Dr. Strangeglove: On Constructing a Bullpen

Posted by Michael Baumann, Fri, October 28, 2011 02:42 PM | Comments: 17
Analysis, Dr. Strangeglove, Opinion, Posts

Don't do it, Ruben. You'll thank me later.

This is an argument I’ve been making for close to a year, and while I’ve hinted at it, in both my post on Domonic Brown’s future and in my season review of Antonio Bastardo, but the Phillies have a need that might run counter to the big-splash mentality by which Ruben Amaro has seemed to run this team since taking over. With Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson entering free agency, the Phillies find themselves without a proven closer heading into the offseason. This presents a rather different conundrum for the team than does Jimmy Rollins‘ impending free agency or even Roy Oswalt‘s. This free agent class is unbelievably weak at shortstop and in starting pitching, which are, of course, two areas where many teams with designs on a playoff berth in 2012 have great need.

For shortstops, it’s Jose Reyes, then Rollins, then Marco Scutaro and Alex Gonzalez. That’s it. Almost every other free agent shortstop is either a replacement-level player or close to it, and if you’re going to put a bad player on the field, better to get that lack of production from a cheap source, such as Wilson Valdez , than to pay a premium to get the same production from a bigger name, say, Yuniesky Betancourt. For pitchers, CC Sabathia seems like he’ll opt out of his contract and re-sign with the Yankees, which leaves Oswalt–whose status for 2012 is still not certain–along with C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish, and a littany of former stars (Aaron Harang, Brandon Webb, Jeff Francis, and others) to whom time and chance have been so unkind that they resemble their former selves only in appearance. Francis and Webb, who faced off in Game 1 of the 2007 NLCS, are no more ace starters than the sunken wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona is a functioning ship of the line.┬áThat message seems to have reached the Phillies’ front office clearly.

However, this free agent class features a surfeit of proven closers. Even if the Phillies don’t re-sign Madson, they have Jose Valverde, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Frank Francisco…if the Phillies want to splash big money to buy someone who’s racked up impressive save totals in recent years, they certainly won’t lack the opportunity.

But spending big money on a relief pitcher is a sucker’s bet, and the Phillies, who tend to be very hit (Roy Halladay, Chase Utley) or miss (Ryan Howard, Brad Lidge, Placido Polanco, depending on who you ask) with their long-term contracts would be extremely foolhardy to sign any relief pitcher to a multi-year deal.

First of all, it’s a bad idea to sign a relief pitcher to a long-term contract because quality relief pitching varies so much from year-to-year. Unless you’re Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman, it’s really difficult to be a dominant reliever over long periods of time. The Phillies, in the past 20 years, really ought to know this better than anyone. Ricky Bottalico posted a 2.7-WAR season in 1995 as a setup man, then back-to-back 34-save seasons in 1996 and 1997, where he was a competent, if not Eckersleian, relief ace. Then, at age 28, he melted down to a disastrous 6.44 ERA in 1998 and was never anything more than a fringy bullpen arm for the rest of his career.

Jose Mesa was one of the best closers in the game in the mid-1990s with Cleveland, posting an astronomical 4.4-win season in the shortened 1995 season, when the Indians went 100-44 and Mesa finished second in the Cy Young voting. Then, after two years of regression, he suffered Biblically awful season in 1998, 1999, and 2000 before inexplicably rediscovering his schwerve for two years in Philly, at which point he totally lost it again.

Tom Gordon: great closer for Boston in 1998, ranged from above-average to terrible from 1999 to 2003, then, in his mid-30s, he enjoyed a three-year renaissance with the Yankees and Phillies where he pitched the best ball of his life. But by 2007, the magic was gone for good.

Brad Lidge: dominant with the Astros as both a setup man and closer until 2005, then he melted down in 2006, returned to form in 2008, and was never the same after that. His 2009 was among the worst seasons in major league history, and even when he was effective after that, Lidge needed to dance between the raindrops, his health hanging by a thread and his effectiveness balancing on the edge of a knife. Again, like Bottalico, Mesa, and Gordon, all of this happened without warning in any case.

It’s not the Phillies alone who have suffered the vagaries of the disappearing closer: Eric Gagne, who was for 18 months the best reliever ever to walk the face of the earth, dropped off the map faster than you can say les lunettes de sport. Jason Isringhausen followed eight seasons of 22 or more saves with a 5.70 ERA in 2008.

