Spring has sprung, and camps are suddenly full of pitchers like Joaquin Benoit: They don't start, they don't close—but they became very wealthy this winter
Joaquin Benoit didn't have a job last year until Feb. 15, and when he found one, it was through a minor league contract with the Rays. He was pitching filler—just another arm that was aging (he turned 33 last year), damaged (he missed 2009 because of rotator-cuff surgery), mediocre (4.79 career ERA) and not good enough to start or close games.
"His first outing in spring training," says Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, "was 20-some pitches, and he was all over the place. He needed to get his arm strength back. We sent him to the minor leagues and monitored his throwing."
Benoit spent most of April in Triple A before he was called up to the Rays. It took just 60 1/3 innings for him to transform from journeyman into one of the most coveted commodities in baseball: a dominant eighth-inning setup man. Benoit, who combines a fastball in the high 90s with a changeup and a slider, was close to unhittable in 2010, striking out 75, walking just 11 and putting up the lowest WHIP (0.68) among all major league pitchers who threw at least 30 innings. Though Benoit had no starts, one save, one win and worked fewer innings than 259 other pitchers last season, the righthander (who made $750,000 in 2010) parlayed his niche role into an industry-stunning three-year, $16.5 million contract with the Tigers this winter. "I'm sure other people would say there is no way they would do it," says Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski, who had never before given a multiyear deal to a free-agent setup reliever. "But the one part I am close to sure about is that if we didn't do it, someone else would have."
The enrichment of Benoit is just one of many recent examples of how baseball continues to pump more emphasis and money into an upwardly mobile class of pitching that essentially didn't exist 25 years ago: setup relievers, the specialists who generally don't start, finish or win games. Benoit was one of 14 free-agent setup relievers this off-season who signed multiyear contracts. Topping the list was the man Benoit was setting up with the Rays: Rafael Soriano, who signed for three years and $35 million with the Yankees, for whom he will be, by far, the highest-paid setup reliever in history—working in front of the highest-paid closer in history, Mariano Rivera ($30 million, two years).
As spring training camps open this week for the Year After the Year of the Pitcher—runs per game in 2010 (4.38) were at their lowest point since 1992, and the strong-armed Giants consolidated the theme with a world title—run prevention is what's hip. With the importance of a deep rotation and a reliable closer long established, teams are now willing to turn setup relievers into well-paid stars in search of that next level of certainty. They want as much reliability in the eighth inning as in the ninth.
Benoit, for instance, created his worth by posting an 0.84 ERA in the eighth inning last year, half a run lower than his overall mark. Indeed, teams are built and games are managed with such an emphasis on the last six outs of the game that the most difficult innings in which to hit last year were the eighth (.701 OPS) and ninth (.679). "The one thing I spend most of my day dwelling on is how I am going to use my bullpen against the team that night," says Maddon, whose bullpen ranked first in the American League last year in ERA (3.33).
Says Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, "The bullpen is key. Tampa got better because its bullpen was better. Texas's bullpen got better, San Francisco's bullpen got better, Cincinnati's bullpen got better. . . . I don't care how good your starters are: You need a good bullpen. There's nothing worse, nothing that can deflate a team more, than losing the games you're supposed to win."
There is one huge problem with this burgeoning bullpen emphasis: Relief pitching has a weaker correlation between cost and success than any other facet of the game. Bullpens are notoriously unpredictable. Multiyear contracts for setup relievers have an especially poor history, in part because of the wear and tear of the job but also because pitchers default into such roles in the first place since they lack the skill sets to start or close. Benoit, for instance, was 14--19 with a 6.06 ERA in 55 starts for the Rangers before they moved him to the bullpen in late 2005.
Clubs this winter guaranteed $12 million or more to six free-agent pitchers to be setup relievers (chart). That's as many $12 million setup deals as were signed in the past four free-agent markets combined—and all six of those previous deals turned out to be busts. At no other position would teams come close to going 0 for 6 with the six highest expenditures. "It's such a volatile area," says Towers, who was the Padres' G.M. from 1996 to 2009 before taking the Arizona job last September. "I did that in '98 when I got tied in to guys like [Dan] Miceli and [Donne] Wall, and it backfired on me. [Setup] guys change from year to year. Sometimes with long-term contracts guys get a little too comfortable. Get them on a one-year deal and they're more likely to pitch their rear end off."
Towers inherited a bullpen that was the National League's worst in 2010 (5.74 ERA), but says he had no interest in multiyear contracts for setup guys. He revamped his pen over the winter by spending significant money only on a closer: J.J. Putz, a setup man for the White Sox last year who signed a discounted deal ($10 million, two years) to pitch close to his Arizona home. The rest of Towers's bullpen is cobbled together with low-level trade acquisitions and cheap youngsters. "You need one guy to be the closer," Towers says. "You need four or five guys who can pitch the seventh and eighth innings with a lead, hopefully all of them with a different look."
Tampa Bay best illustrates why money and bullpens don't equate so well. One season after fielding the worst bullpen in the expansion era (6.16 ERA), the Rays went into the 2008 World Series with a seven-man relief corps (righthanders Grant Balfour, Chad Bradford, Edwin Jackson and Dan Wheeler, and lefties J.P. Howell, Trever Miller and David Price) that cost them a total of $7.6 million, or not much more than what the Tigers on average are paying Benoit per year. Last season the Rays' pen was the AL's most efficient. "There's no way you could have told me five days before the season started last year that we'd be Number 1 in the AL," Maddon says. "Sometimes you have to catch lightning in a bottle."
The Rays are on the lookout for more lightning this spring. They must replace six relievers who gave them 292 innings over 360 appearances last year, only to leave as free agents for $67.65 million worth of contracts: Soriano, Benoit, Balfour, Wheeler, Chad Qualls and Randy Choate. Says Maddon, "I'm going in pretty much looking to do it by committee. If somebody wants to jump up and be the closer, I'm all for that."
