Saturday, August 18, 2012

Why you shouldn't pay for relief pitching

The Phillies trade of Shane Victorino for Josh Lindblom and a prospect was supposed to help fix a beleaguered and underachieving bullpen.  Just 2 weeks later, Lindblom has already been responsible for at least two losses and looks to be no better, if not in fact worse, then the Phillies previous options.  For any longtime Phillies fan, Lindblom's poor results should be no surprise.  The Phillies have traded for and signed relief pitchers year after year, and year after year, these relief pitchers have failed to put up consistently good performances.  To be arbitrary, let's go back to one of my favorite relief pitching deals, the Turk Wendell/Dennis Cook extravaganza, and evaluate the Phillies higher profile relief moves/performances since then:

Turk Wendell/Dennis Cook - Wendell and Cook were brought in as mid-season acquisitions from the Mets to fortify the bullpen for a playoff run.  Problem was, Wendell went from a workhorse who put up a sub-4 ERA over 4 seasons with the Mets, to an albatross who put up an ERA over 7 following his acquisition by the Phillies in 2001, then missed the entire 2002 season injured before actually putting together a decent season in 03.  It appears the Phillies paid him about 7-8 million $ for his efforts.  Like Wendell, Cook put together a sub-4 ERA in 4 years with the Mets.  Cook then pitched a whopping 19 games for the Phillies compiling an ERA well north of 5.  Another multi-million dollar player, the Phillies likely only had to fork over about $1 million to Cook.  

Jose Mesa - The Phillies brought in Mesa, a well past his prime former star closer, and Mesa resurrected his career.  After two 40 save seasons with sub 3 era's, Mesa completely imploded in 2003 to the tune of a 6.52 ERA (while pocketing a cool 5.2 million $ as a 37 yr old) and was let go.  

Rheal Cormier - 2001 saw the Phillies debut of lefty Rheal Cormier.  Cormier had a 1.70 ERA in one of his 5 seasons in Phillies pinstripes.  He also had two seasons with and ERA over 5.  Cormier pocketed nearly a cool $15 million for his Phillies services.

Mike Williams - 2003 saw the Phillies acquire 2 time all-star reliever Mike Williams.  He even made one of his all-star teams in 2003.  The problem?  His Pittsburgh team was so bad that he was able to make the All-star game despite carrying an ERA over 6 during his 2003 Pirates tenure.  Though he technically improved after being acquired by the Phils, his 5.96 ERA didn't exactly help the team.  Even worse, Williams never pitched in the majors again despite 2.93 ERA with 46 saves in '02.  Williams made $3.5 mill for his efforts in '03.  Hopefully the Phils were not on the hook for much of it.  

Dan Plesac - Acquired at the age of 40, Pleasac is the perfect example of the volatility of relief pitching.  In 2002, Plesac pitched to a 4.70 ERA.  In 2003, Plesac pitched to a 2.70 ERA, then retired.  Plesac made about $3.5 mill from the Phils for his efforts.  

Billy Wagner - The 2004 season saw the Phillies bring in a number of big names into the bullpen, none bigger than Wagner.  One of the best closers to ever put on a big league uniform (2.31 ERA, 422 career saves) and a possible future hall of famer, Wagner was nothing short of dominant for the Phillies with ERAs of 2.42 and 1.51 and 59 total saves.  Though he battled injury with the team and made $17 mill, it is hard to say that Wagner didn't live up to his lofty expectations and lofty contract.  

Tim Worrell - Brought in along with Wagner to be the setup man, Worrell turned out to be disappointing.  Coming off two sub 3 ERA seasons with the Giants, Worrell put up an average 3.68 era in '04, then put up an ERA over 7 in '05 and was promptly traded to the D-Backs, where he ERA was barely over 2.  For his efforts, Worrell made 5.5 mill $.  

Roberto Herandez - Though Hernandez was only high profile for his name and wasn't a big money signing, the Phillies would have been better off without his 4.76 ERA in 2004.  

Todd Jones - Another high profile name who had a brief Phillies tenure, Jones's ERA went from sub 4 to nearly 5 after being acquired from the Reds in '04.   

Aaron Fultz - Not a major name or a big signing, but of interest, Fultz was a key piece of the pen in '05 with a 2.24 era in over 60 games.  However Fultz' ERA ballooned by over 2 runs in '06, his final year with the team.  

