MLB's Expensive Middle Relievers: Teams Changing How They Use Their Bullpen

Charlie LightContributor IIDecember 23, 2010

Joaquin Benoit will earn $5.5 million in 2011, more than any other set-up man in the game.
Joaquin Benoit will earn $5.5 million in 2011, more than any other set-up man in the game.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

There has been a lot of big news this winter, mostly regarding a particular starting pitcher. However, a few set-up men and seventh-inning guys have made headlines of their own. 

Joaquin Benoit, a set-up man who recorded one save last season, received a three-year, $16.5 million deal from the Detroit Tigers last month. Three weeks later, the Los Angeles Angels agreed to give seventh-inning man Scott Downs $15 million over three years.

Two days ago, the Chicago White Sox locked up set-up man Jesse Crain for $13 million over three years. 

These three pitchers, not to mention the other six relievers to sign a contract for over $5 million this winter, are being paid more than middle relievers have ever made in the past.

Benoit will be the highest-paid set-up man going into the 2011 season, and many of this winter’s signings will top that list as well. These high contracts are not caused by scarcity of the position; there is an ample supply of relief pitchers this winter. 

In 2004-05, Steve Kline was ranked in the Top 50 MLB Free Agents by ESPN. He got $5.5 million over two years from the Baltimore Orioles

This winter, MLB Trade Rumors ranked seven non-closing RPs in the top 50. 

This strange anomaly of relief-pitcher signings has its share of theories. Some say that starters are being used more carefully and for fewer innings, creating more innings for a bullpen to pitch. 

However, this is not true: In 2004, among pitchers who made 10 or more starts, the average innings/per start ratio was 5.51 compared to the average start lasting 5.68 innings in 2010. 

Many teams are moving closer to the old model for a pitching staff, where only seven or eight guys pitched for a team and it did not require six bullpen changes to get through a low-scoring game. 

Teams are preparing their pitchers to pitch more innings, creating less of a workload for their bullpen. 

Based on the changes in starting pitching, one might think that relievers are returning to the old style of play as well, working two or three innings per game. However, the average outing for a reliever was 1.09 innings in 2004 and 1.01 in 2010. 

What teams are really paying for is efficiency and closer security.

All the pitchers who appeared in 37 games or more last year gave up an average of .91 hits per inning. In 2004, this average was .97. Teams now expect each reliever to pitch fewer innings, but allow fewer baserunners and maintain a lower ERA than six years ago. 

Teams like Chicago and Los Angeles are paying so much for these free agents to ensure their bullpens are the most efficient from top to bottom. Other teams see the statistical trends and are driving up the prices on these once frivolous contracts.

The second reason teams are paying so much more for relievers is the closer role. 

In 2004, there were 35 relievers who recorded 10 saves or more. The average in this group was 29.3, with 4.7 blown saves per guy. 

Last season, 37 closers had at least 10 saves and each one averaged 26.4. They only blew 4.3 each, but teams were still giving more pitchers chances in the ninth inning.

This is odd, considering many point to the growing number of blown saves as the reason for the increasing number of changes in closers. However, more teams appear to switch their closer out for no other reason than to give another guy a chance.  Maybe because teams feel that when they pay more for a middle-reliever that is efficient, he should get a chance at closer even if their regular guy is doing fine. 

This winter may be one of the early steps in a new stage of the evolution of baseball. 

Some time in the future, we may see teams that carry two closers who can be used interchangeably and GMs who pay more for bullpens that will become increasingly efficient. 

High efficiency short-relievers are more sought-after for bullpen stabilization, and these expensive signings will become more common next year and for many years to come.  


Thanks to for info on contracts.  Cool site, check it out.

You can follow me on Twitter at!/charlie123517