As relief aces rather than closers, pitchers like Justin Wilson become more valuable and, counterintuitively, more affordable for their teams.
Andrew Miller. The name conjures to mind the image of a left-handed titan, standing at 6’7, wielding a mid-90s fastball like lightning from Olympus and an unholy slider from the depths of Hades. He has dominated as a relief ace for more than three years and on four separate teams.
Since last October, in which he threw 19.1 innings over 15 playoff games en route to Cleveland’s American League pennant, Miller has been the talk of the town. During the World Series, ESPN ran an article calling the lefty “the most important reliever in baseball.” In this April’s edition of ESPN the Magazine, they featured him again and claimed he would be the pitcher to “end the tyranny of the save.” Clearly, the narrative has shifted from “Look how great Andrew Miller is!” to “Andrew Miller is a pioneer in the changing landscape of reliever usage.”
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Two and a half weeks into the 2017 season, and Andrew Miller is just as good as ever. He stumbled a bit in the World Baseball Classic to show us all he is still human, but he has been a shutdown arm in the regular season. What about baseball? Has Miller altered its very fabric to such a degree that managers are now using their best pitchers in the most important situations?
These questions led Craig Edwards of FanGraphs to shed light on the intriguing Cincinnati Reds bullpen situation. His article is an excellent look at a rebuilding team that is experimenting a bit while the talent continues to mature. His framework provides us with a model with which we may examine the rest of baseball and see if bullpen strategies have shifted.
Below you will find a chart summarizing each ballclub’s relief patterns: who the closer is, who the best relief pitcher on the team is (both by statistics up to this point and by projected stats going forward), and who has entered into the highest leverage situations on average. I use OPS against to determine who has pitched the best up to this point, and the FanGraphs Depth Chart projections to provide rest of season WAR estimations for each pen’s projected best arm, and the leverage index when a pitcher enters a game (gmLI) to determine which pitchers are generally used in the most important scenarios. (All statistics are through Apr. 25.)
* Player is currently on the disabled list
As always, small sample sizes are important. Pedro Baez is a solid pitcher, but he is nowhere close to Kenley Jansen when ranking Los Angeles Dodgers relievers. Nevertheless, even if the WAR forecasts more accurately represent talent, I found including each team’s hottest arms fairly insightful.
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If you are looking for Miller-lites (pun intended) mimicking Cleveland’s relief ace formula among these teams, you can find some pretty good candidates like Sean Doolittle of the Oakland Athletics, Chris Devenski of the Houston Astros, and Felipe Rivero of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In other cases, there are some head-scratchers; why do the Detroit Tigers turn to the ineffective and old Francisco Rodriguez (-0.69 Win Probability Added) in bigger spots rather than the younger, higher upside, and more consistent Justin Wilson?
The easy answer is ignorance. As discussed earlier, there is a by-the-book system for reliever usage: use your closer in save situations. Four of K-Rod’s seven appearances — all of them save opportunities — have been in leverage situations greater than 3.00. On the flipside, Wilson has yet to make an appearance in any leverage situation over 2.00, despite a sparkling OPS against of .100. Manager Brad Ausmus might have a “proven closer” in Rodriguez, but that is no excuse to not use Wilson in a game’s tightest moment.
There is a second answer that is subtler yet all the more revealing and interesting: salary suppression. In the drama-free days of early Spring Training, Yankees president Randy Levine gloated after the team’s arbitration victory over dynamic righty Dellin Betances. Betances would be paid $3 million in 2017 rather than the $5 million he and his agents brought to the table. The reason, according to Levine, is that “Dellin Betances is not a closer.”
I’ll let the video speak for itself.
This winter was Betances’ first go at being arbitration eligible. Back in 2009, then-Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was headed to arbitration for the first time and was awarded $6.25 million, a record for a first-time eligible reliever which still stands. In 2010, he received $9.35 million, a record for a second-time reliever. Papelbon was undoubtedly a top-notch relief pitcher during his first three full seasons: 196 IP, 128 H, 36 BB, 236 K, 1.70 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and a 2.18 FIP. He was an All-Star every year between 2006 and 2008.
As for Betances, he threw more innings (247 IP), struck out more batters (392 K), recorded a similar ERA (1.93), had a better FIP (1.97), and was also a three-time All-Star. Nevertheless, because Betances pitched in the seventh and eighth in the shadows of Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and David Robertson, he did not accrue anywhere near as many saves (113 to 22, in favor of Papelbon) and thus received half the salary of a similarly elite reliever.
While Justin Wilson is not Betances or in-his-prime Papelbon, he is a very solid bullpen arm who could probably do a better job as a relief ace than Francisco Rodriguez. He and the Tigers have avoided arbitration twice now with one-year contracts, the most recent for $2.7 million. Wilson is eligible for arbitration after this season, and a team in transition like the Tigers (who also had the second-highest Opening Day payroll) would rather like to avoid giving him too substantial a raise.
The same rule applies for a rebuilding team like the Milwaukee Brewers. Closer Neftali Feliz is signed to a one-year, cost-controlled deal whereas Corey Knebel is eligible for arbitration after the season. Why make Knebel a closer, even if he is the better arm? As a relief ace, he becomes more valuable and, counter-intuitively, more affordable for Milwaukee, at least as long as the arbitration system continues to rely on hollow metrics like saves and creates this perverse incentive.
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
We may be in the middle of a bullpen renaissance. While teams in the past have not made their best reliever their closer, today there is an intention behind it. For some teams, following the Andrew Miller blueprint leads to using the best relievers in the most important situations and, perhaps, a couple of close victories. For other teams, however, the example of Andrew Miller is less important than the almighty dollar. Until the arbitration changes, money may motivate more teams to experiment with what might be the next phase in bullpen evolution.
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