clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Rockies and the ghosts of Super Bullpens Past

Does spending big on relievers always work out?

The Rockies have made some major moves this offseason, locking down multiple relievers and building what some people have called a “super bullpen.” What nobody can argue with is how super expensive the super bullpen will be in 2018. As of this writing, the Rockies have six relievers signed for a total of $45.8 million, the most any team has ever spent on relievers in one season.

Going into the offseason, the Rockies had salary commitments of $7 million in 2018 with both Mike Dunn and Adam Ottavino. Since then, the Rockies have signed three more relievers: Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw both got $27 million over three years, and the blockbuster Wade Davis signing, netting the closer $52 million dollars in a three-year deal. Each of those three signings also come with options in 2021. And last week, another piece of the bullpen was put in place, as Chris Rusin avoided an arbitration hearing with the Rockies and got a $1.2 million payday for 2018. With these pieces coming together, let’s take a look at some of the most expensive bullpens since 2010, and how those teams fared. (Salary data is via Spotrac.)

The Yankees’ Super Bullpen

With most of the expensive bullpens in baseball history, the bulk of the cost is covered by one big piece, the intended closer. For the 2018 Rockies, that’s Wade Davis, earning over twice that of any of the other relievers. For the 2008-2012 Yankees, that was Mariano Rivera. Rivera’s contract at the time made him the highest-paid closer in baseball history, earning him $15 million a year (and $10 million in his farewell 2013 season). In that timeframe, the Yankees made the playoffs four times, including winning the 2009 World Series. Rivera compiled an amazing 1.30 ERA while saving 209 games over the last six seasons of his career, even after missing most of 2012 to a knee injury.

Will Wade Davis be late-career Mariano Rivera? Probably not. And another factor is at play here. In 2011 (when the Yankees had their highest bullpen payroll at $41.7 million), Rivera was tied with Derek Jeter as the fifth-highest-paid player on the roster. Wade Davis is only behind Nolan Arenado and Ian Desmond on the 2018 Rockies payroll. Even when the Yankees were paying record amounts of money to relievers, they were also spending record amounts on position players. The 2018 Rockies will not have the luxury of doing the same.

The Dodgers’ Super Bullpen, 2014

The next historically expensive bullpen since 2010 comes from within the NL West. The Dodgers spent $35 million on relief pitchers in 2014, and won the division by six games over San Francisco. (The Dodgers lost the division series that year to St. Louis, with the bullpen mostly holding up while Clayton Kershaw earned two losses.)

Dodger Bullpen 2014

Name Payroll Salary % of total payroll ERA FIP
Name Payroll Salary % of total payroll ERA FIP
Brian Wilson $10,000,000 4.05% 4.66 4.29
Brandon League $8,500,000 3.45% 2.57 3.40
J.P. Howell $5,500,000 2.23% 2.39 3.30
Kenley Jansen $4,300,000 1.74% 2.76 1.91
Chris Perez $2,300,000 0.93% 4.27 5.07
Jamey Wright $1,800,000 0.73% 4.35 3.47

The Dodgers managed to get reasonable production from a few of their expensive bullpen pieces, with closer Kenley Jansen earning $4.3 million for 44 saves and a 2.76 ERA. J.P. Howell was also a valuable contributor to the squad, producing a 2.39 ERA as a middle reliever. Even Brandon League had his only good season in Dodger blue that year, with a 2.57 ERA in the middle of a contract he never lived up to. But Brian Wilson was also on that Dodgers team, and he was bad. He was paid $10 million, produced a 4.66 ERA, and did not return to the big leagues in the following season.

Will Wade Davis be late-career Brian Wilson? Probably not. If one of the Rockies’ relievers in 2018 pulls a Brian Wilson, they may have the talent around to survive it. If multiple relievers crash and burn, this strategy will start to look very ugly.

The Diamondbacks’ Super Bullpen, 2013

Much like the late-career-Rivera Yankees teams, the 2014 Dodgers had an expensive bullpen, and they spent a huge proportion of their payroll on starters and position players as well. A better comparison for the 2018 Rockies might be the 2013 Diamondbacks, whose $25.2 million bullpen payroll represented 27.7% of their total payroll. (As of this writing, the Rockies have committed 35.8% of their 2018 payroll to relievers.)

Diamondback Bullpen 2013

Name Payroll Salary % of total payroll ERA FIP
Name Payroll Salary % of total payroll ERA FIP
Heath Bell $10,000,000 10.97% 4.11 4.10
J.J. Putz $6,500,000 7.13% 2.36 3.83
Brad Ziegler $3,150,000 3.46% 2.22 3.40
David Hernandez $1,375,000 1.51% 4.48 2.74
Tony Sipp $1,275,000 1.40% 4.78 4.88
Will Harris $388,251 0.43% 2.91 2.74

The headliners included Heath Bell ($10 million for a 4.11 ERA), J.J. Putz ($6.5m, 2.36 ERA over only 34.1 innings), and Brad Ziegler ($3.15m, 2.22 ERA). Heath Bell was slightly disappointing for the price he was paid, but the other arms in the pen performed capably and led the D-backs to a .500 record, good for second place in the NL West. On the offensive side, Paul Goldschmidt was having a breakout year, Aaron Hill and Martin Prado were also good, and everyone else was about average. Most of the money on the team was going to Miguel Montero. The broad strokes: a couple of good bats, a relatively expensive bullpen, and Gerardo Parra was on the team too. The Dodgers won the division that year. Make of that what you will.

The 2018 Rockies may not look exactly like any of the teams mentioned here, but they can learn a few lessons. The conventional wisdom is that a strong bullpen is amplified in the playoffs, with starters having shorter and shorter leashes as the stakes start to rise. But an expensive bullpen is not always a good one. The playoff exit of the 2014 Dodgers shows that the rest of the pitching staff needs to do their job as well.

Aside from Mariano Rivera, arguably the best closer in baseball history, the most expensive reliever on each of these teams was not the best performer. In 2013, Heath Bell started the year as the closer for the Diamondbacks, but Brad Ziegler took over in July and kept the job the rest of the way. The Rockies should to be flexible with the roles in the bullpen, and not let the magnitude of the Davis contract dictate who should be the closer this year.

The fun part about MLB salaries is that even something that looks modest today would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Five seasons ago in 2013, Jonathan Papelbon was the most expensive reliever, earning $10 million. Eight relievers (as of this writing) will earn more than that in 2018. And as teams like the Rockies try to land their own Papelbons, those salaries will keep going up. The Rockies are gambling that, as relievers are relied upon to cover more and more innings, that their money secures the best of the bunch.