Watching this offseason play out is making my head hurt. For a while, it seemed most organizations had come to a general consensus on the blue print of constructing a bullpen. Claim a few guys off of waivers who throw hard with below average command, convert a failed starter or two, throw a few million at a consistent name, find a junk-tossing lefty, and you have yourself a bullpen.
Then two of the game’s smartest minds, Billy Beane and Dave Dombrowski, had to go and mess everything up. Beane committed a large chunk of his 2014 payroll to mediocre closer Jim Johnson and traded a good platoon outfielder for a set-up guy. Dombrowski made room for a two year contract with a 39 year-old Joe Nathan by trading an above average starting pitcher in Doug Fister for a disappointing return. These types of moves are expected out of Ned Colletti and Ruben Amaro Jr. However, when we’re seeing smart organizations spending money and talent on relief pitching, it’s worth investigating.
Relievers are quite the volatile species and for the most part, fungible. We often see relievers hit a wall suddenly, breaking down and/or losing any semblance of effectiveness. Most relievers are ridden hard in effective years, racking up many back-to-back appearances. Still, the notion of refusing to pay for relief talent is actually pretty justified. The Braves shouldn’t look at Craig Kimbrel’s last three years, in which he’s averaged 70 games per season with a high stress delivery and electric fastball, and commit a large sum of money to him going forward. While Kimbrel has been one of the best relievers in recent history, the 227.1 innings he’s pitched in the last four years can be replaced without hurting the team too much.
Lost, I decided to investigate on how elite bullpens are constructed. I wanted this to be a recent look, so I took the three top bullpens from each year from 2011-2013. I looked at the performance numbers of bullpens, and then inspected their makeup.
I ranked the bullpens by team ERA, obviously not the best statistic, but it is a pretty accurate reflection of bullpen performance. Every pitcher who appeared as a reliever counted in these stats, even outfielder Josh Harrison’s sole inning in 2013 for the Pirates. The salaries are not pro-rated; they are the salary each player would have been paid if he had spent a whole year in the major leagues. I broke each pitcher down by handedness, age throughout the season, salary, and means in which they were acquired. The salaries are courtesy of Cot’s MLB Contracts, and the biographical info comes from Baseball-Reference.
The nine bullpens break down like this:
It’s fair to say your bullpen’s performance is an indicator of success in the regular season, with the offensively-challenged 2011 Padres serving as an outlier. The Braves have had a pretty consistent core throughout these years, anchored by Kimbrel. The Rays’ group was more rag-tag, consisting of only two pitchers drafted by the team. The Royals’ group of power arms in 2013 was extremely cheap and young, and it looks like they are going to be in the top tier of bullpens for years to come.
The Braves were extremely efficient payroll wise due to their use of waiver wire pick-ups and cheap free agents. The Giants were the oldest, most expensive, and didn’t use any of the waiver wire, a likely correlation. The highest paid player on this list was the Padres’ Heath Bell at $7.5 million.
Teams got a little younger, and a little more expensive. The waiver wire was used less, and free agency more. The Braves core got older and significantly more expensive due to arbitration raises. Interestingly, the Rays were quite young despite acquiring 5/12 of their bullpen arms through free agency. The most expensive reliever not named Jair Jurrjens was Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman at $4.7 million.
The Braves continued to age, the Royals had a surfeit of southpaws, and the Pirates installed a revolving door in their bullpen. However, it does get interesting in the draft column. Kansas City’s bullpen was remarkably constructed with a number of failed starters who still had big velocity. Their bullpen salary looks on-par with the other two teams until you dig deeper. Of the $18.99 million, $11.86 million came from a trio of Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, and Bruce Chen. Davis and Chen got a good portion of the Royals’ starts, and this was Hochevar’s first year in the pen. Take away those three, and bullpen is extremely young and inexpensive.
A $17 million dollar budget to around 15 players throughout the year seems quite efficient. That’s a pretty small sum of money for most teams. The average age confirms my belief that it is better to have a pretty young bullpen. To do that, acquiring talent from the draft is vital, as are mid-level free agents. Moreover, the waiver wire looks like a very cheap and fruitful source of help.
The A’s and Tigers will pay Johnson and Nathan around $10 million dollars each next year. That makes up close to 59% of the average salary for a full year’s bullpen from the top pens from 2011-2013. On top of that, it seems like inefficient asset allocation for the A’s. Their front office seems to have identified their bullpen as the one piece holding them back from deep runs in October. It may be inefficient to pay close to $15 million dollars for two backend bullpen pitchers, however, if it gives them the final push needed for a championship it’s worth it. It seems Beane, who has admitted his “sh*t doesn’t work in the playoffs,” is taking a one year gamble to see if a solid bullpen will help in the postseason. Dombrowski and Detroit’s front office are taking a much smaller risk with the insurance net of owner Mike Illitch’s deep pockets and willingness to spend.
However, data from these nine teams reflect it is much more efficient to pair a large number of homegrown arms and cheap free agents. It will be interesting to see if Beane and Dombrowski’s significant economic gambles pay off, especially since these hazards were supererogatory for the nine aforementioned teams.
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