Carleton: Why are smart teams spending money on relievers?

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on January 27, 2014:

Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays signed Grant Balfour to be their closer for 2014 (and presumably 2015), committing to pay him $12 million over the next two seasons. It’s not an expensive closer contract, as these things go. But for the cost-conscious Rays, it seemed a little strange. The team also re-signed Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) and traded for Heath Bell over the winter. Another sabermetric darling team, the Oakland A’s, signed Eric O’Flaherty last week and, earlier in the winter, traded for Josh Lindblom and Jim Johnson.

Wait a minute, these are the two franchises that have had books written about them and how they embrace advanced analytics. It was the A’s who practically invented the Billy Taylor/Huston Street model of “developing a closer” (i.e., getting someone a bunch of saves) and then flipping him for other pieces. I thought that the official sabermetric orthodoxy was that teams shouldn’t allocate any of their precious resources on chasing relievers. Isn’t the wisdom that when a trade involves a reliever and something else, the team that gave up the reliever won? Bullpen guys are too volatile! For them, the traditional metrics used to evaluate pitchers (ERA, saves) are either not very reliable and/or are junk stats. When you look at relievers through the lens of WAR(P), they don’t produce anywhere near on par with elite starters or position players, so why pay them similarly? Teams would be better off getting a couple of fire-balling pre-arbitration guys and some guys with checkered records, and spending the money saved elsewhere. Then, they can hope that a couple of them have a BABIP-driven amazing season. Why blow money or prospects on a guy who’s going to pitch only 70 innings at most?

I’d argue that WAR(P), as we have defined it, doesn’t do a very good job of describing relievers. The disconnect can be summed up by looking first at this chart and then at this one. In case you don’t want to click through, the first chart is a listing of the top WARs of 2013, while the second is the top win probability added (WPA) scores of 2013. The WAR chart Top 30 doesn’t contain any relievers at all. The WPA chart alternates between elite starters and back-end relievers, mostly closers. There’s a lesson in here, if you’re careful to look for it.

Read the full article here:

Originally published: January 27, 2014. Last Updated: January 27, 2014.