Benoit and the Tigers Changed the Relief Market

22 12 2010

Posted by BaconSlayer09

Benoit's great 2010 netted him a wealthy 3 year contract.

On November 19th, the Detroit Tigers made the first big free agent splash of the 2010-2011 off-season by signing 33 year old relief pitcher Joaquin Benoit to a 3 year $16.5 million deal with 3-plus million dollars in incentives, a deal that could possibly be worth around $20 million by its conclusion.

Benoit, who had a career year with Tampa in 2010, was coming off of surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2009 season when the Rays signed him to a minor league deal. The Dominican native rewarded the Rays with 60 innings of 1.34 ERA relief in 2010. Along with that, Benoit posted a high K rate of 11.19 per 9 innings and a freakishly low walk rate of 1.64 per 9 frames. Although his 1.34 ERA is unsustainable in the future, Benoit’s high K rate and low walk rate are reasons to be optimistic about Benoit’s next three years in the bullpen. However, just how optimistic should you be about a 33 year old relief pitcher with arm issues in the past that just came off a career year in which he was uncharacteristically lucky? Apparently, really optimistic if your name is Dave Dombrowski.

Matt Thornton has been baseball's most consistent setup man in the past three seasons.

I understand that the Tigers had around $70 million coming off the books and they can spend their money however they like, but that doesn’t mean you go out and overpay a reliever, especially one that is almost 35 who just came off an arm injury. Whether or not this deal made sense is one thing, but how it affects the rest of the market is another. Had Benoit signed a bit later, guys like Scott Downs, Matt Guerrier, and Jesse Crain might not have gotten 3 year deals in the 8 figure range. Nevertheless, the Benoit deal was a precedent and it gave the aforementioned guys a lot of bargaining chips, resulting in some fairly risky deals.

As most people know, middle and setup relief pitching always fluctuate on a year to year basis. The explanation is simple. Relief pitchers pitch less innings and one year, they may get lucky and the next, they may not. This is mostly because relievers are failed starters who have their faults and those faults could be exploited given the correct sample size. However, there are constants, albeit very few. Here the top 8 relief pitchers (non-closers) who have been consistent and efficient over the past three years (WAR dollar values are in parenthesis calculated at 4.33 million dollars per win).

  • Matt Thornton – 200 IP, 2.7 ERA, 2.46 FIP, 6.6 WAR ($28.6 MM).
  • Hong-Chih Kuo – 159 IP, 1.75 ERA, 2.18 FIP, 4.7 WAR ($20.4MM).
  • Grant Balfour – 181 IP, 2.98 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 4.2 WAR ($18.2 MM).
  • Darren Oliver – 203 IP, 2.71 ERA, 3.18 FIP, 4 WAR($17.3 MM).
  • Ryan Madson – 213 IP, 3 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 3.8 WAR ($16.5 MM).
  • Mike Adams – 169 IP, 1.81 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 3.8 WAR ($16.5 MM).
  • Rafael Betancourt – 189 IP, 3.9 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 3.6 WAR ($15.6 MM).
  • Scott Downs – 179 IP, 2.42 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 3.5 WAR ($15.2 MM).

From this list we can see only two relievers, Thornton and Kuo,  have been worth more than $20 million in WAR value over the past three seasons. Although the rest of the guys on the list are all very good relief pitchers, most of them don’t come all that close to the $20 million mark that Benoit will get if he gets all his incentives. This year, the estimate is that a win above replacement is worth around $5 million. If we don’t put inflation into the calculation (for simplicity sake), that pretty much says Benoit needs to put up at least 3-4 WAR over the next three seasons in order for the Tigers to break even on their contract. But what about all the other multi-year deals these other reliever signed? Here’s a breakdown.

  • Matt Guerrier – 3 years (2.4 WAR expected, 0.2 WAR over last three seasons).
  • Jesse Crain – 3 years (2.6 WAR expected, 1.7 WAR over last three seasons).
  • Bobby Jenks – 2 years (2.4 WAR expected, 1.9 WAR over last two seasons).
  • Scott Downs – 3 years (3 WAR expected, 3.5 WAR over last three seasons).
  • Joaquin Benoit – 3 years (3.3 WAR expected, 1.3 WAR over last three seasons).

Downs was the only free agent reliever who signed for a fair amount given his value in the past three seasons.

So from the looks of this, every team might have overpaid for their relief pitcher with the exception of the Angels with Downs. Although some of these figures are very, very close, we all have to realize that we must take regression into account for every one of these guys. None of the listed pitchers are all that young and they’re all starting to reach their 30s or mid 30s. So regression is not out of the picture at all. The inflation I didn’t take into account could possibly offset some of the regression (since each win will be worth more as time goes on), but in the end, the point is that most of these relievers got overpaid, mostly as a result of the precedent set by Benoit’s deal.

It’s very hard to find good, consistent, middle relievers and setup men these days. That was shown through the first set of relievers I listed. You’ll be hard pressed to find more than 15 non-closing relievers who can average a WAR of 1 or above in a three year period. Perhaps that’s why Dombrowski and the Tigers front office went all out to get Benoit. Maybe they saw how important a good back end of the bullpen is through teams like the Padres and Rays. Whatever they saw or thought, I still don’t think they made the best of moves by overpaying Benoit and setting a bad precedent. Because now a handful of other teams are stuck with some risky contracts as a result. Not to mention the Tigers are stuck with a $16.5-20 million commitment to a 33 year old reliever.

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