Why You Shouldn't Be Mad About "Losing Out" On [Insert Top Reliever Here]
Image courtesy of © Ken Blaze-USA TODAY SportsAt around the same time that Twins fans heard the Hendriks news, MLB Network was releasing their #Top10RightNow relievers which featured him at the top of the list:
Naturally, many were concerned with the White Sox bolstering their already solid bullpen and many more were wondering if the Twins would sign Brad Hand, who recently said he would love to play for his hometown team. When I saw this list, the question I posed was what did this look like two years ago ... suggesting that it probably looked very different from the current list. The only names on both lists are Aroldis Chapman and Josh Hader. Want to know what last year's list looked like? See for yourself.
Once again, Chapman and Hader are the only two names that are on even two of the three lists, and we now have two decades worth of data in this new era of power pitching bullpens that shows this type of fluctuation in the games top relievers is the norm rather than the exception. Quite literally when reviewing league wide relief pitcher data on Fangraphs you can see that what we now know as the modern day bullpen started forming right around 2000. The last 21 seasons are all in the top 21 of relief innings pitched and 18 of the 21 are in the top 21 of K/9, while the other three are still in the top 26. (Sidenote: the 1875 season is 21st on the list at 7.19 K/9 over just 41.1 innings pitched...bizarre outlier)
What has the lifespan of an “elite reliever” looked like over the last 20 years?
Although not the end-all and be-all indicator, I used fWAR as my measure while limiting the search to pitchers who had a season where they pitched at least 50 innings so my research wasn’t influenced by guys who didn’t put in a full season of work. This obviously eliminated 2020 from the data set which I think is actually pretty fair given the unique set of circumstances compared to every other season. I then found the standardized score of each player's fWAR and found that the data fit a bell-shaped distribution and was close to being “normal”.
Using the standard normal table, I defined an elite reliever as someone who finished in the top three-percent of the data set which equated to 1.88 standard deviations above the mean. There are 147 individual seasons and 78 unique pitchers who accomplished this feat, which is evidence in itself that a reliever lifespan as “elite” doesn’t last more than a season or two in a vast majority of cases. Furthermore, it was infrequent that a pitcher even appeared on the list as many as four times.
Mariano Rivera (7) -- who we knew would be an outlier on this list -- Kenley Jansen (4), Jonathan Papelbon (4), Joe Nathan (4), Craig Kimbrel (4) and Aroldis Chapman (4) are the only pitchers who appear on the list more than three times, and they account for about 18.4% of the total list. A handful of pitchers accomplished the feat three times of which the most notable might be Eric Gagne who accumulated 83.6% of his career fWAR in those three seasons. He has since admitted to steroid use during his run which could explain his massive three-year peak in an otherwise uninspiring career, but is nonetheless another case of an elite reliever falling off after a few short years.
So let's bring this back to the two elite free agent relievers entering the 2021offseason that Twins fans were clamoring for. Per fWAR, Liam Hendriks 2019 season was the second best relief season of the century behind the aforementioned Gagne’s 2003 which we now know was partially thanks to steroids, and he was the best pitcher in 2020 accruing the same fWAR (1.4) as Brewers reliever Devin Williams. If the data above tells us anything it’s that Hendriks, who will be 32 by season's start, will likely be overpaid and no longer elite for at least half of his contract with the White Sox. Both parties definitely benefit from the shortened 2020 season as he saved 50-60 innings on his arm, but on top of history being against him he is also on the older end of when the list of relievers above peaked in their careers. And remember, a vast majority of the pitchers in the data set only appeared once or twice. The former Twin might be a “Twin Killer” in 2021, possibly 2022, but 2023 and 2024 (there is a team option) is a crapshoot that the White Sox went all-in on.
On the other hand, heh, Minnesota native Brad Hand hasn’t truly had an elite season in his career. His best season in 2017, where he accrued 1.7 fWAR, would rank as the 259th best season of the century although he had a solid year last year where he finished as the fifth-best reliever in baseball. In 2020, he was on pace for what would likely have been an “elite” season, but if you’ve gathered anything from this article so far it’s that relievers are nearly impossible to predict. Hand is about a year younger than Hendriks and doesn’t have the same umph behind his fastball that some of the names listed above have, which are both factors that could make his lifespan as a top, if not elite, reliever a little longer.
The real issues with these two, and other “elite” relievers, isn’t necessarily the unpredictable production that their teams will get out of them, but it’s their cost that has me saying “no, thanks”. Even if Liam Hendriks isn’t an elite closer in a couple years, he’ll likely be serviceable as a 7th/8th inning type, but the problem lies in paying a 7th/8th inning type $15.4MM per year. MLB Trade Rumors has Hand signing for two-years, $14MM which actually wouldn’t be a bad deal, a short term deal paying $7MM AAV for a top end reliever is practically a steal. That said, they also had Hendriks signing for three-years, $30MM and he ended up getting an extra year, although it’s a team option, plus an extra $5.4MM AAV and these two factors will surely drive up Hand’s cost. I’d be willing to give Hand two-years, maybe three if it’s a team option, but no more than $9MM based on the volatility at his position.
Let me end with a mea culpa, especially directed towards fellow Twins Daily-er Nick Nelson. You see, I was a BIG Craig Kimbrel bobo, as a certain Twins Cities sports radio station might say, and went back and forth with Nick quite a bit on the topic. Even with damning evidence that Kimbrel was toast, I wanted the Twins to DO SOMETHING ... ANYTHING ... but specifically throw money at Kimbrel. I’m sorry, Nick. The data presented in this article, and Kimbrel’s production since 2019, has shown me the light. We shouldn’t be mad about “losing out” on [insert top reliever here].
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