December 12, 2016

Market explosion for relievers

by Daniel Conmy

In the postseason, Andrew Miller was used in a creative role by Terry Francona. Miller, closer by trade, was openly used in a variety of innings not named the ninth inning. The Cleveland Baseball Team eventually lost to the Chicago Cubs in the seventh game of the World Series, but the creativity of Miller's usage led to wonder if other relievers can hold the same role.

There are two things to look into before we dive into Miller and the eventual three free agent reliever signings.

First, Zach Britton was not used in a one-game playoff by Buck Showalter. That led to an ungodly amount of criticism of not using your best reliever at the most important part of your season. This trigger sent of the baseball community into an outrage. Meanwhile, Miller was being used in a role not in the ninth inning since the trade from the New York Yankees to Cleveland. Terry Francona molded Miller into this role, but Miller also bought into the idea. In a piece written by the New York Times Miller stated his trust in his manager:
"The fact that I came in the fifth is not a big deal," Miller said. "We have a lot of trust in whoever's out there. Tito [Francona] puts guys in good situations. We trust the plan and it's gonna work out."
Miller already received his payday -- something many relievers never see -- and Cody Allen assumed the closer's role. Miller was used as a fireman -- coming in to douse an upcoming rally. This reasoning was critiqued by the baseball community, but the most important constituents are the relievers that just received their enormous paychecks.

Mark Melancon, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen all received four- or five-year contracts and below are the contract values:

Name Team Years Contract (Millions)
Mark Melancon San Francisco Giants 4 $62
Aroldis Chapman New York Yankees 5 $86
Kenley Jansen Los Angeles Dodgers 5 $80

Big pay days, right? No one can argue that this is the most a reliever has received as payment since Jonathan Papelbon. The first question that comes to my mind and the mind of many fans is -- will they be worth it?

Everyone speculates wildly about contracts and their worth before players play out their finals days in said deal, instead, let's look into why these players were given large sums of money for such a minuscule amount of time at their position. 

Wins above replacement (WAR) discredits relievers and do not give them their due, therefore, we looked into win probability added (WPA). While WAR is an accumulation statistic, WPA takes context into consideration. This is vital when discussing relievers worth. Relievers are not used in non-consequential situations -- they are deployed when outs are critical. 

Over a 162-game season the results are moot, but the reasoning for this outbreak in money for relievers comes from the postseason. 29 teams saw as Miller dazzled in multiple innings every outing and front offices took note of the competitive reliever market. 

All teams that signed these relievers -- Giants, Yankees, Dodgers -- are likely playoff contenders for the years of each contract. They are not being paid for the saves they collect throughout the regular season, their worth lies solely on their ability to perform where the WPA is highest. Chapman and Jansen were used in that role shortly in their postseason stints, but will it last? How long can relievers go in the postseason before their arsenal is lackluster? We've yet to cross that threshold and it is likely differs from pitcher to pitcher and how each team deploys those pitchers.

Ironically, Chapman blew his opportunity in game seven of the World Series when he allowed a game-tying home run to Rajai Davis. In such small samples -- like one or two innings performances -- pitchers will not deliver the results that are expected. We moved away from the fireman role that Miller is revitalizing, but where is the breaking point when pitchers are less than stellar? Will pitchers be used in more creative roles during the regular season?

These questions and more will be answered in the upcoming 2017 season. Front offices offered plenty of money for necessary arms, but we've seen a competitive Tampa Bay Rays teams in the late 2000's by having players on rookie contracts perform well. The signing of Melancon, Chapman, and Jansen brings less volatility into the back end of each bullpen, but relievers are generally unreliable. 

All these players will bring a positive worth to their team, but the lack of innings needs to be made up in high WPA numbers throughout the length of these contracts.

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