Ugueth Urbina - I still remember being furious when the Phils dealt Placido "Peanut Head" Polanco to acquire Urbina.  Urbina was a big name reliever with over 200 career saves and two all-star appearances on his resume.  He had a 2.63 ERA with the Tigers on the '05 season before being acquired.  However, one look at Urbina's career stats shows that, though a solid pitcher, he was far from a Billy Wagner level player.  In '04, his ERA was 4.50.  In '03, it was 2.81.  In '02, it was 3.00.  In '01, it was 3.65.  etc....  For Urbina, the Phils dealt Polanco.  At the time, Polanco was quite a bit younger, had a slightly smaller head, and was a .300 hitter who would go on to hit .338 for the Tigers following the trade as well as put together a .341 avg 200 hit season in '07.  Urbina put together an ERA over 4.00 following his acquisition, then tried to hack one of his workers to death with a machete and is currently serving time in a Venezuelan prison.  Oh, and instead of getting to enjoy Placido Polanco at 3rd for those extra years, we got to enjoy the sterling combination of David Bell, Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, Pedro Feliz, and probably another player or two that I've permanently erased from my memory.  

Terry Adams - Brought in as a hybrid starter/reliever, Terry Adams proved to be what the Phillies hopefully expected him to be - and average, inconsistent major leaguer.  His ERA was 4.35 in '02, 2.65 in '03, and then a mind-boggling 12.83 in the last 16 games of his career in '05 after the Phillies brought him back off the scrap heap.  Adams made about 6 million in his Phillies career.  

Amaury Telemaco - Deserves a mention just because he spent 6 years with the Phillies (for some reason), he racked up a low ERA of 3.97 in '03 and otherwise ranged between 4 something and 6 something.  

Tom "Flash" Gordon - For 17 million $, Flash put together one solid season making the all-star team in '06 with a 3.34 era and 34 saves.  Gordon saved 8 games in the rest of his Phillies career with ERA's ballooning to 4.73 and then 5.16.  He then pitched 3 more games in his career (fortunately not with the Phillies) with a 21.60 ERA and retired.  

Arthur Rhodes - Another example of a truly inconsistent reliever, Rhodes had seasons with ERA's in the 2.00s (and even an incredible 1.72 ERA season for the legendary '01 Mariners) but also had ERA's over 5 and 6.  Unfortunately, we did not get the good Rhodes as he pitched to a sterling 0-5 record with a 5.32 ERA for the Phils in '06.  Just to add insult, his '05 ERA with Cleveland was 2.08 and he put together a 0.68 ERA in 25 games for the Marlins in '08 after missing the '07 season.  And for his efforts, the Phillies dished him out a paltry $3.7 million.  

Ryan Franklin - Franklin couldn't even make it through the full '06 season with the Phils after they gifted him 2.6 mill $.  Franklin put together a 4.58 ERA and finished the year with the Reds.  

Rick White - White pitched for 11 teams, including the Phillies.  There is a reason he is hard to remember, as the Phils brought him in and his ERA was a pedestrian 4.34 in '06.  

Antonio Alfonseca - Another old washed up closer, Alfonseca pitched to a 5.44 ERA in '07, his only year with the Phillies.  

J.C. Romero - Released by the Red Sox after walking 15 batters in 20 innings, Romero pitched to a 2.73 ERA in 5 years with the Phils and was a key member of the '08 championship team.  However, as we all remember, Romero consistently struggled to throw strikes, had a whip of over 1.40, and saw his performances decline to such a point that he was designated for assignment before leaving the team.  And one can't mention Romero without mentioning his steroid suspension.  Romero made over $13 mill with the Phils.  

Chad Durbin - A small signing, Durbin turned out to be one a key performer in '08 with a sub 3 era in over 70 games.  However his performances declined the next two years with ERA's of 4.39 and 3.80.  Durbin made over 4.5 million with the Phillies, as his 1 year 08 deal turned out to be a lot wiser than his later contract extension.  

Scott Eyre - A great Pat Gillick waiver wire deal, Eyre pitched to sub 2 ERA's in both of his seasons with the Phils before retiring.  

Brad Lidge - Perhaps more key to the championship than any other player, Lidge's career does not need to be much rehashed.  After a perfect season in 08, Lidge pitched to an ERA of over 7 in '09 and then was good, but no longer spectacular thereafter (while battling injuries).  Lidge made big money, cost the Phils all-star Michael Bourn  and post '08 was never the same, but for '08 alone Lidge must be considered a good acquisition.  

