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The Proven Closer and The Proven Question

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There have been two big relief contracts given out so far this offseason. Do they tell us anything about where the market is headed as a whole?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, all. I know I said last week I would be delivering the second half of my draft kickoff for this year, but I find myself in a bit of a time crunch, and ~2700 words worth of scouting reports is just a bit beyond my capabilities this morning. In a lucky coincidence, however, I actually do have an idea for a thing today, so you'll be spared me doing the written equivalent of vamping for half a dozen paragraphs before the whole thing just sort of collapses in on itself, a sort of baseball-themed entropy demonstration.

The idea for this post came when I saw what David Robertson, erstwhile closer for the New York Yankees, commanded in contract terms from the Chicago White Sox. Four years, $46 million. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose, but hey, if I was one of only 25 or 30 people in the world who did my particular job, I would probably expect a pretty hefty salary too.

The thing is, at one point in time (not too long ago, also), that amount of money for a closer would have seemed insane. After all, Jonathan Papelbon's deal still carries with it the stink of failure and hubris, and at $50 million over four years it isn't appreciably different from what Robertson just got. However, the three years since Papelbon signed his deal have seen big-time inflation in the game of baseball, and the $12.5 million yearly salary of 2011 is not at all the same as the $11.5 million of 2014, not really.

No, in this brave new world in which we live, the revenues are higher than ever, and the salaries likewise. And, even factoring in the knowledge that we never really value relief innings quite as highly as we might ought to (or at least closer-type innings), on a dollars-per-WAR basis, the David Robertson deal is not all that crazy. A single marginal win is going to likely top $6.5 million this offseason, when it's all said and done, meaning that Robertson's $11.5 million per annum equals out to about...~1.7 wins. Over the past three seasons, David Robertson has been worth...5.0 wins exactly. I'll let you divide that total yourself. Bottom line, David Robertson is really, really effing good, and he's now being paid a salary which almost exactly mirrors his value in WAR over the past few seasons, which is sort of amazing considering how difficult it is to properly value relief innings.

What jumped out at me was not, in fact, David Robertson's yearly salary; I honestly would have been okay with the Cardinals signing him to that exact same contract to solidify the back end of their own bullpen. I might have thought of other ways the money might have been more wisely spent, but if Johnny Mo and Co decided they wanted to lock down closer for the next four seasons and chose to pay David Robertson to do so, I wouldn't have said it was an horrible idea.

No, what jumped out at me was how closely Robertson's deal was mirrored by that of the player the Yankees brought in to help shore up the back of their bullpen after the departure of their now-former closer: Andrew Miller. The big lefty, in whom the Cardinals were rumoured to have interest earlier this offseason, signed with the Yankees for four year and $36 million, presumably to share late-inning relief duties with the awesome weapon that is Dellin Betances, giving the Bronx Bombers a terrifying combination at the end of games. In 2014 alone, Betances was worth 3.2 WAR in 90 innings, while Miller was worth 2.4 in just 62.1. Miller's 1.51 FIP was positively otherworldly, and Betances's 1.64 wasn't far behind. Point is, the Yankees have a really, really good combo at the back of their bullpen, and save situations can probably just shake themselves out at the point.

However, for all the brilliance of Andrew Miller in 2014, when he was unquestionably a much better pitcher than David Robertson, the fact is, he's been that good exactly....once. That 1.51 FIP? That's less than half of what it was each of the two previous seasons (3.05 and 3.17 in 2013 and 2012, respectively), and so completely out of the range of his career mark of 4.12 as to be not only not in the same ballpark, but barely playing the same sport.

That's not to say, of course, that Miller's 2014 was a complete fluke; he struck hitters at a ridiculous rate in 2013, and at nearly as ridiculous a rate in 2012. What changed in 2014 was that he chopped his walk rate by more than half, going from 4.99 BB/9 in 2013 to 2.45 this past year. The stuff was clearly there before, but he better harnessed it in 2014 than ever before.

But here's my problem: if David Robertson has been worth 7.6 WAR over the past four seasons, and received a contract for the next four seasons which pays him like he should be worth slightly less than that, then what does it mean that Andrew Miller's deal is $2.5 million less per season, when he's been worth well less than half as much as Robertson (3.5 WAR from 2011-2014), over the previous four?

