Stop Trading For Relief Pitchers, You Idiots
Boston's Kimbrel and Houston's Giles remind us that there are no late-inning guarantees in baseball
Boston Red Sox President David Dombrowski might have won a World Series ring when he ran the Detroit Tigers if only he could have assembled a reliable bullpen. The Houston Astros would have reached last year’s American League Championship Series if only they hadn’t blown a four-run, eighth-inning lead to the Kansas City Royals in what would have been a series-clinching win last October.
Off the heels of all that, three star-caliber relievers were traded this winter. The New York Yankees received a discount on Aroldis Chapman due to his then-uncertain legal situation involving domestic violence, and two teams paid premiums for top-shelf relievers. The Red Sox traded four blue-chip prospects for four-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel; the Astros traded five prospects primarily for star-in-the-making Ken Giles, who entered the offseason with the best earned run average of any pitcher with at least 100 career innings in history (a few ticks ahead of second-place Kimbrel, no less).
In Sunday night’s nationally televised game between the Red Sox and Astros, Kimbrel entered in the ninth inning to protect a two-run lead… and gave up a game-tying home run to Colby Rasmus. In the 12th inning, the Astros turned to Giles to keep the game tied… and he allowed two runs to score on three hits and a walk. In Kimbrel’s first 10 appearances this year, he now has a 5.00 ERA, which is more than the sum of his last three All-Star seasons with the Braves, and has allowed three of the five runners he’s inherited to score. Giles, meanwhile, has an 8.31 ERA owing to the eight earned runs he’s yielded in 8 2/3 innings, which is more runs than he allowed in his entire rookie season (over 45 2/3 innings).
No position in baseball, and perhaps all of sports, is as volatile as relief pitcher, so much so that analyses on the job essentially use “volatile” as a Homeric epithet for bullpens. (Another likens consistent bullpens to unicorns.) These players reside in the remote outpost of the bullpen, its own unique fiefdom full of eccentric personalities and native games, where they are often out of sight not only to the fans but also their teammates. Their domain is a fickle one of escaping inherited trouble and protecting narrow leads, all while inhabiting the uncertain terrain of small-sample sizes. Relievers’ performance is not unlike that of a football kicker—teammates set them up to succeed (i.e. good field position or a ninth-inning lead) and then they receive an unfair share of the blame if the win is not converted.
The key difference between relievers and kickers, however, is the behind-the-scenes burden that relievers endure. Few fans account for the frequency of their workload (pitching two or three straight days, four out of five, etc.) and no one tracks how often they “get hot,” the baseball lingo for warming up to pitch, which takes a toll on a pitcher’s arm even if he doesn’t enter the game.
Relief pitcher volatility is a well-known conceit around baseball, yet probably even more combustible than most realize. One fan study by Sam Yam at SBNation.com included 471 relief pitcher seasons from 2008 through 2014 and tried to correlate a pitcher’s ERA in one season with the next. The R^2 value is between 0 and 1 with anything to close to 1 indicating a strong correlation; Yam discovered an R^2 just less than 0.02 “which means that they’re pretty much not correlated at all.”
It’s impossible, however, to discount the psychological effect of blowing a lead and losing a game you felt you should have won. That’s true for kickers missing game-ending field goals, and closers blowing saves. Furthermore, starting pitchers don’t last as long as they used to. While no one expects starters to average seven innings per start like they last did in 1945, starters did average more than six innings per start as recently as the 2011 season. So far in 2016: league-wide starters are averaging 5 2/3 innings per start, the shortest such mark in baseball history. (One caveat: pitchers often throw a little less early in the season, but there’s a pretty wide gap to second place.)
Because of their inherent unpredictability, bullpens are often the final part of a roster to come together. When I looked at this a few years ago, there had been 12 teams over five years to improve their record by at least a dozen wins to jump into the playoffs; 10 of those 12 teams saw bullpen improvement and did so by an average ERA improvement of 0.69, which is substantial. The Astros were a wild card last year and entered the 2016 as a division favorite and trendy World Series pick; the Red Sox hoped to rally from consecutive last-place finishes and return to the postseason, which is the expectation on that franchise every year.
In the category of “this won’t make anyone feel better” is a reminder of what Kimbrel and Giles cost their clubs. Houston gave up a former No. 1 overall pick in pitcher Mark Appel and the next six seasons of Vincent Velasquez’s career, who has given up two earned runs in his first three starts (0.93 ERA) and leads the National League by averaging 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Two of the young players Boston swapped for Kimbrel are hitting .293 and .321 in Triple A while Kimbrel is owed a guaranteed $25.5 million for this year and next.
Now, the season is still young and Kimbrel will be a Red Sox for a minimum of two seasons (with an option for a third) while Giles will be an Astro at least five years. However, just as it’s easy to understand why front offices are willing to make big sacrifices to solidify their bullpens, there is an uncomfortable reality that goes along with that decision: unless you convince Mariano Rivera to un-retire, there really are no guarantees when that bullpen door opens.