Chan Ho Park - A former all-star turned mega contract bust with Texas.  Though he only pitched one season with the Phillies and his ERA was well over 4.00, Park was great once he went to the bullpen.  For 2.5 mill Park turned out to be a good one year signing.  

Jose Conteras - Contreras was great in his first full season as a reliever in 2010 as he pitched to a 3.34 ERA in 67 games.  Rewarded with a contract extension, Contreras has struggled to stay on the field since.  

Danys Baez - A former all-star closer who hadn't had an ERA sub 4 since '07, Baez pitched 2 seasons with the Phillies with ERAs of 5.48 and 6.25.  He was rewarded by making over 5 million $ for his services.  

Johnathan Papelbon - Brought in for $50 million, Papelbon has been solid so far this year, but has not been lights out.  Considering he replaced Ryan Madson, arguably the best reliever in Phillies history (yes I said it), his performance seems all the more disappointing. 

What this glorious list of superstar players should demonstrate is that relievers are incredibly inconsistent and unreliable and there is little point spending large amounts of money on them.  The Phillies have done an admirable job of using their young homegrown talent the last couple years and it has not always been pretty, but at least it has been cost effective.  If you are going to invest in bullpen "talent," then invest in big time talent who is more guaranteed to give a good performance (Wagner, Papelbon sort of, Madson).  Otherwise, the bullpen is merely a crapshoot - demonstrated by all these players as well as guys like Stutes and Bastardo who went from revelations to afterthoughts.  



  1. First of all, don't knock Pedro Feliz. He may not have been an all star, but he was a defensive wizard and an important part of that 2008 World Series team.

    Also, this:

    Ryan Madson: 630 IP over 491 appearances, 47-30, 52 saves, 3.59 ERA, 1.29 WHIP

    Tug McGraw: 722 IP over 463 appearances, 49-37, 94 saves, 3.10 ERA, 1.20 WHIP

    Granted, Madson's ratios are inflated by a disastrous run as a starter in 2006, but that also boosts his wins and IP. Plus, McGraw closed games for one of two World Series teams in Phils history (not that it was Madson's fault that the team didn't win in 2011, but still). Tough to argue that McGraw isn't the best reliever in Phils history.

  2. Fair enough, McGraw was pretty good. The fact that you need to compare their numbers shows how good Madson was. Feliz was good defensively, but when I think defensive wizard I think Rolen, not Feliz. Peanut Head is just as good if not better than Feliz defensively and Feliz gave absolutely nothing offensively.

  3. More importantly, do you agree with the conclusion?

  4. Generally, yes (though the only consistently good reliever on the Phillies this year has been Papelbon, the most expensive one). Relief pitching is generally a crapshoot, so I think it's important to note that while it's good to save money on relief pitching, bargain-hunting doesn't make a team any less likely to field a stellar relief staff (Stutes, Bastardo, Rosenberg, and Schwimer: come on down!).

    It's also important to note that the Phillies have had reasonably decent success paying for closers in the last decade. Jose Mesa had one awful season, but is also the franchise's all-time leader in saves and pitched pretty well for a couple of years here. Billy Wagner was lights-out as a closer, if a lousy teammate. Brad Lidge was absolutely vital to the World Series run, even if didn't live up to his contract after that. And Papelbon, as I said, has been the Phils' best reliever this year, even if they outbid themselves to sign him. The bang-for-buck on all of those guys was fine, especially for a big-market team that won't sink or swim based on one poor investment.

    My question, though, is this: Do you think the Phillies should have re-signed Madson last offseason? Even if you think he would have been a better value than Papelbon, he was still going to be very expensive for a relief pitcher. Arm injury notwithstanding, would you rather have just eschewed Madson AND Papelbon and gone into the season with the rest of the group we've got now?

    And, more broadly, is there a point at which an honest assessment of a team's relief corps dictates spending money on outside talent? Volatile though relievers are, some are undoubtedly better (or at least have a higher likelihood of performing well) than others. What's the minimum acceptable level of performance for a team's bullpen, and how much should a team be willing to spend to ensure that there's a good chance its bullpen performs to those standards?

