First Pitch: When Will Teams Come to Their Senses on Closers?

Sometimes when I write about the value of relief pitchers, I feel like a financial analyst pre-2006, warning people about the housing market. The prices paid for relief pitchers, especially closers, has gotten ridiculous. It feels like eventually that market is just going to collapse, and prices will bottom out. The strange thing is that it is so obvious that the prices paid to relievers are ridiculous, yet teams continue to pay those prices.

Baseball America rated left-handed pitcher Robbie Erlin the #34 prospect in their mid-season rankings last year. They rated right-handed pitcher Zack Wheeler the #35 prospect. Wheeler fetched outfielder Carlos Beltran in a one-for-one swap. Erlin was paired with Joe Wieland in exchange for set-up man Mike Adams.

I like Mike Adams. He’s a great reliever, and he’s good enough to be a closer. But you’re talking about a relief pitcher here. This is a guy who pitches one inning at a time, and doesn’t even pitch in half of the team’s games. Carlos Beltran is a guy who plays 140+ games a year, and has value all throughout the games. Yet Beltran fetched the #35 prospect, while Adams landed the #34 prospect, plus another prospect.

What doesn’t make sense is that it’s not that hard to find good relief pitchers. You can’t go out and sign a guy to a minor league deal, then watch him put up Carlos Beltran numbers. If you did, it would be one of the top stories of the year. You can go out and sign a minor league free agent, then watch him put up dominant relief numbers. And you don’t really need the sub-2.00 ERA that Adams provides. It’s a nice luxury, but the value of a dominant reliever really isn’t that big. Consider these two players:

Player A: 2.10 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 25.2 IP, 0.5 WAR

Player B: 2.48 ERA, 10.2 K/9, 4.1 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 32.2 IP, 0.4 WAR

Player A is Adams, looking only at his numbers after the trade that sent him to the Texas Rangers. Keep in mind, the Rangers paid one of the top 40 prospects in baseball, plus another prospect to get Adams under team control for a year and two months.

Player B is Jason Grilli. The Pirates signed Grilli ten days before the Rangers traded for Adams. Grilli was stuck on Philadelphia’s Triple-A team, with an out-clause in his contract. Any team that wanted him in the majors could make him an offer. The Phillies then had a choice whether to add him to their 25-man roster, or release him and let him sign with the other team. The Pirates offered, the Phillies released him, and the Pirates ended up getting a year and two months of team control of Grilli.

If I had to place money on it, I’d bet that Adams will have the better season in 2012. But if I’m running a team, and I’m given the choice of Grilli for free, or Adams for a top 40 prospect and another prospect, I’m taking my chances with Grilli. That’s total hindsight, as Grilli was far from a guarantee to do what he did. But it’s not like those situations don’t come up every year. The Pirates did something totally similar with Chris Resop in 2010.

Take a look at what we’ve seen early in the 2012 season. The Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon for four years and $50 M. The Marlins signed Heath Bell for three years and $27 M. The Reds signed Ryan Madson to a one year, $8.5 M deal. Papelbon has converted all three save chances, and has a 1.80 ERA in five innings. Heath Bell blew two of three save chances and has a 9.00 ERA in four innings. And Ryan Madson went down for the year before the season began.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay signed Fernando Rodney for one year and $2 M. Washington signed Brad Lidge for one year and $1 M. And the Pirates signed Juan Cruz to a minor league contract, paying him $1.25 M for one year. Rodney replaced the injured Kyle Farnsworth, and has saved all four opportunities he has seen in 4.1 shutout innings. Lidge replaced Drew Storen, and has a 3.00 ERA in 6 innings, with two saves in three chances. And Cruz has replaced Joel Hanrahan the last two games, saving both chances, all while throwing six shutout innings this year.

This idea that there is some special X-factor required to get three outs in the ninth inning is absurd. Three outs in the ninth inning with a one to three run lead is no different than three outs in the seventh inning with a one to three run lead. In either case, the pitcher is assigned to get three outs and protect the lead.

