clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The great relief gamble

Big money deals for relievers generally haven't turned out so well.


Yesterday, star closer Craig Kimbrel set a record for the largest deal ever handed out to a reliever pre-free agency, signing a four-year, $42 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. The deal also includes a 2018 option for $13 million as well as $3.5 million in performance bonuses, bringing the potential bounty to a total of $58.5 million, which would represent the largest contract ever handed out to a reliever by $8.5 million.

Of course, the reaction to Atlanta's gamble with Kimbrel has been mixed. Some, such as ESPN's Jim Bowden, have hailed the deal as a big win for Atlanta, even comparing the 2011 Rookie of the Year to the great Mariano Rivera. However, many others have expressed significant doubt in the signing, citing the extreme risk that comes with relievers. In fact, Ken Rosenthal spoke to two front office executives regarding the extension, and each seemed quite pessimistic about the Braves receiving equivalent value on the deal.

Kimbrel has been the best reliever in baseball since bursting onto the scene in 2010. He has tallied a 9.7 WAR in just 227⅓ innings, while notching a 13.2 K/9, 0.4 HR/9, 96.4 MPH average fastball velocity, and minuscule 1.39 ERA (282 ERA+).

Still, no matter how good a reliever is, they are without a doubt the most fickle group of players in the game. Unless your name is Mariano Rivera, your bound to break down at some point.

Look at Eric Gagne as the prime example. Much like Kimbrel, Gagne had a three year, record setting run that catapulted him to the top of the game. From 2002 to 2004, Gagne averaged a 1.79 ERA (223 ERA+), 13.3 K/9, 0.5 HR/9, and 3.6 WAR over 247 innings (exactly 82⅓ innings per year) at the tail end of the high-octane Steroid Era. In 2003 alone, he put up a 0.86 FIP with a 4.4 WAR, 55 saves, and 137 strikeouts (15 K/9) in the aforementioned 82⅓ innings pitched sweet spot, en route to the NL Cy Young award. But he got hurt, and flamed out in just four short years following his last great season (2004), never coming close to the levels that earned him such a high stature in the game.

Now, chances are Kimbrel won't go the way of Gagne, but it's very feasible that his is unable to sustain his current level of performance, falling off to more of a ~1.5 WAR pitcher, which would still make him one of the best relievers in the game. However, even as good as that is, it's not enough to equate to the $10.5 million he will be earning per annum, which would require over 2 WAR to break even.

If you think Kimbrel can be a 2 WAR guy for the next four years, then this deal makes absolute sense. Plus, if he maintains his current level of performance, this deal could pay him significantly less than what he would earn through arbitration. But odds are he'll either get hurt or see a significant drop in his performance. The track record of giving large deals to relievers is rather atrocious. Here's a list of all the $20+ million contracts given out to relievers in history.

Name Year Length (yrs) Total Salary (MM) AAV Value (WAR) Team
Jonathan Papelbon 2011 4 $50 $12.5 3.2 (Incomplete) Phillies
BJ Ryan 2005 5 $47 $9.4 3.7 Blue Jays
Joe Nathan 2008 4 $47 $11.75 6.2 Twins
Francisco Cordero 2007 4 $46 $11.5 5.1 Reds
Mariano Rivera 2007 3 $45 $15 10.2 Yankees
Billy Wagner 2005 4 $42 $10.5 5.3 Mets
Craig Kimbrel 2014 4 $42 $10.5 Incomplete Braves
Brad Lidge 2008 3 $37.5 $12.5 -0.7 Phillies
Francisco Rodriguez 2008 3 $37 $12.33 3.7 Mets
Rafael Soriano 2011 3 $35 $11.67 3.2 Yankees
Mariano Rivera 2010 2 $30 $15 3.6 Yankees
Rafael Soriano 2013 2 $28 $14 0.9 (Incomplete) Nationals
Heath Bell 2011 3 $27 $9 -0.8 (Incomplete) Marlins
Brandon League 2012 3 $22.5 $7.5 -1.4 (Incomplete) Dodgers
Jonathan Broxton 2012 3 $21 $7 -0.4 (Incomplete) Reds
Armando Benitez 2004 3 $21 $7 -0.2 Giants
Kerry Wood 2008 2 $20.5 $10.25 -0.3 Indians
Joe Nathan 2013 2 $20 $10.5 Incomplete Tigers

As you can see, a fair amount of these deals have happened over the past few years, meaning their data is incomplete. Still, from what information we do have, it's quite evident that nearly all of these deals end up as poor investments for the clubs.

Aside from Mariano Rivera's 2007 contract with the Yankees, none of these deals really come close to being worth the $6-7 million per WAR that is the going open market rate (including inflation doesn't really help their cases). Six of these contracts have produced negative WAR so far, and just four topped 5 WAR.

If Kimbrel maxes out on his new deal, earning a total of $58.5 million, he will be besting current record-holder Jonathan Papelbon, who received $50 million from the Phillies just two offseasons ago. Papelbon might've been the closest thing to Kimbrel we've had in recent memory. He was a premier close right out of the gate, with his rookie 2006 season representing one of the greatest relief seasons ever (0.92 ERA, 9.9 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 68⅓ innings pitched, 5.0 WAR). His 1.70 ERA and 10.0 WAR through his first three full seasons are right in line with Kimbrel's marks (1.48, 9.0). He was once again lights out in 2009 (1.85, 3.5), but has been merely "really good" since then (3.05 ERA and 4.9 WAR over past four years).

Aside from the fact that he had essentially the same start to his career as Kimbrel, what makes Papelbon's case so intriguing relative to Kimbrel is how he has performed since landing his record-setting deal with the Phillies. He's no doubt been one of the best relievers in baseball, and an asset at the back of any team's bullpen, but considering his contract, it just isn't good enough. He's the epitome of why betting on a reliever to continue posting transcendent numbers is irrational. The difference between being Kimbrel-like or Papelbon pre-2010 and being one of the best relievers in the game is gigantic.

So, history tells us that betting on a relief pitcher isn't the best idea, and while Kimbrel may be the best of this generation, he has yet to prove that he is an exception to this rule.