Wasting Money on K-Rod

I continue to be amazed by the over-valuing of closers in the baseball labor market. Yesterday, the New York Mets and Francisco Rodriguez agreed to a 3-year, $37 million contract. The deal also includes an option for a fourth year for $13-$14 million based on easily-attainable criteria. What an absolute waste of money. I have K-Rod valued at $6 million per season over the next three years.

I’ve been saying for a while that closers are overpaid. Rodriguez has been a very good closer, but the problem is that closers don’t pitch much. Over the past three seasons, K-Rod has faced 4.7% of the team’s opposing batters; a decent starter will face three times as many batters. While we see K-Rod pitch at the end of games, often when games are on the line, he’s not pitching much. The Met’s would have been better off spending that kind of money on a good starter who would prevent run scoring over many more batters. A few more million a year could have brought in A.J. Burnett or Derek Lowe whose superior pitching would prevent situations that closers can rectify.

Addendum: I received a question about the role of leverage—the difference in the importance of when a pitcher typically appears within a game—in determining values. I’ve been asked it before, and my answers have been scattered over several different locations. So, here is my e-mail reply explaining why I value all innings pitched the same.

I have considered the impact of leverage, but I don’t think leverage can explain the vast differences in my estimates and what is happening in the market. Leverage is a product of outside factors when a pitcher faces the same rules during all times of the game. The quality of his pitching is the same in the 5th inning as it is in the 9th. (There is the argument about pressure, but I don’t buy this explanation at this level of competition.) Now, the fact that he is good enough to pitch in a high-leverage situation is worth something; however, I don’t believe the value is twice the average. And the fact that a pitcher has pitched in high or low leverage situations doesn’t mean he ought to get all the credit for it.

For example, take Scott Linebrink and Francisco Cordero. Last year, both pitchers signed four-year deals for $19 million and $46 million. I estimated that Cordero was worth about $2 million more than Linebrink, yet he was paid more than twice what Linebrink got. The only difference in their pitching histories is that one is considered to be a middle reliever and the other considered a closer. It’s the performance that matters and ought to determine their salaries, not when they pitch. If Cordero is worth $46 million because he pitches in high-leverage situations, then Linbrink should have received a similar salary to reflect his opportunity cost—he could have pitched in high-leverage situations, but he didn’t. I think the market is putting too much value on the “Closer” label.

Another factor is that better pitchers in earlier innings affect the leverage in later innings. So, a good starter preventing runs as an impact on reducing leverage later in the game by creating bigger leads. I’m not sure exactly how to value that. So, I believe that the proper method is to treat all pitcher innings the same, while acknowledging that some elite relievers have some extra value in that they could be used in more valuable spots. But this value doesn’t necessarily come from when they pitched in the past.

I’m also a believer in patchwork bullpens. Take a bunch of bad castoff starters, platoon them, and tell them to pitch as hard as they can.

16 Responses “Wasting Money on K-Rod”

  1. Millsy says:

    I really tend to agree with you on this one, JC.  The BJ Ryan deal a few years back blew my mind.  So many teams have found success putting someone they have into that position.  In my opinion, a pitcher that is good enough to pitch in the major leagues should have the ability to pitch 1 inning or less without giving up a run (or 2 or 3, or 4 to make a save situation a loss often times).  As someone who pitched in the past, I know that there is a mental toughness involved, in which some pitchers thrive better than they do as a starter (Papelbon maybe, but we don’t have much in starts to compare him to).  However, I really can’t imagine that at the level these guys are on, that it’s worth 10-15 million dollars to get someone who can, in your words, ‘save’ something that could have been prevented in the first place by scoring more runs, or preventing them earlier.  No doubt, a bullpen as a whole is important, but it seems like most good relievers could be put in this role, without the high price tag just because it’s the last inning, rather than the second to last.  If they’re that good, have them start.  Many don’t start because their pitching style leaves a high injury risk…so it really seems like teams are paying a premium for guys that have a higher injury risk–resulting in less play and less impact for the money. 

    Why don’t teams have a ‘9th Inning Batting Saver’.  It’s the same concept…pay a guy $15 million to sit on the bench until the 9th inning and put him in hoping he hits a home run.  Teams don’t do this because it’s silly.  If the player is an injury risk, old, etc, they pay him less to be a bench player/pinch hitter (assuming his talent level when he plays is very very good).  In essence, they’re paying closers to do the same thing, but putting a premium on that bench-warming skill.

  2. Kyle James says:

    I totally agree with you, but the one thing you have to factor in is that it’s the Mets and the last two seasons they have had epic collapses and an excellent healthy closer would have avoided at least one of those.  Wagner just hasnt’ been healthy and there is no way to know if K-Rod will stay healthy, but at least you have multiple options.

    Here’s hoping the Mets blew a bunch of more money on a blown out arm!

  3. JC says:

    I think if they had had a better starter they could have easily overcome the loss of Wagner.

  4. Millsy says:

    I think we have to keep in mind that, yes, the loss of Wagner was huge for the Mets.  But the rest of their bullpen was horrible.  What’s to say that the bullpen had the ability to get them to Wagner with a lead in the first place?  I liked their SP.  I’m not sure they need to address that much there with Santana and Maine (but you could always improve this, I guess)…but spreading the money out across more than one compitent reliever would go further than so much on only one.  This is can be cheaper than a frontline starter, and less than K-Rod for twice the quality IP than him over the course of the season.

    PS-On the TV behind me, John Kruk said that the K-Rod is WAY more valuable than Sabathia, since he can make sure they win. He stated that starting pitchers have very little control over the succes of a team and its wins when compared to a closer. Kruky entertains me.

