Over the winter, MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth took a look at the changing closer market, documenting the dwindling dollars and years available for 9th-inning relievers. As we approach now approach a new offseason, a different type of market change — related only in part to the broader trend — has taken hold. Namely, the actual group of soon-to-be free agents with closing experience has seen many individual stock drops.
Let’s have a look at the “closer” portion of MLBTR’s 2015 MLB free agent list (including only those players who, in my opinion, are likely to become free agents): Jason Grilli, Casey Janssen, David Robertson, Francisco Rodriguez, Sergio Romo, Rafael Soriano, and Koji Uehara. Listed under right-handed relievers are a few other names with significant closing experience: Heath Bell, Jim Johnson, J.J. Putz, and Jose Veras.
Heading into the year, this looked like a pretty strong group of late-inning arms. Among them were some of the more established closers — and, indeed, better relief pitchers, role aside — in the game. But the group has seen some pretty significant shifts in value that make it look much less impactful on the whole.
Here are my assessments of the value movement on these players:
Grilli: coming off 2.70 ERA, 33-save year, lost Pirates closer job and was traded to Angels; has performed well since in set-up role
Janssen: missed significant portion of early year with injury, ended with 3.72 ERA and will cede time to younger players in September; has never really seemed to fit traditional closer model, and now features a plummeting strikeout rate (5.4 K/9)
Romo: after four-straight lights out years, was relieved of end-of-game duties and owns 3.98 ERA on season
Uehara: typically dominant year took dramatic, late-season downturn at inopportune time for 39-year-old
Bell, Johnson, Putz, Veras: look, there’s a reason that these guys fell off of the (admittedly subjective) “closer” list, which is that they all struggled mightily for lengthy stretches
Robertson: on the one hand, Robertson has proven that he can handle closing in New York after taking over for a legend; on the other, his peripherals are in line with his career numbers but his ERA (2.92) is higher than in recent years
Soriano: there’s an argument to be made that he has raised his stock with his strikeouts back on the rise, but an offsetting jump in free passes has kept his K:BB ratio the same, and on the whole he has not done much to change the fact that he is a good-but-not-great reliever
Rodriguez: after surprisingly jumping into the closer’s role in the season’s early days, Rodriguez has locked down 39 saves and worked to a 3.00 ERA with 10.2 K/9 and 2.1 BB/9; since signing a minor league deal before 2013, K-Rod owns a 2.87 ERA
So what does this all mean? It seems to me that the major beneficiary of the market shake-out is Robertson, who is by far the youngest of these closers and is the only one who (as things stand) will enter free agency with both an impeccable recent track record and few real questions moving forward. Though Uehara has the most dominant recent record of this group, his well-documented recent struggles and advanced age should significantly dampen his market.
Those dynamics put the Yankees in an interesting spot. On the one hand, the club should now face greater competition to bring back its Mariano Rivera replacement. On the other, it might justifiably utilize the qualifying offer to buy back some leverage. The team has already shown a willingness to do just that with a closer (Soriano), and would up the ante for other teams that might consider a run at Robertson.
The possibility that Robertson’s market will itself be suppressed by a QO paints an even more sobering picture of the overall expectations. It is worth wondering whether any of the other above-listed players will be able to command a significant, multi-year guarantee. The one player who is clearly rising, Rodriguez, could certainly land a reasonable salary over two years (he is, somehow, still only 32), but it is hard to see a bidding war emerging there. No doubt some of the others will take smaller average annual values to get a second year, but pillow contracts could abound.
Remember, last year’s upper-middle closer market settled in the range of two years and between $9.5MM and $15.5MM. And that was for pitchers like Edward Mujica, Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney, and Joaquin Benoit who had much stronger cases than this year’s crop. Notably, even those pitchers were not able to beat the earnings of high-performing non-closers. And, if anything, the high-profile struggles of players like Balfour and Johnson have further eroded the notion of paying big dollars for relievers whose primary calling card is 9th-inning experience.
This year’s market could have looked similar: a few strong performances from familiar players, a few emerging/rebounding names. Instead, we’ve seen mostly steps in the wrong direction from pitchers with closing time on their resume. And that is even before considering demand. Many of the clubs that could have open closing positions — for instance, the Orioles, White Sox, Rangers, Nationals, Brewers, Cubs, Giants, and Rockies — seem more likely to stick with veterans, elevate internal options, or avoid spending big dollars on an older reliever.
Now may be a good time to find out whether teams will place any significant premium at all on that experience going forward.
If I’m one of those guys on the open market, I sign as soon as someone offers a decent number. Definitely better to get something done early. Which means smart teams will grab the best of the bunch with bargain offers in October.
Hey what happened happened, but Robertson’s ERA is as high as it is because of 1 bad performance. June 1st against the Twins, he allowed 5 ER in 0.2 IP.
