Is paying for a big-money reliever worth it?

As salaries have climbed for players in the MLB over the last two decades, it makes sense that every position will experience this, including relievers. In 2006, Billy Wagner had the highest per-year salary in MLB history making an average of $10,750,00 from 2006-2009. Fast forward to today, Wagner’s mind-blowing salary in 2006 is now just the 17th highest ever for a reliever.

The Start of the Super Bullpens

A good bullpen has always been important to a team’s success, but it seems to have become paramount in recent years. In 2014 and 2015, Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrera were a huge part of the Royals World Series runs. In the two seasons combined, Davis (0.97 ERA, 1.72 FIP), Holland (2.44 ERA, 2.43 FIP), and Herrera (2.13 ERA, 3.09 FIP) were nearly untouchable at the back end of the bullpen.

In 2016, the addition of shut-down reliever Andrew Miller (1.55 ERA, 1.53 FIP) to the Indians already good bullpen with Dan Otero (1.53 ERA, 2.33 FIP) and Cody Allen (2.51 ERA, 3.31 FIP) was perhaps the biggest factor in the Indians run-up to game 7 of the World Series. 2017 continued the same way for the Indians with an excellent bullpen, although they could not overcome the Yankees excellent lineup to make it back to the ALCS or World Series.

For those Yankees, 2017 was supposed to be part of their rebuild and they were not supposed to contend. Thanks to an MVP rookie season out of Aaron Judge and one of the most dominant bullpens in MLB history, the Yankees made it just one win from making it to the World Series. Chad Green (1.61 ERA, 1.75 FIP), Ardolis Chapman (3.22 ERA, 2.56 FIP), Dellin Betances (2.87 ERA, 3.22 FIP), Adam Warren (2.35 ERA, 3.02 FIP), Tommy Kahnle (2.70 ERA, 2.30 FIP), and the reunited David Robertson (1.03 ERA, 2.10 FIP) made it so any team facing a deficit after 5 innings would struggle tremendously to attempt any comebacks.

Also in 2017, the Dodgers had their strongest overall bullpen going back to the early 2000s with the likes of Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota, and Paul Quantrill. Kenley Jansen (1.32 ERA, 1.31 FIP) was the top reliever in the MLB, with Brandon Morrow (2.06 ERA, 1.55 FIP) breaking out for the best season of his career going back to 2012 when he was a starter for the Blue Jays. Kenley and Morrow were the backbone of the bullpen but had some 6th and 7th inning help from Luis Avilan (2.93 ERA, 2.96 FIP), Tony Cingrani (2.79 ERA, 1.86 FIP), and Tony Watson (2.70 ERA, 3.86 FIP). Brandon Morrow was used in nearly every game of the 2017 playoffs for the Dodgers, with great success in all but one or two games.

From these clubs, it has become obvious that a shut-down bullpen can carry you through the playoffs, and more teams are looking to strengthen their bullpens any way possible.

Wade Davis signs with the Rockies

 

Today, former Royals and Cubs bullpen ace Wade Davis signed with the Colorado Rockies for $52M over the next 3 seasons. While this was unexpected for most baseball fans, it continues a trend for the Rockies this offseason of giving money to relievers. Per Jeff Passan, in deals to Wade Davis, Jake Mcgee, and Bryan Shaw, the Rockies have given out $106M to just those three relievers alone:

The Rockies have seen the success of the Royals, Indians, Yankees, and Dodgers recently and seem to want to try and emulate it themselves. They had already started this process last year by acquiring Jake Mcgee before the 2016 season, but by adding Davis and Shaw they seem to be doubling their efforts. As well, Wade Davis is now making an average of $17.33M per year from 2018-2020, which just beats Aroldis Chapman at $17.2M per year from 2017-2021, making him the highest paid reliever per year in MLB history.

While the new trend of a shut-down bullpen has been working for some teams, the big question should be: Is paying for big-money for relievers worth it?

Top 15 Paid Multi-Year Relief Contracts Per Average Annual Value and Their Results:

Per Baseball Prospectus, here are the top paid relievers per their AAV. I have replaced single year contracts, as they are arbitration or pre-free agent deals.

1. Wade Davis, $17,333,333 (2018-20) – TBD
2. Aroldis Chapman, $17,200,000 (2017-21) – (1/5 seasons) 1.6 fWAR 3.22 ERA 2.56 FIP 4-3 22 SV in 50.1 IP
3. Kenley Jansen, $16,000,000 (2017-21) – (1/5 seasons) 3.6 fWAR 1.32 ERA 1.31 FIP 5-0 41 SV in 68.1 IP
4. Mark Melancon, $15,500,000 (2017-20) – (1/4 seasons) 0.4 fWAR 4.50 ERA 3.22 FIP 1-2 11 SV in 30 IP
5. Mariano Rivera, $15,000,000 (2008-10) (2011-12) – 9.7 fWAR 1.72 ERA 2.45 FIP 14-14 165 SV in 266.2 IP
6. Rafael Soriano, $14,000,000 (2013-14) – 1.3 fWAR 3.15 ERA 3.38 FIP 7-4 75 SV in 128.2 IP
7. Brad Lidge, $12,500,000 (2009-11) – -0.1 fWAR 4.73 ERA 4.45 FIP 1-11 59 SV in 123.2 IP
8. Jonathan Papelbon, $12,500,000 (2012-15) – 4.8 fWAR 2.38 ERA 3.03 FIP 16-13 130 SV in 261.1 IP
9. Francisco Rodriguez, $12,333,333 (2009-11) – 3.4 fWAR 2.88 ERA 3.14 FIP 13-10 83 SV in 197 IP
10. Joe Nathan, $11,750,000 (2008-11) – 3.5 fWAR 2.49 ERA 3.19 FIP 5-5 100 SV in 181 IP
11. Rafael Soriano, $11,666,667 (2011-13) – (2 seasons, opted out of 3rd) 1.6 fWAR 2.94 ERA 3.56 FIP 4-4 44 SV in 107 IP
12. Francisco Cordero, $11,500,000 (2008-11) – 3.1 fWAR 2.96 ERA 3.71 FIP 18-18 150 SV in 279.1 IP
13. David Robertson, $11,500,000 (2015-18) – 4.7 fWAR 2.88 ERA 2.88 FIP 20-10 85 SV in 194 IP
14. Billy Wagner, $10,750,000 (2006-09) – 5 fWAR 2.35 ERA 2.85 FIP 6-6 101 SV in 203.1 IP
15. Craig Kimbrel, $10,500,000 (2014-17) – 8.3 fWAR 2.19 ERA 2.16 FIP 11-11 152 SV in 243 IP