The father of the modern, multilayered bullpen is Tony La Russa. As manager of the A's in 1988 La Russa won 104 games and the AL pennant by using five pitchers at least 49 times each in relief. He was the first manager ever to use so many relievers so often. (It has been done 122 times since then.) La Russa constructed a bullpen with two lefthanders (Greg Cadaret and Rick Honeycutt) and two righthanders (Gene Nelson and Eric Plunk) in front of his closer (Dennis Eckersley).
In that 1988 season relief pitchers were used for an average of 15.66 outs per game (both teams combined) and obtained 25.9% of all wins and losses. As other clubs adopted the La Russa model, bullpen usage grew steadily, reaching alltime highs of 18.87 outs per game in 2007 and 31.1% of all decisions in 2004.
An influx of young starting pitchers has helped pare bullpen use in recent seasons. Relievers picked up 17.59 outs per game last season—throwing 1,047 fewer innings than in 2007—and factored in 28.2% of decisions, the lowest rate in seven years. Overall bullpen ERA is also dropping—to 3.93 last year, the fourth straight year of improvement and the lowest mark since 1992.
But as bullpen workload is trimmed slightly, another trend has emerged: Baseball has created more relief specialists than at any time in the sport's history. Teams build bullpens with roles that have become as specific as positions on the diamond: the closer, the eighth-inning guy, the lefthanded specialist, the righthanded ground-ball pitcher, the second lefty, etc. Of the 635 pitchers who appeared in a major league game last year, 362 of them, or 57%, worked exclusively in relief—the highest percentage in history. There were virtually twice as many relief-only specialists last year as were used in 1989 (183).
The growing emphasis on specialization has created a scavenger hunt among general managers to find the 2010 version of Benoit—cheap options who don't have the skills to start but can be effective for one batter or a full inning. Benoit, whose changeup makes him effective against lefthanders, isn't cheap anymore, but he is especially valuable because he matches up well against hitters from either side of the plate. "The neutral guy is extremely valuable," Maddon says. "But there's probably no more than about one per team. If you have two neutral guys, that's a lot."
Specialists—guys who match up against like-sided hitters—are far more common, though their paths to such roles tend to be uncommon. In April 2009, for instance, the Rangers claimed sidearm righthander Darren O'Day on waivers after the Mets cut him. O'Day was 26 years old, had been signed three years earlier by the Angels as an undrafted free agent and threw his fastball below 90 mph. But his unique delivery made him tough on righthanders. "We knew as an undrafted player, he was an overachiever," Texas general manager Jon Daniels says, "and that he was extremely intelligent. He scored well on both law-school and medical-school exams. We heard a lot of good things about him, but we didn't know how good he would turn out to be."
In his first season with the Rangers, O'Day had a 1.94 ERA in 64 games and 55 2/3 innings of work. Last season he helped Texas reach the World Series for the first time with a 2.03 ERA in 72 games and the sixth-lowest WHIP (0.89) among AL relievers. He has pitched in 275 major and minor league games—all of them in relief. The rest of the Rangers' World Series bullpen included a rookie converted outfielder (righthander Alexi Ogando), a 25th-round failed starter (lefthander Derek Holland), a career 5--15 pitcher (righthander Mark Lowe), a rookie with 14 career games (lefthander Michael Kirkman), a 40-year-old lefthander (Darren Oliver) and a converted starter and rookie who was made the closer only after the Opening Day closer faltered (righty Neftali Feliz). Total price for a pennant-winning bullpen: $6.1 million.
In another era Feliz, who has the arsenal and training to be a starter, would be near the front of the Texas rotation. But now the Rangers value the 70 innings he can give them as a closer more than the 200 innings he might give them as a starter. "Now the club expects to win, he's a known quantity, and do you mess with success?" Daniels says. "I think there's a good chance Feliz will be able to be a very good starter in his career. The question is, when?"
Texas ranked second only to Tampa Bay last year in bullpen ERA in the AL. Find a surprise World Series team and often you will find a team that lucked into the right combination of relievers: see the 2010 Rangers, '10 Giants (second in their league in bullpen ERA), '08 Rays (third), '06 Tigers (second) and '05 Astros (fourth). San Francisco's bullpen had a 3.05 ERA last postseason with a typical hodgepodge cast: three pitchers signed as free agents, two July trade acquisitions and just two homegrown pitchers—low-level prospects drafted in the 24th and 28th rounds.
"The bullpen is one of the toughest areas to nail down," Daniels says. "Everybody needs it, and it's perceived as the difference between winning and losing, and yet everybody takes different options in the off-season.
"The data suggest it's one of the least predictive spots in baseball. We try to be as flexible as possible. We prefer strike throwers, but we know relievers come in all shapes and sizes. One thing we try not to do is overextend ourselves there. We like to stay away from multiyear deals."
That approach may be falling out of the mainstream, particularly among teams that have had trouble, as Maddon says, catching bullpen lightning in a bottle. Detroit, for instance, has ranked among the bottom half of AL bullpens every season for the past decade except for the 2006 Series season. Enter setup guys such as Benoit, who turned 60 1/3 superb innings into a multiyear jackpot and will try to bring order to the late innings. They're thrilled that many clubs will keep trying to buy eighth-inning happiness.
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TOWERS THINKS RELIEVERS ON ONE-YEAR DEALS ARE "MORE LIKELY TO PITCH THEIR REAR END OFF."
Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano and Bobby Jenks are three of six free-agent setup men who signed deals worth $12 million or more this winter. That's as many as there were from 2006 to '09.