Putting aside the dollar values on these contracts for a moment, it’s important to consider just how consistent and predictable reliever performances are. There are a multitude of factors that routinely influence reliever performance more than that of starting pitchers or batters; primarily those are small sample size and the prevailing usage patterns of modern bullpens. The sample size issue is obvious--most relievers top out around 60 or 70 innings, roughly 1/3 of a typical starting pitcher’s innings--but the way modern bullpens are managed (bringing in relievers in the middle of innings, for example) often means that a reliever’s performance, as measured by ERA, is as much a reflection of those pitching before and after him than his own contributions. Whereas starters often get to work into and out of their own jams, relievers don’t have that luxury.Among that group, Click reports year-to-year correlations of FRA -- a stat I really dig, because it translates back into conventional stat terms the impact of a reliever's performance based on how he dealt with inherited runners -- of .146 for starters (not very high) and 0.04 (just about nuthin') for relievers. Even using three years' worth of data to predict a fourth, the correlations are .192 for starters and .064 for relievers, three times the randomness. Summarizes Click:
The second problem is more easily corrected than the first. We can use Fair Run Average (FRA), a BP stat that removes the problems of appropriately placing responsibility for inherited or bequeathed runners. As a first pass, just to see how bad the small sample size is, let’s see how consistent a variety of pitching statistics are for both starters and relievers. To do so, we’ll only use significant consecutive seasons, in this case defined as a minimum of 150 innings in consecutive seasons for starters and 50 innings for relievers.
So what does this mean for teams like the Cubs, Yankees, Blue Jays and Mets? Of the five relievers they signed, it’s likely that two of them will post an FRA a run-and-a-half or more from their established levels. Some of this variance is the natural change in player performance; after all, starting pitchers, while more consistent than relievers, are certainly no models of consistency. But even when comparing three-year groups of relief performance--attempting to remove the small-sample-size issue--relievers never approach the consistency of starting pitchers. Over the next three years, it’s likely that two of them will post a total FRA more than a run off of their established levels over the past three seasons.Meanwhile, on BP's internal mailing list, Nate Silver has been discussing a key finding of his where a pitcher who moves from starter to reliever can expect a considerably lower ERA and improved peripherals. I'm not at liberty to steal Nate's thunder in describing this, but watch for a piece from him in the near future. Frankly, I'm in awe of the way guys like Silver and Click can chip away at the problems that keep the rest of us lying awake at nights and come up with concrete answers that have practical applications for running a baseball team.
One of the key credos in what you might call the “BP philosophy” is that you want to sign free agents from the very top of the market or the very bottom. Superstars in their early prime, guys like Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds in 1992, or Alex Rodriguez in 2000, are excellent investments, because it’s difficult to find players who have that kind of impact, and even harder to get their best seasons through the market. At the other end of the spectrum, a smart team can gain a real advantage by signing the right low-end free-agents to one-year deals, often minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training.Which brings us to...
This winter, though, the very best free agents don’t come close to approaching the caliber of those available in recent seasons. There is no Carlos Beltran in this market, no Pedro Martinez, no Vladimir Guerrero or Miguel Tejada. The top players in this market are flawed, aging or both, and either have no superstar credentials to speak of or little chance of sustaining star performance over the life of a new contract.
Consider the B.J. Ryan signing, which combines about four different flaws in one package. The Blue Jays gave Ryan a five-year deal averaging just over nine million dollars a season. The five years covered by the deal are two more than the number of effective seasons on Ryan’s resume, and that’s giving him credit for 2003, in which he threw 50 1/3 innings in 76 games as a specialist, posting just over two Wins Above Replacement. This is the same mistake, down to the details, that a variety of teams made last year with guys like Eric Milton, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, just to name a few of the more egregious examples. Evaluating a player just on his walk year is a recipe for disaster.
With the possible exception of Jonas Salk, John Foster Dulles, and Annette Funicello, no one public figure so personified the fifties for me as did Vic Power. He was a line-drive-hitting first baseman for the Athletics and the Indians all through that glorious somnambulant decade who held his bat like a stalk of bananas, caught everything with one-handed disdain, and always managed to hit around .300 no matter how many times they tried to knock him down. I don't know what it was exactly that made Vic stick out above all those other ruggedly ostentatious individualists -- Frank Sullivan, Alex Kellner, et al. Suffice it to say that no one ever hit such frozen ropelike liners, assumed such a novel and menacing stance in the batter's box, was so deft and lightfooted around the first-base bag, swore so mightily at umpires and hecklers, or possessed a more novel approach to the game than did Mr. Victor Pellot Power of Arecibo, Puerto Rico.I love those last few lines, which I've italicized. Power wasn't a Hall of Famer, but that's a Hall of Fame epitaph right there.
Wherever you may be now Vic -- let it all hang out.
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