Heath Bell Deal Does Not Have History On Its Side

Defenders of the Heath Bell deal have been very happy to point out that the importance of having a "proven" closer is a major addition to the Miami Marlins, and if the cost is a mutli-year deal to an aging player such as Bell, then so be it. But something that Baseball Prospectus's Colin Wyers said last evening on Twitter really hit home with me.

How many big-money reliever deals look good in hindsight? RT @chriti04@cwyers Almost as if SABR crowd missing something on elite relievers.
Dec 02 via TweetDeckFavoriteRetweetReply

This is an excellent question to pose, as I immediately went back and thought of the various relief pitchers who have received multi-year deals from their old teams and new ballclubs. It was hard to remember more than a handful that turned out positively for the team that signed the player, which is why I decided to embark on a little journey.

Methodology

I took a look at the leaders in saves from 2005 to now to get a gauge on who has been a closer for a while. For the guys who signed free agent deals or re-signed with their teams for free agent seasons for the 2005 season or afterwards, I looked at their three-year performance before the deal and compared that to their performance after the deal using a variety of metrics.

The Pitchers: Before and After

Here first are the pitchers involved in their pre-deal situations.

Player IP Sv% ERA FIP Avg WAR/70 IP
Francisco Rodriguez 208 2/3 89.8 2.24 2.88 2.6
Mariano Rivera* 224 2/3 90.7 2.08 2.54 2.5
Francisco Cordero 207 2/3 79.8 3.38 3.00 2.1
Jose Valverde 190 1/3 86.6 2.84 3.59 1.5
Joe Nathan* 210 91.3 2.06 2.19 2.7
Brian Fuentes 189 1/3 82.5 3.09 3.46 1.6
Brad Lidge 211 1/3 86.8 3.58 3.37 1.3
Billy Wagner 212 91.2 1.83 2.64 2.2
Todd Jones** 224 88.8 4.38 3.71 1.0
Jason Isringhausen 182 2/3 87.1 2.61 2.56 1.8
Fernando Rodney** 166 2/3 87.8 4.48 4.23 0.7
B.J. Ryan** 207 2/3 87.8 2.60 2.21 2.7
Kerry Wood** 110 1/3 85.0 3.43 3.19 1.5
Total 2545 1/3 87.4 2.93 3.02 1.9

* Indicates player who signed with the same team after this period
** Save percentage noted here only from seasons in which player was a full-time closer.

Now, not all of these names are relevant to Bell. But when you compare the average of all of those players versus the three-year average that Bell put up, it is actually fairly comparable.

Player IP Sv% ERA FIP Avg WAR/70 IP
Bell 202 1/3 90.4 2.36 2.54 1.8
Total 196 87.1 2.93 3.02 1.9

As you can see, Bell's value when looking at an average of three WAR metrics is actually slightly less than the average of the above closers. His value when playing in Petco was actually closer to Jason Isringhausen's than Mariano Rivera's or Joe Nathan's.

How did these pitchers do in the three seasons following their multi-year extension? Here are the numbers.

Player IP Sv% ERA FIP Avg WAR/70 IP AAV ($M)
Francisco Rodriguez** 197 85.5 2.88 3.14 1.4 13.5
Mariano Rivera* 197 93.5 1.64 2.56 2.3 15
Francisco Cordero 209 2/3 86.2 3.13 3.64 1.1 11.8
Jose Valverde^ 135 1/3 96.1 2.59 3.66 1.2 7.7
Joe Nathan* 136 1/3^^ 88.6 1.72 2.84 2.3 12.3
Brian Fuentes** 161 1/3 87.4 3.51 4.16 0.7 7.5
Brad Lidge 123 2/3 80.8 4.73 4.46 -0.2 13
Billy Wagner 187 2/3 85.5 2.40 2.89 1.7 10.5
Todd Jones 167 86.1 4.31 4.27 0.5 6
Jason Isringhausen 182 2/3 86.7 2.71 4.33 0.9 8.4
Fernando Rodney^ 100 60.7 4.32 4.26 0.4 5.5
B.J. Ryan 134 2/3^^ 88.2 2.41 2.98 2.0 9.4
Kerry Wood** 152 75.7 3.61 3.97 0.8 7.3
Total 2084 1/3 86.7 3.00 3.58 1.2 9.8

* Indicates player who signed with the same team after this period
** Save percentage noted here only from seasons in which player was a full-time closer.
^ Indicates player did not play a full third season yet.
^^ Indicates player lost a full season due to injury.

The drop in performance is very drastic. In the first table, seven pitchers were able to hit at least the 1.8 WAR mark that Bell averaged from 2009 to 2011. In the next table, only four pitchers were able to hit that same mark. The average drop from the first table, which we established as a comparable group of pitchers compared to Bell based on the group's average WAR per 70 innings, was 0.7 WAR per 70 innings, a 37 percent drop in productivity. The ERA barely moved, but the FIP jumped significantly with the new group, signaling that they may have been getting lucky to hold those runners on to maintain a similar save percentage.

One other thing to note from this group is that the pitchers as a whole threw fewer innings, even when accounting for the fact that two relievers did not get a chance to complete a third season. Two of the best relievers in the group, Joe Nathan and B.J. Ryan, both missed significant time during the subsequent three-year stretch with injury. The average reliever in the first group delivered around 65 1/3 innings pitched per player season. The subsequent group only delivered 56 1/3 innings pitched per player season, losing innings due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness.

The bottom line is that when it comes to relievers who sign multi-year deals, decline is expected. Even the best relievers of the group lost some in the way of WAR and production, with only the great Mariano Rivera staying level in terms of time played and wins produced. Like it or not, it is highly possible that we see a significant drop-off from Bell in the years to come, especially given his move from his old team. Studies now suggest that players who move from one team to another in free agency actually underperform their projections, which may have a hand in why these above players did not perform as well as advertised from their previous three seasons. While Bell may indeed be a bit better than the overall list given above, Marlins fans should still expect a slight decline in his play over the next three years.

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