The Rockies front office and Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane are alike in at least one way.
One of the most illuminating baseball articles I read in 2014 was about relief pitchers and salary arbitration. At The Hardball Times, Matthew Murphy argued that signing or trading for established closers, whatever the salary cost, actually saves teams money in the long run because it suppresses the arbitration cost of young relievers. For instance, last offseason the Oakland A’s traded for closer Jim Johnson, who was owed $10 million in 2014. They did this despite having capable relievers in Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle. Murphy showed that by giving saves to an already expensive reliever rather than pitchers who had yet to reach arbitration, the A’s would save money in arbitration costs when Cook and Doolittle became eligible. Due to injuries and Jim Johnson’s metamorphosis into a pumpkin—a pumpkin terrible at pitching—the season didn’t turn out as planned. But the principle still makes sense.
In fact, this cost saving strategy is almost certainly a big reason why the Rockies signed LaTroy Hawkins last offseason to be the closer. After 2013, Rex Brothers was the heir apparent to the closer’s role. After Rafael Betancourt suffered an elbow injury, Brothers slotted in to save 19 games for the Rockies, and he did so with a 1.74 ERA, a 3.36 FIP, and while striking out 10.16 batters per nine innings. Without Hawkins, he would have been the natural choice to close games. Brothers and the Rockies recently avoided arbitration; the team will pay him $1.4 million in 2015.
Adam Ottavino and the Rockies, however, have yet to agree. Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors, who is generally very accurate in estimating arbitration salaries, pegged Ottavino at $1.0 million. I don’t know what Swartz’s methodology is, but I suspect it accounts for past players with similar stats: solid ERA, solid "peripherals," few saves. Indeed, the Rockies offered Ottavino $1 million, according to Thomas Harding. But Ottavino filed for $1.475 million—almost 50 percent more than what the Rockies offered.
Ottavino was the Rockies’ best reliever in 2014. He deserves what he is asking for and the Rockies should pay it. But what’s most interesting about their disconnect is that it might signal that the front office strategy Murphy described might not work much longer. Ottavino’s 3.06 xFIP and ability to strikeout a batter an inning might now be more powerful than his career save (he has one). If Ottavino is awarded the salary for which he filed, he’d be making more than Rex Brothers, who has 20 career saves under his belt.
This is just an observation. But if saves actually are becoming less relevant in salary negotiation for relievers, it’s a welcome occurrence. Relief pitchers could benefit from focusing on earning money simply by getting batters out rather than pursuing closer status. In fact, I’d welcome the end of the save as a statistic altogether, which would demolish some ingrained managerial practices regarding bullpens that are much in need of demolition.