Based off of ERA and FIP, Brad Lidge is the only member of the group who was a total and complete bust. Mark Melancon had a rough 2017, but still has three years to turn things around and wasn’t awful. Every pitcher on this list, again, outside of Lidge, provided positive value through fWAR, with the minimum being 1.3 fWAR from Rafael Soriano in 2013 and 2014 and then 1.6 fWAR in 2011 and 2012.

Up next we need to take a look at money value compared to the actual value produced by the player to see how many of these contracts were worth giving out.

Fangraphs Dollars Per War

According to Fangraphs.com, each player, based on their fWAR value, is worth a certain amount of real world dollars. The base value changes a bit from year to year, currently worth just under about $8M per win.

1. Wade Davis, $17,333,333 (2018-20) – TBD
2. Aroldis Chapman, $17,200,000 (2017-21) – (1/5 seasons) 1.6 fWAR – $12.5M
3. Kenley Jansen, $16,000,000 (2017-21) – (1/5 seasons) 3.6 fWAR – $28.6M
4. Mark Melancon, $15,500,000 (2017-20) – (1/4 seasons) 0.4 fWAR – $3.6M
5. Mariano Rivera, $15,000,000 (2008-10) (2011-12) – 9.7 fWAR – $63.5M
6. Rafael Soriano, $14,000,000 (2013-14) – 1.3 fWAR – $9.6M
7. Brad Lidge, $12,500,000 (2009-11) – -0.1 fWAR – -$0.5M
8. Jonathan Papelbon, $12,500,000 (2012-15) – 4.8 fWAR – $34.8M
9. Francisco Rodriguez, $12,333,333 (2009-11) – 3.4 fWAR – $22.8M
10. Joe Nathan, $11,750,000 (2008-11) – 3.5 fWAR – $22.7M
11. Rafael Soriano, $11,666,667 (2011-13) – (2 seasons, opted out of 3rd) 1.6 fWAR – $10.4M
12. Francisco Cordero, $11,500,000 (2008-11) – 3.1 fWAR – $19M
13. David Robertson, $11,500,000 (2015-18) – (3/4 seasons) 4.7 fWAR – $37.5M
14. Billy Wagner, $10,750,000 (2006-09) – 5 fWAR – $27.5M
15. Craig Kimbrel, $10,500,000 (2014-17) – 8.3 fWAR – $64.9M

The above numbers are the total Fangraphs Dollars Per War value the players accumulated over the course of their contracts, or to this point in their contracts for those not yet finished. Of the 15 contracts, here are the ones that exceeded their contract value:

Kenley Jansen – $16M AAV with $28.6M Fangraphs Dollars Per WAR through one of five years of his contract. There are still four years left, however Kenley has gotten off to a great start and is already 35% of the way to living up to his contract.

David Robertson – $11.5 AAV with $37.5M Fangraphs Dollars Per WAR through three of four years of his contract. Going by AAV, Robertson has been paid $34.5M of his total contract and has been worth $37.5M. He has got one season left, but if he is worth about 1.5 fWAR next season, he will easily be worth more than the contract he signed, which is a huge win for the White Sox and now Yankees.

Craig Kimbrel – $10.5 AAV with $64.9M Fangraphs Dollars Per WAR. Through his four year contract, Kimbrel was paid $42M, and was worth a staggering $64.9M over that time. This is excellent excess value for a reliever, and the best of anyone on this list having been worth 150% of his contract.

Honorable Mention:

Mariano Rivera – At an AAV of $15M for five seasons, Rivera was paid $75M. Although he put up less Fangraphs Dollars Per WAR value at $63.5M, he missed all but 8.1 IP of the 2012 season, effectively putting up about $60M worth of value being paid $60M to do it. There isn’t an excess value there, but Rivera lived up to the billing of his then-highest ever MLB AAV contract of $15M per season, which is more than you could ask out of many highly paid relievers.

Should teams spend on big-money relievers?

After looking into the 15 biggest multi-year reliever AAV contracts, it does seem that almost all relievers are still quite good after signing the dotted line. One thing to consider about giving big contracts to relievers is that you may only get about half of your actual value back, but the reliever position breeds so many cheap and young players that will help off-set that value. This is why a team like the Yankees can afford to pay Chapman $17.2M a season while getting less production from him back. This is because they have younger and more inexpensive relievers like Warren, Betances, and Green to pick up the slack.

However, for the Rockies in 2018 with nearly a $50M bullpen, they will need their big-money guys to produce at or above the level they are paid because so many spots in the bullpen are so highly paid. Only time will tell if this strategy works out for them, but signing Mcgee, Shaw, and now Davis to long-term contracts does not look like a bad idea.

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