Friday, December 2, 2011

A Word About Building an Effective Bullpen

Jonny Venters used his fastball-slider
combo to one baseball's best reliever seasons.
How did the Braves build such a dominant 'pen?
As detailed in BTTN's previous post, market value figures (~$4.5-5M/WAR) shouldn't be used to evaluate a player's value to his team in money, as while the going rate for free agents, a large amount of player's aren't playing under a Free Agent contract, and thus all players should simply be valued by the approximate $2.4M per WAR figure derived.

Relievers, I've realized, make the value system even more complicated. Teams suggest that they don't impulsively act by advanced metrics, and have strong decision-making ability within their front offices - yet we continue to see free agent relievers get paid based on the WAR-values they accumulate. So far this offseason, we've seen Heath Bell and Jonathan Papelbon get contracts that guarantee themselves $77M in the coming years, with others such as K-Rod, figuring to get similar astronomical amounts.

Yes, certain relievers, after inputting the 'Leverage Index' values into their WAR's (which determine the amount of leverage the relievers pitched in, and therefore can make a more accurate determination to their win-values), seem to be even 2-3 win-players. Craig Kimbrel's historically dominant season, even with his stumbles at the end of September, which can be strictly blamed on overuse, is valued by Fangraphs at 3.2 WAR. And yes, he was certainly worth 3.2 more wins than a scrub reliever available for the minimum (Wil Ledezma?).

But the thing is,finding dominant relievers can be much, much cheaper to do than to spend the big cash, and certainly much more easy than finding studs at any position. Two teams in recent years, have not only built up great bullpens, but have also solved the secrets of baseball's most misunderstood identity - by the media, fans, and even the players themselves.

First, the Atlanta Braves of course had a historically strong bullpen in 2011, one highlighted by perhaps the most dominant trio in Major League history - Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and Eric O'Flaherty. Of course, none of these relievers (or any others on the Braves) are making any money at all, and that's due to their organizational philosophy towards the bullpen. The Braves have drafted (and signed in Latin America) various starters in recent years pitchers that may have potential to start, yet have strong pedigrees if forced to relieve. High-upside arms with fallback options. In short, your bullpen should truly be filled with young players that have failed as starters. Venters and O'Flaherty both started their minor league careers as starters, but the Braves pulled the plug on both experiments as they struggled. 

This is a fact that has seemed a simple truism yet hasn't been utilized with any consistency as the closer role becomes more and more prolific as we enter deeper into the information age. Teams want to spend money on closers, figuring that, the position deserves the attention to detail that fans feel it deserves.

Many teams shy away from these types of players, preferring to stay away from youngsters they believe don't have a high chance of remaining as starters, yet these are many of the same teams that spend oodles of cash in Free Agency on relievers. It just doesn't add up. The Detroit Tigers have historically been one of these teams, signing both Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit to high-priced deals in recent offseason, and may have learnt their lesson as a no-name grabbed off the scrap heap, Al Alburquerque (sic) had one of the American League's best relief seasons to no expectations whatsoever.

These no-name arms with relief upside are all over the place, with the Tampa Bay Rays having mastered the art of finding them. By signing Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz, and others, the Rays overcame great adversity after losing many of their 2010 bullpen cogs to other teams. 

Even drafting pure relievers is a fairly cost-efficient strategy. Drew Storen of the Nationals and Chris Sale of the White Sox have proven that they can be extremely effective relievers to a fraction of the cost of Free Agent options. Sure, drafting a guy like Storen costs a draft pick, but he's likely to pitch just as effectively as Jonathan Papelbon over the next half-decade, and to markedly less than his counterpart.

That teams will pay tens of millions of dollars without considering the eventual source of these relievers is incredible. Simply by understanding how the full system works can save a team tens of millions a year on their bullpen, and even improve the effectiveness of their 'pen.

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