Take away that 1 bad outing and his ERA is 2.09. But hey as I said, what happens happens. Just pointing out that it was pretty much due to 1 bad game. Only 3 blown saves all year, including that game. He’s having a fine season even with that high ERA
That 2.09 looks good against everyone else, but then again, everyone else probably has a bad outing that would lower their ERA as well.
Oh very true. Won’t argue that. But his ERA drops nearly a run. But as I said, what happens happens. He got hosed that game.
Yeah, as I pointed out, his peripherals and marks from ERA estimators all remain excellent. It’s just one of those data points that can play a role in things. And hey, Kimbrel hasn’t allowed more than 2 ER in a game this year.
Ultimately, it’s more just a piece of the idea that Robertson has pretty much held his value — which, for a reliever, was already quite high. As I note, I think he’s in a great position now. Given his age, he’s the obvious prize of the market and is probably the only guy who could spark some kind of multi-year bidding war.
ERA is a fairly pointless stat when talking about relievers anyway. The fangraphs notion of SD/MD is a lot better.
Never heard of SD/MD
Check it out if you get the chance. It uses WPA to create a uniform stat that has the sense of “saves/blown saves” for relievers of all sorts. Set up to exist on a similar scale (like how FIP runs alongside ERA) and it’s a pretty decent way to look at RP performance (beyond the typical ratio stuff).
At least a closer usually starts and finishes his own innings, though, so ERA is more relevant. (Compare to a situational lefty who gets bombed but doesn’t give up that many earned runs b/c he is always allowing inherited runners to score.)
Shutdowns and meltdowns may be a good value assessor looking back at times, with appropriate context, but I’m not sure they are particularly predictive. (Not that ERA is the best tool for that, either.)
I wonder if there’s any chance Janssen could end up as a 5th starter for somebody next year. He wasn’t great as a starter early in his career, but he’s always been a non-traditional reliever with 4-5 different pitches. He’s a smart guy, reliable, with pretty good command. I’m sure he’ll be signed as a reliever, but I think somebody might consider the conversion at least.
Sox not trading Koji when they traded Miller was a huge deadline mistake. They got a decent return for Miller, probably could’ve done just as well or better for Koji, who was still pitching strong. Now he’s tanking pretty hard :C
Robertson is better than anyone in last years crop and it isn’t that close. He’s also so much better than anyone else it will only take two teams who feel that close to get a bidding war.
At risk of reading this comment defensively, I don’t believe I implied otherwise. I agree with you entirely — his age is a big separator.
He’ll be asking for four years (though may ultimately end up with three). If Joe Smith and Boone Logan can get $5MM+ AAV over three years and Joe Nathan can get $10MM AAV over two years, have to think Robertson (standing out as the best available option) will get at least three years and crack an eight-figure annual guarantee.
Of course, the QO would potentially throw a wrench in there, but might not dissuade bidders depending on circumstances (if multiple interested teams would not need to give up a high pick, for example).
If your last few paragraphs were all referring to Non Robertson relievers than I misunderstood. I read this…
“Remember, last year’s upper-middle closer market settled in the range of two years and between $9.5MM and $15.5MM. And that was for pitchers like Edward Mujica, Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney, and Joaquin Benoit who had much stronger cases than this year’s crop.”
As including Robertson.
I think the Yankees give him the QO but he still leaves for 3-36 or thereabouts. Sadly, I think the yanks would like to keep him and would be a better team but they can’t afford him with so much dead money next year & the need to sign Lester.
Yanks might match 3-36 but they won’t offer it and the team that does make the offer won’t allow him to shop it back to the Yankees.
Gotcha … yeah, I was using those comps for the other guys.
“It is worth wondering whether any of the other above-listed players will be able to command a significant, multi-year guarantee.”
“Remember, last year’s upper-middle closer market …”
Robertson’s definitely top of the market, and (as you said) a higher-dollar FA than any of last year’s “closers.”
I could see 3/36, if the demand is there — which I think is a big question still with teams like the Tigers and Angels having guys in place. (Of course, they could certainly use Robertson as a setup guy for a year, or just install him directly into the 9th.) Think there’s a solid chance he returns to NY, especially if he’s given the QO.
Grilli not in a setup roll. Joe Smith 8th inning Jepsen 7th. Grilli mostly works in the 6th
It isn’t really a precise delineation, but I’m comfortable with it. He’s got 8 holds, generally pitches in games the team expects or hopes to win (team has gone 22-10 in games he’s appeared in), and has taken the hill earlier than the 7th inning in only 6/31 appearances.
EDIT to add: more of those 6th inning appearances have been recent, which is perhaps what you are basing his role on. The ultimate point is just that he hasn’t been put out to pasture in mop-up duty.
I don’t think Boston can/should rely on Uehara next year. Would be interesting if they made a run at Robertson