The fact of the matter is that relief pitchers are subject to the same forces exerted on other players: age, injury, team situation, and so on. But they walk a finer line than, say third basemen or outfielders because they face so few hitters per year. So even great pitchers can have aberrant seasons, while mediocre relievers can, for a year, channel Walter Johnson (see: Chad Durbin, 2008).

Because the level of variance is so great, and because every top-shelf reliever on the free agent market, with the exception of Francisco Rodriguez (who comes with his own baggage), is already on the wrong side of 30, I’d shy away from signing any of them to a big-money, long-term contract. And think about it–if Papelbon or Valverde hits the free agent market, why would strong teams with money like the Red Sox and Tigers let such a valuable asset go?

What makes it worse is potential draft pick compensation for a proven closer. Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Capps, and Jose Valverde are all would-be Type A free agents, which means that the Phillies would surrender their first-round pick to sign any one of them. In fact, the Blue Jays have been gaming this system for years, signing relievers to one-year deals, offering them arbitration, and collecting draft picks the way hoarders collect packets of Sweet & Low.

So what’s the alternative?┬áThe Phillies have several.

The first is to realize that the Phillies have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young guys who throw hard. Make Antonio Bastardo the closer. But what if Tony No-Dad fails? Then give Mike Stutes a shot. If Stutes fails, you’ve got Justin De Fratus. If De Fratus fails, you’ve got Michael Schwimer. If Schwimer fails, you’ve got Phillippe Aumont. That’s five young, cheap arms with roughly the same amount of major leauge experience that Craig Kimbrel had going into 2011, which is to say not very much. The odds of all five of those guys turning into total turkeys is minuscule. Given the chance, at least one of them will close games for you–that I can almost guarantee.

The flip side of this is even though giving up big money and draft picks for a closer is inadvisable, the free agent market is still very much open. There’s a saying in baseball that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract, which rings particularly true for a rich team like the Phillies. With a one-year contract, even a bad one, any mistake or failed gamble will be gone and buried by the end of the season, which opens up some interesting possibilities for veteran arms. Joe Nathan, for instance, could be had on a one-year deal if the Phillies think he can bounce back from injury. The market is lousy with veteran lefties who, if they pay out, could be great, and if they don’t, could be waived. Mike Gonzalez, for instance, as well as Hideki Okajima, Javier Lopez, or George Sherrill. Certainly none of those are sure bets, but they all represent a relatively small commitment of resources, and really, how sure a bet is Jose Valverde anyway?

So that’s the smart way to construct a bullpen. I don’t expect it to actually play out this way, because I think Ruben Amaro is precisely the kind of person who would spend $39 million (including the buyout) over three years on a mostly worthless Brad Lidge, watch it blow up spectacularly in his own face, then turn around and sign another thirtysomething reliever with a spotty history to a long-term, big-money deal. Money is a finite resource, and while the Phillies have lots of it, whatever money they’d spend on a closer would better be used elsewhere.

Neither do I honestly expect to persuade any of you, because coming to a logical conclusion backed by empirical evidence does not appear to be the way sports arguments work. Mostly, I want it on the record, on the internet somewhere, that I think signing a closer is a terrible idea, so when, in 2015, the Phillies are on the hook for (to bring the battleship metaphor full circle) $18 million worth of useless, scuttled Jonathan Papelbon wreckage and can’t free up the payroll to make the move they need to catch the Nats, I can link back to this post and say I told you so.

EDIT: I forgot to link to this, but Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley made the same argument in a less-florid, more quantitative manner last week. Here it is.

Avatar of Michael Baumann

About Michael Baumann

Michael Baumann has written 229 articles on Phillies Nation.

Michael is a graduate student at Temple University who lost his childlike innocence when, at the age of 6, his dad let him stay up for the end of Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Unsettled by the Phillies' recent success, he has threatened over the years to leave the team he loves if they don't start losing again, but has so far been unable to follow through. Michael spent 4 years as an undercover agent in Braves territory at the University of South Carolina, where he covered football and soccer for The Daily Gamecock before moving back up north. He began writing for The Phrontiersman in June 2009 before moving to Phillies Nation in January 2010.

  • Posts: 426 Publius

    Avatar of Publius

    Amen. Just look at what the Rays did this year, completely rebuilding their bullpen on the cheap. The Mariners kind’ve did the same thing, assembling what Lookout Landing called “the pile” of non-roster invites, minor league signings, and feel good stories (bartender-cum-closer Tom Wilhelmsen or teacher-cum-setup man Steve Delaber) into a league average bullpen.

