Trends are a driving force behind popular culture. Be it music, clothing, and even words – hold a conversation with a typical teenager and you will almost assuredly hear words such as “goals,” “savage,” and “fam” used in strange context. Baseball is no worse in that front offices adopt trends in an effort to keep pace with the direction of the game. In the past twenty years, relief pitching has been among the boons of the industry, and its importance has grown astronomically in the past five. Pitchers succumbing to Tommy John Surgery have become a common occurrence, and managers are taking care of their starters’ arms more than ever. Pitchers are only expected to throw six innings to qualify for a quality start – and if they reach the 100 pitch mark at any point, a hook from the skipper is soon in order. This new found effort to protect starting pitchers has placed a consequential importance on the quality of the bullpen and how it is managed.
The dominant team in the American League has been the Kansas City Royals, winning two consecutive pennants. In the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the Royals finished 14th and 15th respectively among AL teams in home runs. Not one player hit more than 22 homers. Only one regular posted a .300 batting average in Lorenzo Cain. In the starting rotation, the highest win total posted was that of 14 game winner James Shields in 2014, who parlayed his performance into a 4/75M contract with spend happy San Diego. Predictably, no pitcher managed to strikeout 200 batters either. However, coupled with their scrappy lineup and gutsy pitching, the Royals found a foundation to lean upon that changed their fortunes and the history of baseball: the most dominant bullpen in the game. The excellence of their back-end trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland combined to post 258 strikeouts in just 204⅓ innings with a staggering 1.42 ERA. With a dominant bullpen trio, the Royals found themselves armed with the combined efforts of a Cy Young starting pitcher who did his damage when the outs counted the most. After riding those pitchers to two consecutive World Series appearances, the market for relief pitchers on the trade and free agent market has risen exorbitantly.
Of course, teams are not impulsively reacting to the Royals’ success, as the most successful American League team of the past twenty years has employed a host of dominant relievers and the incomparable Mariano Rivera. As the gold standard for relievers, Rivera’s annual salary was an established ceiling of approximately 10M from 2001-2007 and 15M from 2008-2012 (with his last contract in 2013 being worth 10M). However, a few contracts in recent years have changed the standards for elite relievers. In 2011, the New York Yankees continued their free spending ways by signing closer Rafael Soriano to a deal worth 3/35M. Soriano was the top closer on the market, having led the AL in saves the season before. However, the Yankees obviously employed Mariano Rivera at the time – Soriano was signed to be a set-up man. It was the most lucrative deal for a non closer relief pitcher in the game at an average annual value of 11.67M. With Rivera, Soriano, and meteoric rise of David Robertson (who made the AL All Star team in 2011), the Yankees had three of the most dominant relievers in baseball. When Rivera tore his ACL in May 2012, Soriano stepped into the closer role admirably, even finishing 20th in the AL MVP vote. Soriano’s successful negotiations opened the floodgates for future contracts, and a dominant closer was ready to cash in.
The most notable domino to fall came in the 2011-2012 off-season when Jonathan Papelbon signed a deal with Philadelphia worth 4/50M, including a fifth year option worth 13M that vested by finishing 100 games from 2014-2015. That made the total investment 5/63M. 50M in one contract became the most guaranteed money for a reliever in history, which was significant due to their long history of burning out after a few years. The investment was a shaky one, but Papelbon proved to be worth the money based on his pitching results (we won’t discuss his on and off the field antics). During the initial four years of the deal, Papelbon posted an ERA+ of 164, an ERA of 2.38, and amassed 130 saves for dreadful Phillies teams. That very off-season and just two weeks before Papelbon signed, elite closer Heath Bell signed with the Miami Marlins for 3/27M – which was just about the going rate for elite closers before the historic Papelbon deal. Since that new standard was set (and with the implementation of the qualifying offer system under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2012-2013), free agent relievers have enjoyed more leverage in negotiations for guaranteed money and years.
Next off-season, Rafael Soriano used his success in New York to ink a 2/28M deal with Washington. The average annual value of the contract at 14M topped Papelbon (albeit on a shorter deal). While the Kansas City Royals began their run with the Herrera/Davis/Holland trio, the 2014-2015 off-season represented the next wave of lucrative contracts for relievers. Yankees closer David Robertson successfully took over after the retirement of Mariano Rivera and brought stellar numbers from 2011-2014 to the negotiating table – a 2.20 ERA, a HR/9 rate of just .6, and 354 strikeouts in just 258 innings. Robertson sought out a contract to follow the path paved by Jonathan Papelbon and eventually signed a deal with the Chicago White Sox worth 4/46M. Robertson was already 30 years old when the contract began and guaranteed him 4 years – a length never given to a pitcher with one year of closing experience. However, in an interesting move that very same off-season, the Yankees did not even make a multi-year offer to Robertson. Instead, they made the qualifying offer, accepted the compensation pick from the White Sox, and signed Andrew Miller to a deal worth 4/36M. The commitment was 10M less than Robertson and they did receive the valuable compensation pick, but the astonishing fact was that Andrew Miller had never been a closer during his entire career. He spent the previous three years with Boston, pitching to a 2.57 ERA, a prodigious K/9 rate of 13.6, and a 160 ERA+. With Miller getting a fourth year from New York, he signed the most lucrative deal for a non closer in history. Both Robertson and Miller pitched effectively for their new teams in 2015, as Robertson posted a career high in WHIP (.932) and Miller won the Mariano Rivera Award as the most valuable reliever in the American League. After Miller’s breakthrough contract and the success of the Royals with their multiple lock-down late game options, the gates were now open for middle relievers and set up men to profit.