  5. DJ Rays says:

    I love it, The Big Guys just keep driving the prices up and up so the average father of 2 has to stick to Little League games and sports on TV. The Rays season was a blessing to us, one we will never forget and may never see again….. Who cares if the smaller market teams lose most every NAMED player so our kids only want to watch the Yanks-Sox-Mets-Dodgers-Cubs……….I DO!!

  6. Dan says:

    JC,

    I agree that closers are overrated, but as a Mets fan, I feel they needed to sign a closer.  While I would have liked them to sign Wood over KRod (cheaper and shorter length), the market dictated the value for KRod.  The early talks suggested that he could potentially get a 5 year deal.  For the Mets to sign him for 3 years at $37 mil compared to 5 years $60+ mil is a steal relatively speaking.  Add that to the fact that the past 2 years they have choked down the stretch (especially last year when the bullpen blew a ridiculous amount of games in the 8th and 9th innings)  and their hands were tied.  They were forced to overpay for a closer.  They tried a patchwork bullpen and it didnt work.  While they paid more than they should have, it is a huge confidence booster to not only the fans, but the team as well.  I know that is not something that you can factor into your model, but I think you have to agree that knowing they have a proven closer has to play some role.  Their starters for the most part did their job last year, but the bullpen did not.  While signing KRod is not going to solve all their problems, it certainly should help.  The Mets clearly needed a proven closer and had to spend whatever was necessary to get one.  My question is, is there a way for you to add in a teams circumstances to a players value? 

  7. Jesse G. says:

    I have a question. I agree that closers are dramatically overvalued even if you buy the importance of leverage. This is because the marginal improvement of a top closer over even an average to below average “closer” (this could really be almost any pitcher with one great pitch or two or more above average pitches). However, I do wonder if, given current usage patterns, excellent closers do have more value to top teams than we would think based purely upon performance and innings pitched/appearances because at that level of competition (trying to win a division and especially in a playoff setting) the small increases in efficiency and the ability to increase usage beyond what is typical (think Mariano Rivera routinely pitching more than a full inning in the playoffs) are what makes the difference for them? I realize this concept assumes that a lot of the inefficient strategic norms and usage patterns are a given but I just wonder if the data might bear this out (or if it could)?
    Anyway, I guess I am just interested in your thoughts of whether at the top level (Yankees/Red Sox, Mets/Phillies, etc.) the importance of small improvements at the margins add some value to players like Rivera in New York.

  8. TomL says:

    JC,
    Sorry if you’ve covered this, but what do you have AJ Burnett valued at?

  9. Brian says:

    JC,

    This was John Dewan’s stat of the week from Sept. 5:
    http://actasports.com/sow.php?id=182

    I found it interesting that K-Rod only had one “tough” save at the time while Thigpen had eight of 10 in 1990. Plus, it is more common in baseball today for closers to earn saves coming in when the first batter is neither the tying or winning run.

    Should K-Rod be the only closer or will Putz get some matchups in the ninth? In Seattle, Putz was dominant against David Ortiz (0/7, 5 Ks) and Manny (2/11, 7 Ks). Yet, I do find it funny that both closers come from the AL West.

  10. JC says:

    I don’t know how the Mets plan to use Putz.

  11. TangoTiger says:

    In my system, it works out that the Leverage Index to use is roughly halfway between how he should be used and 1.  So, a closer, with an expected LI of 2.0, will have an effective leverage, for salary purposes, of 1.5.

  12. birtelcom says:

    Win Probability Added  (WPA) over at Fangraphs has Lidge as the second most “valuable” pitcher in the majors in 2008  (only Lee is ahead of him, Sabathia is just behind him) if you use WPA as the basis for “value”.  K-Rod is just behind Brandon Webb in WPA.  I take it the consensus then is that WPA is not really a useful proxy for value in comparing high IP pitchers such as Sabathia or Webb to low IP pitchers such as Lidge or K-Rod.  I take it the big problem with WPA in this respect is that it is a measurement against average rather than against replacement, which means it fails to value innings eaters who add win probability above what a replacement would do (but not necessarily above what an average player would do) in large numbers of innings a season. 

  13. JC says:

    WPA is a fine stat; in fact, it was developed by my good friend Doug Drinen.  For the purpose of generating marginal revenue product estimates, the problem with measures that value the exact change in the state of the game is that they give credit/blame to players for things they are not responsible for. It is quite useful to know the potential WPA when deciding between a mop-up reliever and a fireballing out-machine.

    I don’t find the  replacement player benchmark to be useful, and I think it creates more confusion while adding nothing over the average benchmark.

  14. tangotiger says:

    The first published implementation of WPA was by the Mills Brothers in 1970, and named Player Win Average.  You can click on my name for an excerpt.  Doug carried on the tradition in fine style.  Whereas Mills’ used division, Doug used subtraction.

    As for replacement level, it is, at its heart, simply the production of the player at which he would earn the minimum salary.  That level of production is roughly 2.25 wins per 700 PA, or .01 wins per IP, below the league average.  I agree with JC that you don’t need replacement level, and you can get there with just using league average.

  15. Thomas says:

    90% of the time K-Rod pitches it will matter and be a save situation. They blew more games after the 7th inning last year than just about any team. It is irrelevant to compare the money spent on him, to spend it on Lowe. So what if Lowe gets you a lead, then leaves in the 8th only to have Billy Wagner blow it. If he was on the team last year, they would have made the playoffs. Would you pay someone $13 million a year if they were your missing link to the playoffs? I think they made the right choice.