    There are tons of options out there, and closers are probably the most overpaid position player in the game right now. Spending big on dudes with “closer mentalities” is ridiculous, especially when this team has so many other pressing concerns.

    As a side note, and a merging of my Phillies and Mariners fandom, let me suggest that trading for Brandon League and his $4.5mil salary next year would be a good idea and shouldn’t require a ton of talent to get.

    • Posts: 1435 Pat Gallen

      Avatar of Pat Gallen

      Publius loves him some Seattle Mariners relievers.

  • Posts: 5121 Lefty

    Avatar of Lefty

    I agree wholeheartedly (not empirically) with this posting. Veteran relief pitchers go hot and cold year to year. Don’t waste multi-year money on them, you might as well go to Vegas, your odds are better.

  • Posts: 0 EricL

    Very well said, and I agree wholeheartedly.

    One minor quibble, however: Gillick was the GM who gave Lidge the 3/$39MM extension (although Amaro appears to have done some of the negotiating on behalf of the team).

  • Posts: 0 Bob D

    For the last week when I saw Nathan would be available I liked the idea of him signing a 1 year deal since he would come fairly cheap with incentives. He would team up with Contreras as 2 veterans who if healthy could save or be set up man for someone. With Bastardo, Stutes, Schwimmer, DeFratus, Aumont the Phils have 5 young possibly top relief pitchers. Add in a Kendrick/Blanton (if around), Herndon, and Savery (lefty) I feel the Phils can get away with just signing one player to battle in spring to be closer. Of course I expect Rube to sign a few AAAA type pitchers to throw in the mix for the Iron Pigs or ML’s if they can produce. It would be nice to have Madson back for 2-3 years but if he demands too much then spend just $2mil on a Nathan or such and use the savings to bring in a SS, 3B, or Utility IF.

  • Posts: 2069 Brooks

    Avatar of Brooks

    You left out Joe Savery, promising name that will figure into this lineup (I hope) and perhaps still some others but your point is well taken.

    Signing relievers on the riper side of 30 is not a good idea, unless we’re talking about a 1 year deal.

    You bashed Brad Lidge this year. Although his WHIP was not good, his ERA was miniscule and he was effective. Do I want him back? Not really, his pitching skills are much different than before, he is about timing and placement more than speed. If his timing is off, his placement will suffer and he will be waste material.

    I would not spend too much time or money looking for top quality relievers unless the find is someone young, who looks on the rise and is still affordable.

  • Posts: 0 TheDipsy

    Heath Bell, Bastardo, Stutes, Savery, Herndon, and a two inning type guy that we can sign cheap. Yeah, eff that signing FA closers to big money. Bell is fine and we can sign him for two years. Maybe one. “Surfeit” Very pedantic.

    The Dipsy

    • Posts: 0 T. Martin

      If you think Heath Bell is taking a one or two year deal to come to Philly for anything less than 8 or 9mil/year you are dreaming. I don’t disagree that he could be the right guy to go after for a multi-year deal I just know he won’t be signing anywhere on the cheap.

  • Posts: 0 MIKE D.


  • Posts: 0 MIKE D.


  • Posts: 0 bacardipr05

    Didnt that Orosco dude pitch to he was like 50? It’s a chance just like signing a pos player. That you sign him to a multi-year 80 Mil contract then he doest producer or gets hurt. Ill be happy with Bell although it looks like he wants to stay put. The tigers picked up Valverde option, he is out the picture and Ryan Madson just got that much more expensive. I still would like to see one Veteran on here. Venters and Kimbrel in my eyes where in a different league compared to Stutesy, they had more potent stuff in my eyes. Manzana’s to Naranja’s with that comparison.

  • Posts: 81 PhP54

    Avatar of PhP54

    I am NOT calling Lidge a total bust. He brought us 2008. His extension maybe been a bust, though. Without him, there is no 2008. I won’t forget that. I will never bad-mouth the man – just like I will never bad mouth Cliff Lee. I have a few untouchables. Now Howard, while I want him here, ticks me off with the streakiness (sp?).

  • Posts: 0 DavidE

    David Freese is 28 years old. Allen Craig is 27 years old. They have not been in the league long but they certainly are not young for baseball players. What does this tell me? That you have a lot of young players who are capable and not being given a chance to play because the clubs are so tied up with contracts to veteran players. So the Phillies have

    Another important thing to consider. Nothing can insure a playoff or World Series win. That’s just the way it is.

