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Friday, August 01, 2014

Neyer: The Jim Johnson Gambit fails

Gambit always fails.

Last winter, Matt Murphy noticed that a bunch of teams were signing veteran closers to good-sized contracts, even though the clubs already had impressive young closers-in-waiting. Was this merely fealty to Proven Closers run rampant? Or was something else going on?

Murphy focused on the A’s and found something else. Something really interesting. Murphy found that paying a veteran now means saving millions of dollars later, because your impressive young closers-in-waiting, if kept in setup roles for an extra season or two, won’t make as much money in the arbitration process. Because the arbitration is skewed, however ridiculously, toward saves.

Running the numbers, Murphy figured the A’s would save roughly $7 million on closer-in-waiting Ryan Cook’s salaries during his arbitration years, merely by keeping him out of the closer role in 2014. They’re paying [Jim] Johnson $10 million this season. But $10 million minus $7 million equals $3 million ... or Johnson’s effective cost in 2014…

I like the theory. But relief pitchers, leaving aside the elite, might just be too unstable for testing a theory that might cost you $10 million. Not to mention a few critical victories.

The District Attorney Posted: August 01, 2014 at 03:35 PM | 12 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: jim johnson, rob neyer, ryan cook, sean doolittle, strategy

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   1. frannyzoo Posted: August 01, 2014 at 03:54 PM (#4762684)
I wonder what Ryan Cook thinks of this theory.
   2. Nasty Nate Posted: August 01, 2014 at 03:55 PM (#4762686)
The problem with the execution of the theory by the A's was paying the premium for a 'proven closer' when getting an alternative to their young internal guys. Of course, this wouldn't have mattered a ton if Johnson had been effective but it still was contradictory to whole point of the method in the first place.
   3. Dale Sams Posted: August 01, 2014 at 04:25 PM (#4762710)
Next step: Offer a guy like Andrew Miller 3/27 and then convert him back into a starter.
   4. Shibal Posted: August 01, 2014 at 04:27 PM (#4762711)
Herk Robinson's idiot little brother was all over this trend, spending all his cash on the likes of Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland.
   5. Walt Davis Posted: August 01, 2014 at 05:44 PM (#4762782)
But if you stick a non-proven closer into the role while keeping your closer-in-waiting in the setup role, you spend only $5 M ... or $7 M ... or $5000 K ... and still save $7 M later on your young guy.

EDIT: i.e the Rox are paying LaTroy Hawkins just $2.5 M to do the job and didn't have to trade anything away to get him.
   6. Ginger Nut Posted: August 01, 2014 at 05:48 PM (#4762785)
This whole thing seems like a George Costanza scheme for the Yankees. Sure, let's pay a guy who is less good than guys we already have $10M so that we don't risk the possibility of paying someone who is probably better $7M in a future year. What?

Plus, as #1 suggests, doing this and making public your reasons for doing so can't be good for morale among your young relief pitchers.
   7. Walt Davis Posted: August 01, 2014 at 05:49 PM (#4762786)
I also don't like how Rob implies that the arb system is wrong for valuing saves. The arb system is supposed to reflect what goes on in the post-arb market and teams are still paying closers a lot more than setup guys. So baseball values saves more than it should, that's not the fault of the arbitration system or the arbitrator.
   8. Nasty Nate Posted: August 01, 2014 at 06:24 PM (#4762804)
Even though the Johnson acquisition cancelled out the savings, the initial idea has some promise. Hindsight is 20/20, but it would have worked fine if they had gotten Joe Smith instead of Jim Johnson (they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names, Lou).
   9. Ginger Nut Posted: August 02, 2014 at 08:59 AM (#4763005)
I think the underlying concept is just that closers are disposable, and you don't necessarily have to make your best reliever your closer. It would, in theory, be a good situation if your ace reliever could be used in the most high leverage situations (7th inning, 8th inning, whatever) and also didn't make a lot of money because he didn't get saves. But in order to achieve that goal, all you have to do is make someone else the closer--that could be another cheap player who is already on your roster, or a journeyman who has not been a "proven closer" in the past. But we already knew that.
   10. Harveys Wallbangers Posted: August 02, 2014 at 09:05 AM (#4763007)
nothing highlights how silly it is to pay closers serious money in that the role has the shelf life of a rotting tomato. about 2/3 of these guys get shoved to a middle relief role if not released at some point each season. you have to be CERTAIN about a guy before opening the checkbook
   11. Marmaduke Ellington Posted: August 02, 2014 at 09:16 AM (#4763013)
making public your reasons for doing so


From the link:
assuming, of course, that Murphy has correctly divined management's rationale


Billy Beane should've never written that book!
   12. Bhaakon Posted: August 03, 2014 at 06:30 AM (#4763310)
It would, in theory, be a good situation if your ace reliever could be used in the most high leverage situations (7th inning, 8th inning, whatever) and also didn't make a lot of money because he didn't get saves. But in order to achieve that goal, all you have to do is make someone else the closer--that could be another cheap player who is already on your roster, or a journeyman who has not been a "proven closer" in the past. But we already knew that.


Also, in addition to the problems you mentioned, a lot of saves really are legitimately high-leverage apperances. Just scan the leaders in various leverage index stats, and the you'll see a lot of closers near the top. In practice, you can't really have both a relief ace and a closer, because, by dint of his title, your closer is going to end up throwing a ton of innings that you really want your relief ace to be throwing. You end up with a de facto closer and setup man situation.

I think the best you can do is have a guy who buys into being both closer and relief ace, and will accept appearing earlier in the game if the situation demands. But then you can't get around paying him.

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