The High Cost of Relievers
The elite players at each position are traditionally compensated appropriately. Relief pitchers, mainly closers, are no different. The top closers in the game demand top dollars. Craig Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Billy Wagner, and Joe Nathan each made at least $10 million in a single season prior to 2016. It is, however, very significant that the top three most expensive contracts for a closer were signed this off-season. What led teams to spend money at a record rate? What made one and two inning players so valuable? And will the price of elite closers continue to rise?
Mark Melancon was the first of three top-tier relievers to sign this off-season. Melancon signed a four-year deal with the San Francisco Giants for a then-record $62 million. The deals that followed made the Melancon contract look like a steal. Aroldis Chapman followed a few days later with a record deal of five years and $86 million dollars with the New York Yankees. Kenley Jansen was the last of the top relievers to sign this off-season. Jansen chose to re-sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $80 million over five years.
Melancon’s was the cheapest contract at an average annual value of $15.5 million. The last reliever to sign for an average of $15 million was Rivera for 2011-2012. Only one other reliever, Rafael Soriano, had ever made more than $13 million on average in the history of the game. It is greatly evident that all of Major League Baseball is entering unprecedented territory.
It is no secret that the usage rate of relief pitchers per game is at an all-time high. The issue has become a source of debate as Commissioner Rob Manfred mentioned the possibility of limiting the number of pitching changes per inning. This should not surprise anyone. The Tommy John issue is far from resolved. There remain many who believe that the fix is simply as easy as having pitchers throw less pitches. This does not mean that pitchers throwing less will never get hurt, but it is evident over usage plays a large role in injuries.
The other cause for more reliever usage is simple – they are effective. Their effectiveness, in part, comes from the growing velocity of their pitches. Data shows that just over two percent of relievers threw at an average velocity of 95 mph in 2005. By 2014, that number was just under 12 percent.
The 2016 season and postseason served as a microcosm of the larger, growing trend. The two teams that competed for the World Series were both aided by top-notch bullpens. Andrew Miller starred for the Cleveland Indians in October and was named ALCS MVP. Chapman also shined for the Chicago Cubs and was instrumental in bringing the Cubs back from the brink of elimination. Bullpens and star closers were on display more than ever for the world and big league general managers to see.
Yes, contracts for players will continue to grow which means contracts for closers will continue to grow as well. With that being said, it would be unwise to label this off-season, or these three closers, as the new normal. This group of relievers were the beneficiaries of a combination of factors that will not likely converge each and every year. One thing remains certain – elite players, regardless of position, will continue to get paid.