  • Posts: 0 George

    Amaro has already stated that he wants a veteran closer, so I don’t see much point to anything said about using Bastardo, Stutes, DeFratus, or whoever else might be just up from AAA.

    The second line guys mentioned (Yeah, lets sign Mike “Elbow Surgery” Gonzales, or Okajima, who has been barely capable for a few years now) have pretty much proven their ineffectiveness and/or inconsistency. “If” doesn’t cut it when there may be someone who’s more of a guarantee. A potential championship team might sign a question mark (all players really are, when you come down to it) but they’re not going to sign an OBVIOUS question mark.

    It may be nice to dream of the antique Joe Nathan excelling for a year, or Sherrill suddenly becoming effective against right-handed batters. It’s pleasant to think you might get lucky with rookies, which does occasionally happen. But I honestly believe that you don’t build a winning bullpen with cheap or worn out goods.

    • Posts: 0 EricL

      George, you reply like you didn’t read the post.

      1. You may not see a point to talking about using in-house solutions, but it’s an instructive conversation to have even if you ignore the portion of the post in which Mr. Baumann explicitly states the purpose for engaging in such a discussion.

      2. The whole point of the article is that relievers – as are all pitchers not named Mariano Rivera over such small sample sizes – are unreliable and that their track record over the previous few seasons is very rarely indicative of future performance, so saying that guys coming off a few down seasons and/or surgery have “proven their ineffectiveness” is nonsense. Although you’re right, they have proven their inconsistency – which is kind of the thesis here.

      3. Joe Nathan is not “antique.” From July 1 to the end of the season he was 1-0, with 11 saves in 12 opportunities and 5 holds (for those who care about such things). More importantly, over that span he put up a 3.29 ERA, a .922 WHIP and held batters to a triple slash line of .196/.245/.353 with a 26/5 SO/BB ratio, 8.6K/9, 1.6BB/9 over 27.1 innings. Basically, once he was fully back from his surgery and confident in his arm holding up he was just about back to his dominant self.

      4. Finally, it’s not only entirely possible to to build a winning bullpen with youth, vets on the cheap and/or what you consider “worn out goods,” but the World Series was just won by a team that didn’t even have a designated closer over the last half of the season and who patched together a number of castaways, has-beens and never weres. St. Louis had one of the worst bullpens in the league this season, blowing a ridiculous 23 saves. How’d that work out for them?

    • Posts: 0 George

      And you reply like you didn’t read it, either. Bauman’s comments about Bastardo, Stutes, DeFratus, etc. were about how any of them could close; I merely pointed out that that wasn’t going to happen and thus saw no reason to bring it up. Had the author stated that they could be set-up men, long relievers, or something else, I’d have gone along with it. But we know that at least two of those guys are ALREADY IN THE PEN, so mentioning them even as lesser pen pieces would still be pretty inane.

      Also, players I mentioned (with the possible exceptions of Sherrill, who might be okay lefty on lefty, and Nathan, who with his age and recent arm problems would be a gigantic risk, have not merely proven their inconsistency, but have proven their ineffectiveness. One bad season out of a couple, or even two bad seasons out of four is inconsistent; three or four in a row is ineffectiveness. Three or four years in the case of most relievers adds to something over 110 innings, and that can’t really be considered a “small sample size.”

      The Cards this year were a fluke, and a large part of their even making the post season was not because they had a bullpen built with castaways, but because the Braves collapsed like a bad souffle. Also, they never planned to have a pen full of misfits. They had two or three closers who plain didn’t get the job done with any consistency and also added some actual real arms at the trade deadline, giving up a pretty decent center fielder to do so. (that’s when their bullpen actually got decent.) I’m sure there have been other teams that have won with castoffs and rookies, but not many.

      There’s luck involved, but I still say you build a winner with budget arms. Relief pitchers are inconsistent, yes. But some are less inconsistent than others, and some–like Ryan Madson–have not had even one truly bad year. Those are the guys I want. Even if they cost a little more, I think you’re actually risking less.

  • Posts: 0 George

    One other thing: if a team blows 23 saves, it’s not their bullpen that’s winning the games.

    The Cardinals’ offense had the most runs scored in the league. They’d have won way more and done it more easily had they NOT had a bullpen built with “youth, vets on the cheap and/or what you consider ‘worn out goods.’”

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