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MLB Free Agent Relievers: Brad Lidge and Company Are Overrated

PHILADELPHIA - JULY 25: Relief pitcher Brad Lidge #54 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch during a game against the San Diego Padres at Citizens Bank Park on July 25, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Padres won 5-4. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Hunter Martin/Getty Images
Jim FlanneryAnalyst IJanuary 27, 2012

Brad Lidge was signed by the Washington Nationals this week for a million dollars over one season. A bargain compared to what some closers have picked up during this offseason. But did the Nationals make the right move?

The role of closer in Major League Baseball has evolved over the last few years into an elite spot on the roster, worthy of much talk, praise and big, fat contracts. But statistically, and historically, it simply doesn't make any sense.

Evidence such as this study from 2004 by David W. Smith indicates that teams that have held a lead after eight innings have won their games 95 percent of the time. This has held true throughout the history of baseball.

In fact, the worst record he could find in a century of numbers was the 1978 Seattle Mariners, who still sealed the deal in the ninth 80.4 percent of the time.

This off-season has seen a bunch of closers moving around and signing significant contracts. The biggest was Jonathan Papelbon signing a four-year, $50 million contract with Philadelphia.

We've also seen Ryan Madson sign with Cincinnati for one year, $10 million, Heath Bell sign with Miami for three years, $27 million, and Joe Nathan sign with Texas for $14.5 million over two years.

Overall, I've noted 10 closers signed for an average of $7.18 million per year in just this free-agent season alone. 

But given that a typical team will win virtually every game they play where they enter the ninth with a lead no matter who is pitching, this seems like a massive waste of money.

The Jonathan Papelbons, Mariano Riveras and John Axfords of the baseball world are put on a pedestal and worshipped for their prowess at slamming the door at the end of the game. And they are paid accordingly.

But it simply doesn't matter.

Given that teams carrying the lead into the final inning are almost certainly going to win, regardless of who is on the mound, it makes absolutely no sense for teams to be rolling truckloads of money up to the doors of these guys.

Better to spread the money around to a stable of decent arms in relief and just pick the guy with the most rest.

Getting Lidge for only a million a year is pretty cheap for a proven arm, even if he's past his prime at age 35. That's a third of the average MLB salary and for a guy filling a high-profile, but statistically irrelevant role, that's the right price.

Papelbon's $12.5 million a year? Not so much.

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