything you want here. Go nuts.