Pitchers don’t throw in the late innings because of some ridiculous theory that they can handle the role of a set-up man or a closer. They pitch in those roles because they’re the best relievers on the team. But again, the difference in value isn’t that big. You can make a minor move and get the same value as you’d get from trading for Mike Adams. You can sign a guy for $1-2 M and get the same results as you’d get from spending $8-12 M a year on an elite closer. Or you can just buy low on a closer who is having a down year, and hope he regains his value. That’s what the Pirates did with Joel Hanrahan.

I talked about Hanrahan the other day, and why the Pirates should trade him. Most of the feedback was in agreement, focusing on the big return Hanrahan could bring. Some didn’t like the idea, holding on to the notion that Hanrahan brings some big value to the team that can’t be easily replaced. Yet the last two nights the Pirates have held a close lead in the ninth inning, and Juan Cruz — signed to a minor league deal in January — closed out the game with ease.

Hanrahan had a 2.9 WAR last year. He’s under control through the 2013 season. If the Pirates traded him on July 1st, and he maintains that 2.9 WAR value, he’d have a $12.7 M trade value. That would be worth a top 76-100 hitting prospect. Of course, the value for closers tends to be inflated, so the Pirates could easily get more, based on recent history.

As for replacing Hanrahan, I don’t think it would be that hard. On the current 25-man roster, I’d throw Juan Cruz or Jason Grilli in to the role. Brad Lincoln wouldn’t be a bad option. In Triple-A I’d go with Bryan Morris. You could even go with Justin Wilson. In Double-A there’s Duke Welker. The only thing Hanrahan has over these guys is the proof that he can “handle the role”. But it was only a year ago that Hanrahan was a big question mark. The Pirates gave Hanrahan the job over Evan Meek in early Spring Training, and there were questions as to why there was no competition for the spot.

Or maybe you just forget about the closer role completely. Use your relievers in order. When you’ve got a one run lead with two on and no outs in the seventh, bring on Hanrahan. Save Jared Hughes for the ninth inning, when hopefully a win is still a possibility. Saving a closer for the ninth inning, and relying on lesser relievers to get the lead to the ninth inning is ridiculous. It’s like saving your ace pitcher for the clinching game of a playoff series. You might not even get there to give that pitcher a chance to throw.

As long as major league teams continue to over-pay for relievers, the Pirates should continue to deal closers for good returns. They should also continue adding relievers for cheap prices. The bullpen has been one of the most successful areas for the team the last few years, whether it’s adding cheap relievers who can get the job done, or trading them for good returns. The Pirates would be smart to continue that trend this year at the trade deadline.

Links and Notes

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**The Pirates beat the Diamondbacks 2-1. Game story here.

**Prospect Watch: Two hits each for Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte.

**Jeff Locke struck out eight in the Indianapolis win tonight.

**Jeff Karstens was placed on the disabled list. Brad Lincoln was recalled, and got the win after pitching three shutout innings. My guess is that Lincoln will get the start on Monday.

**Pirates Notebook: Barajas getting to know the pitching staff.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Lee Young

    Tim….you and Tom Verducci must’ve stayed at the same hotel this week:

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/tom_verducci/04/17/closers/index.html

     

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Really good article. Thanks for passing it along!

  • burgh_fan

    Just throwing this out there. What if the Pirates did start using Hanrahan in the 6th or 7th innings in tight ball games. That would be logical uses but if he doesn’t close games I could see that hurting his trade value around the league. Fair or not I think its rather apparent that closers are more highly valued than other relief pitchers so wouldn’t moving Hanrahan out of the traditional closer role hurt his value in a trade?

  • ecbucs

    teams that are contending want as much certainty of performance as they can get so they will pay a lot to get Mike Adams.  The Bucs need to take advantage of teams in those situations. 

    This would be torture to fans, but the Bucs should play tapes of Stan Belinda trying to save playoff games anytime a contender visits PNC.

  • dropkickmurphys

    I couldn’t agree more.  Relievers are highly over valued, especially closers.  Teams like the Pirates should flip their good relievers every couple of years.  

