On Jonathan Papelbon and Reliever Volatility

Late last week, news broke that the Yankees now-former nemesis Jonathan Papelbon had signed a four year $50 million contract with a vesting option for a fifth.  As expected, there was a great deal of reaction by Yankees fans, Red Sox fans, Phillies fans, baseball fans across the country.  Opinion varied from those calling it an abomination- no closer should receive that kind of money long term- to a Ruben Amaro masterpiece, cementing the Phillies pitching staff among the best of all time.

Is a closer really all that valuable?  After all, he throws about 70 innings a season.  Should he really receive a starting pitcher’s or position player’s salary?

Among the statistically minded group, most regard this deal as a mistake.  Relievers are much too volatile for a long term contract, and they do not pitch enough to consistently put up that kind of value.  Moreover, it is supposedly easy to find a solid reliever on a year to year basis.  The answer though may not be so simple.

In the normal baseball world, finding a reliever is not as easy as finding one in a fantasy league.  Many feel that because relievers break out year to year, one can be acquired mid-season to shore up a shaky bullpen.  But this can lead to a team giving far too much for a pitcher who has a half season’s worth of success, just to watch him fizzle out the next year.  Good teams can be stuck with a mediocre back end of the bullpen, just as the Rays were last year.

It’s been said over and over again, relievers by nature are volatile.  It is a result of many things.  For one, they are mostly failed starters, so as a whole they are less able than their starting counterparts.  More importantly, the sample sizes by which they are judged are considerably smaller.  In any given year, a relief pitcher will throw ~70 innings whereas a starter will throw almost 200.  Perhaps the best way to illustrate how this can affect our perception is to judge a starter on the same sample size.

To illustrate this, let’s look at how differently CC would be seen if he were judged on a smaller sample than a full season as a starter.  To do so, here is a graph which splits CC’s last three seasons in thirds, or about 70-80 innings each, representing a full season of a reliever.  And in blue is the CC’s full season ERA which he as a starter is judged.

It is clear from this graph that CC Sabathia, as any starter, would be judged differently were we to look at his career in 80 inning bursts.  And bear in mind, CC is considered one of the most consistent pitchers in the game.  Imagine the unpredictability of the smaller sample for a less consistent starter than Sabathia.

What this implies more than anything is that it is nearly impossible to find a reliever who is excellent, or even consistently good, year to year.  That is where pitchers such as Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Nathan pre-injury, etc. prove their worth.  A team knows what it is getting from pitchers in this group.

And there is significant value in predictability.  Perhaps Jonathan Papelbon’s WAR does not match the total amount of money he is to be given over the next few years, in the same way that Mariano Rivera’s WAR may not be valued at $15 million every season.  The low number of innings that these pitchers actually throw prohibit them from reaching this level of overall production.

As Mike Jaggers-Radolf pointed out at The Yankee Analysts,

Jonathan Papelbon’s contract will pay him $12.5 million per season. At that salary, if you trust Fangraphs’ value metrics, … only Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel would have earned Papelbon’s future salary in 2011. While Papelbon would have managed to earn his money this past season, that level of performance is an aberration for him. According to Fangraphs he was only worth more than $12.5 million one other time in his career, in 2008. This is a money losing deal for Philadelphia.

It is true, based on his statistics alone, Papelbon probably will not be worth his contract.  Nor will all-time great Mariano Rivera.  However, it is because of the tendency of relievers to be unpredictable that the market cannot be judged in the same way.

Over the past few years, it has been realized that relief pitchers are not worth as much as starting pitchers, and that is true.  However, many, myself included, have gone too far, and concluded that spending any kind of big money for a relief pitcher is a taboo.  That is not true.  There are very few that are great year to year.  And those pitchers should be rewarded for it.

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5 Responses to On Jonathan Papelbon and Reliever Volatility

  1. YankezFan says:

    "to a Ruben Amaro masterpiece, cementing the Phillies pitching staff among the best of all time" …. THAT HAS NEVER WON A CHAMPIONSHIP…!! I think this is the funniest thing about the article and about the signing as well.. Baseball writers all over the country, have annointed the Phills pitching staff as the best all time, and yet they fail to win championships… how sad. Amaro needs to break out more money and become the Yankees !!.. Maybe he can even bankrupt that Phillys organization and sign Reyes and Beltran… that should put the payroll over 200M… LOL

    • Alex Taffet says:

      This article was not about the Phillies rotation. In fact, you left out all the context of that quote.

      "Opinion varied from those calling it an abomination- no closer should receive that kind of money long term- to a Ruben Amaro masterpiece, cementing the Phillies pitching staff among the best of all time."

      I am not calling the rotation the best of all time, I am alluding to the attitude among many sportswriters across the country, hence the first two words "Opinion varies…" And as Robert Mackenzie said, it has been one year, it is unfair to judge the rotation based on a five game series. I mean, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt was about as good as it gets.

  2. Robert Mackenzie says:

    YankezFan Of course they haven't won one yet. They have only been together for one season so far. Not enough time to judge, but based on their prior records they would rank pretty high. I personally dislike Papelbon very much but I don't deny he's a very good reliever. I'm glad the Red Sox just got weaker and have to use Daniel Bard as closer who throws hard but is nowhere near as effective as Papelbon.

  3. Bronx_Knight says:

    Alex, very, very cool and enlightening article. Great work.