On the one hand, I feel as if the Yankees may have actually gotten the better deal, given that Miller has fewer innings on his arm over the past few seasons and was a fair bit better than Robertson last season and cost over two million less per season than the guy who comes with the Proven Closer label attached.

On the other hand, I feel like it's sort of crazy that Andrew Miller, whose career has never once produced a line anywhere close to what he did this past season, received a contract of the same guaranteed length as the Proven Closer guy, and for an annual rate which isn't, really, that different in the end.

Miller is clearly being valued for his sudden jump in performance; while his K rate has been elite for a few years now, his ability to limit walks was very suspect before 2014. In that way, it almost feels like he's being paid for what he might be, rather than what he is. Robertson, on the other hand, has a track record of elite-level performance going back four full seasons, hasn't really seen an enormous amount of fluctuation in that value, and received a contract of the exact same length as Miller, for money which isn't all that much greater.

What I'm saying is this: I can't quite decide what these two contracts mean for the value of the Proven Closer tag at this point. Once upon a time, we could count on reliever who have gotten a bunch of saves and, thus, been tagged with the Proven Closer label, to receive contracts completely out of line with other reliever salaries. And, as I said, Robertson's deal is bigger, and Miller was actually better last season, so perhaps that premium is still in effect. Then again, considering the weight of each man's respective track record, I wonder if the contracts should be as close as they are going forward. Perhaps the Proven Closer label is losing some of its lustre after all, as teams realise saves really are a pretty dumb statistic after all, and we really haven't just been fucking with them for all these years.

What does seem clear, regardless of the specifics, is that teams are prioritizing relief arms, even of the non-closer variety, after seeing the kind of effect a stable of dominant arms can have on a team's success. The Royals of this season are, of course, the team which comes to mind immediately, but the Cardinals' own parade of power arms in 2013 had some of the same feel at the time. We can go back further, to the Angels' amazing 'pens of 2002 through the mid-2000s, when Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Kelvim Escobar, and Troy Percival haunted hitters' nightmares, on back through the infamous Nasty Boys bullpen of the Cincinnati Reds in the late 80s and early 90s.

The point is, teams seem to have decided now that building a chain of terrifying arms to shorten games is a good idea; or rather, they've codified what has long been seen as a desirable arrangement, and appear more willing than ever before to spread the wealth among those arms at the back end of the bullpen. At the same time, I wonder if that Proven Closer label is starting to fade a bit, with teams simultaneously deciding it isn't enough to have one great reliever and saves really are a bad way to evaluate quality, which should lead to more money overall being thrown at late inning groups of relievers, but maybe less at the one guy who carries the closer's role. Or maybe not, and Andrew Miller represents an outlier of a data point, as a pitcher whose career arc has been so unusual as to bugger most attempts to quantify his value.

What I wonder about is what happens when, as bullpens almost invariably do, some team has a meltdown in its very expensive shutdown relief corps. We know relief pitching is one of the most volatile commodities in the game of baseball; the combination of small sample sizes and marginal-in-various-ways skillsets often possessed by top relievers can lead to enormous fluctuations in performance, the likes of which we don't tend to expect from most other aspects of the game. What happens when a team spends heavily to build their game-shortening combo of doom at the back of their bullpen, only to look around in July and find all three guys they're paying big money to have ERAs over 4.00 and have given up enough homers to fuel the collective ire of their fanbase until the heat death of the sun? I wonder if teams will run from the model then as too unreliable, too unpredictable, too....relievery.

I guess, in the end, that's really what I'm wondering about here. The Yankees let David Robertson, who has been brilliant for a long time, walk to the White Sox, and then turned around and signed Andrew Miller, who has been brilliant for ten minutes, to a contract worth only slightly less. As good as Miller was in 2014, he would seem to be, by far, the riskier bet going forward.

I just can't quite decide. Is this the death of the Closer, the death of Proven, or just a blip on the radar? Or is a Proven Closer really only worth this small amount anyway, and Robertson still pulled him premium because of his track record of saving games?

It is, to me, a fascinating comparison, because I can't decide what it means, if anything. Hell, I can't even decide why I find it so interesting, really.

But I do.