    Closers are another example of how managers don’t manage baseball games smartly.  Why on earth would you save your best reliever for a situation that may never happen?  If its such a good move, why not save your best hitter for a bases loaded situation in a close game?  Neither one makes sense but managers do the former all the time.

    Truth is managers manage their closer by a very poor statistic that measures them, the save.  There is no more meaningless stat in baseball than the save.  Yet, we see managers leave their best reliever out of tie games in extra innings on the road.  The closer is however, the first reliever out of the pen when the game is tied in the ninth inning of a home game.  The don’t use the close when the team is behind late.  The manager doesn’t use the 7th or 8th innings of close games when the tying or winning runs are on base or at the plate.  Yet, if the team is ahead by three runs or less, the closer will be out there to start the last inning.

    If managers were evaluated solely on how they used their best reliever, they would all fail.

  • http://twitter.com/Spazaru Murray Passarieu

    Great article.  I’ve always wondered about over paying for relievers, especially in the era of the specialist who only pitches one inning or even less.  Plus, there are the obvious exceptions like Rivera or Hoffman, but most closers end up with careers that look more like Eric Gagne’s and the flame out quickly.  I like Hanrahan’s attitude and presence on the mound, but from a business perspective, he absolutely has to be moved if the opportunity arises to make a good deal.

  • Lee Young

    I am old school and when we first started (over)using the bullpen, I figured that, the more guys they brought in, the more chances there were that one of those guys wouldn’t have his good stuff that day. I still feel that way.

    That article I linked above showed that, despite our advances, pitch counts, etc, pitchers still break down at an alarming rate.

    That’s really why I disliked them pulling JMac yesterday. PITCH him! Don’t BABY him. He was just starting to hit his stride.

    I was really hoping what Larry Dierker did as a manager would catch on. Hopefully, it will soon (maybe Nolan Ryan’s Rangers?).

    But, before the price of closers drops, TRADE HANNY! 

  • tsnod91

    This is an awesome article. I like the comparison between Jason Grilli and Mike Adams. It really puts things into perspective. The Pirates are a small-market team, and need to act like one, by not overpaying for a closer. I don’t know what Cincinnati was thinking. Ryan Madson for 1 year/$8.5M to close games? Now, he’s done for the year and will be replaced by Sean Marshall. He will do fine as a closer and he is set to make $3.1M this year. That’s $5.4M less. When the trade deadline rolls around, I would like to see Hanrahan be dealt. I just hope he can keep his value up till then. The Bucs could get some impact players in return. In 2011, we didn’t really know who the closer was going to be. Meek? Hanrahan? Someone else? Then, when Hanrahan won the job, we were like, “Ok, lets see how this guy does”. Well, he became an All-Star, and the people began to trust him. Now, the people are too comfortable with Hanrahan to see him be dealt and start up a whole new relationship with some other guy. It is somewhat comforting to see Hanrahan coming out of the bullpen in the ninth. But, I hope the Bucs trade Hanrahan and receive a Top 50 hitting prospect. That would be great. Fingers crossed.

  • gregenstein

    I’m not sure I’d call the bullpen’s of the past few years successful. If you look at the bullpen’s ERA, K/9, and WHIP since Huntington took over, they’ve been near the bottom of the list in those categories. The problem (or reality) though I guess is that there’s not THAT much difference between a good/great bullpen and a below average one. You can build an average or below average bullpen on the cheap and still have pretty good results whereas paying oodles of money to closers and setup men doesn’t seem to really buy you any more wins.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Smalley/100001279428589 Andrew Smalley

    Two things:

    1) Look at more advanced stats.
    2) Look at stats PRIOR to the trade deadline.

    You’ll see that we have done well with our strategy at acquiring/composing the bullpen almost from scratch from year to year.

    Finally, ERA being used to judge a reliever is particularly troubling and incomplete. K/BB rate, as well as an ability to keep the ball in the park, are much more important than the ERA component.  Exhibit A:  Daniel McCutchen.  The latter is a guy that has horrible peripherals and shouldn’t be on the team (he isn’t) yet has had a decent ERA.  No one should/would confuse No Relation w/ being a good pitcher.