Traditionally, expensive contracts were reserved for closers, but the 2015-2016 off-season brought on a new market for effective non closers as teams began to value having multiple elite relievers. The defending champion Royals signed Joakim Soria to a 3/25M deal to be merely the third or fourth important man in their bullpen. Middle reliever Tony Sipp resigned with the rising Houston Astros for a 3/18M deal. Ryan Madson, a 35 year old reclamation project who experienced a resurgent 2015, was able to parlay one year of success into a 3 year commitment worth 22M from the penny pinching Oakland. Most baffling, 33 year old Darren O’Day resigned with Baltimore to be their set up man for a 4(!) year deal worth 31M, which will take him through his age 37 season. These agreements for non closers were at an average annual value (AAV) of 7M. Clearly, the rise of relief pitching has coincided with the inflation of their contracts, regardless if they pitched in the 7th, 8th, or 9th. While the contracts for relievers have inflated, so has their value on the trade market.
Thrifty front office executives attempted to receive value for their impending free agent relievers, and they were successful in acquiring significant talent in return. In 2014, Andrew Miller was in his final year with the Red Sox and set to cash in on his success with the rival Yankees. However, at the trading deadline, GM Ben Cherington was able to flip Miller to the Baltimore Orioles for top left handed pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez, who is now a valuable member of Boston’s rotation. Realistically, a solid starting pitcher should be more valuable than a closer based on the difference in innings pitched, but Baltimore paid the price to acquire Miller for their run in the postseason. During the off-season, the Atlanta Braves traded Craig Kimbrel (who was signed to a 4/42M contract) coming off arguably the most dominant four year stretch in history for any reliever not named Rivera, with a K/9 rate of 14.6, a minuscule WHIP of .880, and leading the NL in saves all four years. The Braves received a package centered around talented center fielder Cameron Maybin, pitching prospect Matt Wisler (rated the no. 34 prospect in baseball by Baseball America), and the 41st overall pick in the following amateur draft. However, even this package was a discount, as the Braves also sent the albatross contract of Melvin Upton Jr. (46.35M) to San Diego, who took on the money to receive the discount. After the 2015 season, Kimbrel was again traded, this time to the Boston Red Sox, and San Diego acquired a sizable number of prospects from Boston’s strong farm system, headlined by two prospects from MLB.com’s top 100 rankings league wide (OF Manuel Margot, no. 25 and SS Javier Guerra, no. 76) with the other two prospects being among Boston’s top 30 (per MLB.com). After a successful season in the closer role, Philadelphia traded 25 year old Ken Giles to the Houston Astros for a package including top 100 (and major league ready) pitching prospect Vincent Velasquez, two mid level prospects in Harold Arauz and Jonathan Arauz (no relation), and the number one overall pick from the 2013 draft, Mark Appel (rated the 46th best prospect in the game). The inclusion of two top 100 league wide prospects is unprecedented for a closer, but Houston had to pay the rising price to acquire Ken Giles. These hauls represent a dramatic shift in the trade market for relievers, as they are now among the hottest commodities in the game.
In 2016, no elite reliever will sign for a bargain deal, and no team will trade an elite reliever unless the return is substantial. Yankees closer Andrew Miller was rumored to be shopped this off-season, but never traded as teams around the league would not meet the hefty asking price of young, top of the line, cost controlled pitching. The standard package to acquire elite relievers in a trade now includes at least one top 100 prospect, a difficult pill to swallow for teams looking to build their farm system. The exception is the Yankees’ recent acquisition of Aroldis Chapman, arguably the best closer in the game. Chapman was acquired from Cincinnati for four prospects, with only two being among New York’s top 10 (and none regarded among the top 100 league wide). This discount is a result of the domestic violence allegations currently held against Chapman, who may be facing a suspension this season. The alternative is to pay the exorbitant prices relievers now command on the free agent market. With the new going rate for elite closers and set up men at the floor of 10M and middle relievers not far behind, spending on late inning pitching is now a costlier investment than it has ever been. The risk involved in these investments is also higher than ever, as the new standard length for relief pitching contracts are at four years, by which time many relief pitchers have a tendency to flame out. Some of the most notable examples in recent history include Jonathan Broxton and Brian Wilson. In 2009, Wilson saved 38 games with a 2.74 ERA for the champion San Francisco Giants. That very same season, Broxton saved 36 games with a 2.61 ERA coupled with an impressive 114 strikeouts for the LA Dodgers. By 2013, the two closers combined to pitch only 44⅓ ineffective innings, never again to be considered among the upper echelon of late inning pitchers in the league. Trends are a dangerous game to play, and the cost of winning will always inflate accordingly. In this era of baseball, the winning formula is built around a bullpen stocked with three pitchers worth at least 10M (AAV) and contract lengths exceeding conventional reason. It is a far cry from the days of Mariano Rivera, who only ten years ago established the ceiling at 10M for the best relief pitching in the game.