  5. If I ran the Phillies, I would have not signed Madson or Papelbon this year and invested that money in someone like Yeonis Cespesdes, then traded Victorino prior to the season for a 3rd base prospect. Clearly if you sign someone with a better track record, you are more likely to get a better performance, but except for the truly elite relievers performances are so volatile that I'm not sure if it makes sense to invest in anyone at all. Even if you look at closers, many of the most successful closers have been guys that came out of nowhere and were cheap like Joel Hanrahan or guys that were reclamation projects like JJ Putz. I would have loved for the Phillies to go completely young and then signed one hard throwing guy to compete, but not invest more than 3-4 in said player. Outside of bringing in at least one veteran arm to compete, I wouldn't spend a dime on relief pitching. As bad as the bullpen has been this year, I don't think bringing in veteran players would have been the answer. Consider someone like Brian Sanchez. He had some great years in FL, then came here on a minor league deal, and sucked. Raul Valdez on the other hand also came here on a minor league deal and has been one of our best relievers. The fact that all our young guys have struggled this year is surprising. Maybe the answer is bring in more cheap veterans who have done it before to help the young guys and mix and match? Consider that a lot of the best guys over the years have been scrap heap veterans (Clay Condrey, Chad Durbin, J.C. Romero) and the guys the Philies have put more money into have tended to be a waste.

  6. While in a vacuum (or at this point in the season) your proposal makes sense, it was never going to happen. That kind of move is not the one a serious World Series contender makes--not when it needs to maintain to both fans and players that it intends to be back in the World Series. Think about what that proposal means:

    1) You would have let go of the Phillies' best reliever last year (Madson), and replaced him with no one. While I do agree that it's fair to argue that a less expensive or less experienced (or both) player could step up and perform to that level, I don't think it's arguable that said player would have been MORE likely, or even equally likely, to put together that type of season as Madson. And again, in defense of the Papelbon signing, he has been the team's best reliever this year, overpaid or not. Hindsight is 20/20, but with its benefit we can see that not bringing in Papelbon, and instead using a random rookie to fill that spot, would have hurt the team. I don't believe the Phillies had significant enough faith in any of their young arms to fill that role, either, considering the way Bastardo and Stutes closed out last season.

    2) Not content with trading away the Phillies' best reliever last season, you would have also dealt the Phillies' best hitter last season, Victorino. He was extremely valuable in the field and at the dish last season, in addition to being a vital clubhouse personality and a fan favorite. World Series contenders do not trade those players and then spend upwards of $50 million on an unknown quantity like a highly touted Cuban prospect. And that assumes that Cespedes would even be willing to come to Philadelphia. You'd have to have a contract signed before you dealt Victorino, and what if the deal fell through, or another team outbid the Phillies? Fomenting discord in the clubhouse by actively looking to trade popular and productive veterans is not usually a wise move, and it certainly wasn't clear before the season that we'd have received any more production from Cespedes than we would have from Victorino.

    3) Not only that, but you'd have dealt Victorino for a third base prospect? A piece that wouldn't have helped us to contend this year? I get the whole "maintain the farm system" thing, and it's bullshit. Teams cycle. I've watched the Eagles try to stay in contention by substituting young players for years, and their slow slide backward from an outstanding core has been depressing. You know why? Because it takes a special mix of talent, chemistry, and players that fit the strategy to create a real winner. The Eagles today are probably a more talented group, top to bottom, than the Super Bowl team, albeit at different positions. But they're not a better team. When you have a core that you feel is genuinely capable of winning a World Series title, you sell out everything for that shot. Flags fly forever, and anyone who wouldn't sacrifice ten years of contention for one World Series title is nuts. Would I rather have had Shane Victorino this year than a good third base prospect? You bet your ass. Would I rather have had Hunter Pence in right field next year than Tommy Joseph playing first base for Reading? You're goddamn right.

    4) What kind of message do moves like that send to guys like Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, both of whom took significantly less money than they would have gotten on the open market in order to sign in Philadelphia? What kind of message would they send to Cole Hamels, a guy who we were actively trying to re-sign and who absolutely needed to believe we were serious about continuing to contend?

    Maybe it would have worked out. Victorino's poor performance and subsequent trade, and the team's overall malaise this year, suggest that it might have been the way to go. But without the benefit of hindsight, it would have been absolutely impossible for Ruben Amaro, Jr. to make that call. Wouldn't have happened, and it would have been irresponsible of him to try.

  7. Victorino was not going to be resigned. It was clear before the season that Hamels was the priority. It was also clear that the Phillies could not continue to spend money forever locking up every veteran player they had. Finally, to field continuous powerhouse championship teams, there must be some change in the core, combined with in influx of young talent. With Rollins, Utley, and Howard and going nowhere, and major investments being made with Lee, Halladay, and Hamels, center field looked like a good place to get young. My belief in investing in a player like Cespesdes stemmed from John Mayberry's supposed ability in CF (which has proven to be false), combined with the excitement and potential that a big-time international talent would bring in. My thought process was that even if Cespesdes busted, his salary would not be prohibitory to a team with the Phillies payroll. Would trading Victorino and then reallocating his money to other players have sent a negative message to Halladay, Lee, and Hamels? No. And I think the fact that Hamels still resigned here during this terrible season furthers that point.

    As for a closer, if you look around the league, you will find many, many closers that have been signed for next to nothing and have excelled at the job. I felt that when allotting resources, while it's always nice to have a reliable back-end pitcher, it is a spot where if you throw guys to the wolves, someone will step-up. Consider last year. Lidge went down and Contreras, Bastardo, and Madson were all successful. Madson had always struggled in the role before, but he finally stepped up and became a star closer. I firmly believed that one of our pitchers would have embraced the role this year. As bad as the bullpen has been this year, it is entirely possible that had the phillies shown confidence in one of their relievers and thrust him into the closers role, he would have embraced it. Regardless, throwing 12 million per year to a guy that is going to throw 60-70 innings is an irresponsible use of funds.

    Dealing Victorino for a third base prospect is all speculative of course, but had the Phillies signed a player like Cespesdes (or Willingham, or Kubel, or DeJesus, etc....) then they would have had an extra piece in Victorino who was both valuable and unnecessary. Trading him for a player that could help next season would keep the Phillies from their current conundrum. As good as Kevin Frandsen has been, I'm not quite ready to declare him the starting 3rd baseman for next season.

  8. Two things:

    First of all, there's no such things as "continuous powerhouse championship teams." There's been precisely one team in our lifetime that has managed to stay a perennial World Series contender while experiencing near-total roster turnover, and that's the Yankees. The Red Sox kind of did it between 2004 and 2007, since they did say goodbye to a bunch of key players between those years, but looking at them now it's pretty obvious that they're starting to fall back to the pack. It's no coincidence that the two teams that have come closest have been the highest spenders in Major League history. You build a great core, you do everything you possibly can to win a championship during that window, and then, if you're smart, you blow it up and suffer through some lean years. You can't contend and stay reloaded at the same time for any extended period of time. That's just not how it works.

    Second, the closers for all the World Series teams since 2000 include: Jason Motte, Neftali Feliz (twice), Brian Wilson, Brad Lidge (twice with the Phillies and once with the Astros in 2005), Mariano Rivera (four times), Troy Percival (once with the Rays in 2008, once with the Angels in 2002), Manny Corpas, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Isringhausen (twice), Todd Jones, Dustin Hermanson, Keith Foulke, Braden Looper, Robb Nen, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Armando Benitez.

    The closers who hadn't had at least one successful season as their team's stopper before appearing in the World Series were Motte, Feliz (in 2010), Hermanson (though he had saved 17 games as a part-time closer for a half-season the year before his World Series appearance), Looper (who saved 13 games as a part-time closer the year before his World Series appearance), and Kim (who basically split duties with Bret Prinz the year before the World Series, and Matt Mantei the year of the World Series).

    So out of 24 World Series teams in the last 12 years, only five featured closers without at least one season of success in a closing role before their World Series appearance. And Hermanson, Looper, and Kim had all at least found success splitting time as a closer the previous season. Neftali Feliz was an extremely highly-regarded prospect. So the ONLY team since 2000 to win a World Series with a closer who could truly be described as coming off the scrap heap was the 2011 Cardinals with Jason Motte. That's the whole list. And they needed the Braves to experience one of the greatest collapses in regular-season history just to sneak into the wild card.

    So if you think you have a legitimate shot at contending for a World Series title, you don't hand the closer reins over to just anyone. If you do, you're probably inviting failure. I'm a big fan of sabermetrics and advanced statistics, and I agree that the 9th inning shouldn't be any harder to pitch than the 8th inning, and that managers can just mix-and-match in the 9th inning, and etc., etc. But empirical evidence tells us that NL and AL champions typically have a proven closer pitching the 9th inning, and we shouldn't ignore the significance of the evidence just because we can't figure out why it's the case.

  9. My response to your closer comment is simple: Big market teams tend to make the world series and big market teams tend to spend money on closers. Many small market (and therefore less competitive) teams don't spend money on closers and have someone who becomes dominant. Simply look at the mlb saves leader board