This offseason, multiple baseball teams are in need of back-end bullpen help. And because of that, the short supply of closers available is creating an inflated market. Exhibit A is the new contract between Mark Melancon and the San Francisco Giants, who agreed to a four-year deal worth $62 million on Monday, the richest deal ever given to a closer.
The Giants clearly need the help. Their bullpen blew 30 saves in 2016, the most in baseball last year, and lost nine games in which San Francisco carried the lead into the ninth inning. Melancon, meanwhile, had 47 saves in 51 chances with a 1.64 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings pitched. On paper, it looks like a perfect match. But an average of $15.5 million per year for four years is too high of a price, and sets an environment for free agent closers like Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman to quickly become expensive mistakes.
Melancon, who by all accounts had a tremendous year, produced 1.8 wins above replacement during his time with both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals. According to FanGraphs, that performance was worth $14.3 million on the open market. In that light, $15.5 million per year doesn’t seem unreasonable. However, Melancon is projected to produce between 0.9 and 1.3 fWAR in 2017, which places his value between $7.2 and $10.4 million in 2017. And with Melancon turning 32 in March, it should only get worse from there.
Positive events for relief pitchers, such as strikeouts and swinging strikes, rarely improve as a player gets older. They can get craftier or mor accurate with their pitches, leading to an improved walk rate, but, overall, we can expect their performance to decline as they age, as detailed below by FanGraph’s Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti.
As you can see from the boxed portion of the chart that illustrates the beginning and end of Melancon’s contract, there is some serious decline ahead. And we’re seeing some of it already.
Melancon is losing velocity on his fastball. He averaged 94 mph with his heater in 2009 but started to lose steam around 2013 (93 mph) and has continued to lose speed in the three years since (91.9 mph in 2016). Before leaving to become the Houston Astros’ director of research and development, Mike Fast wrote in Hardball Times that one mile per hour of fastball velocity is worth a fifth to a third of a run in terms of run prevention, suggesting that Melancon could see a spike in his ERA sooner rather than later.
But while that contract will carry a big risk for the Giants, it is spectacularly good news for Jansen and Chapman. To compare to another sport, just like Brock Osweiler set the floor for this season’s NFL free agent quarterbacks when he signed a four-year, $72 million contract to take over the Houston Texans’ starting job, Melancon’s deal sets the floor for closers those two more talented free agents.
Jansen has posted an ERA under 3.00 every year of his career and his 2016 mark of 1.44 fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls batted into play and league average timing, indicates he might have deserved better than his 1.83 ERA. Another ERA estimator, SIERA (1.60), agrees. Jansen also posted a 9.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2016.
Jansen was worth 3.2 fWAR in 2016 and is projected to be worth between 1.5 and 2.3 fWAR in 2017. We would expect that to be worth $12 to $18.4 million in free agency, but based on what Melancon is paid, Jansen’s performance could be worth upwards of $26 million per year. That isn’t to say he’ll get that salary, but his performance — combined with the rapidly inflated price for closers — would provide a basis to seek compensation in that range, or at least well above Melancon’s record deal.
One factor may curb Jansen’s financial ceiling somewhat. The Los Angeles Dodgers, in an effort to protect their investment, made a qualifying offer to Jansen and will get a draft pick from the team that signs him, which would add a layer of cost that isn’t attached to other top closer on the market: Chapman.
Chapman saved 36 games and struck out 90 batters in 58 innings in 2016, his fastball leading the league in average velocity (100.4 mph) with almost twice as many pitches clocked in excess of 100 mph than Mauricio Cabrera, who was second on the list.
Chapman is projected to be worth between 1.7 and 2.4 fWAR in 2017, valued at $12.2 to $19.2 million in normal free agency but that soars to upwards of $29 million per year after accounting for Melancon’s recent inflation.
Of the three big closers on the market, Melancon appears to be the biggest risk. He is the oldest, pitches the slowest and is projected to be the least productive reliever of the group in 2017. But if the reports are true and Chapman gets the six-year, $100 million contract he is reportedly looking for, he quickly moves to the top of the list in terms of risk.
ESPN’s Keith Law previously looked at the 13 relievers who signed four-year deals and found three that worked out: Andrew Miller’s current deal, Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies and Rivera’s deal with the New York Yankees that began in 2001. According to Law, the results of the rest were, “to put it mildly, terrible.”
Agents are obviously rejoicing at the news of Melancon’s latest deal, but the best you can hope for, as a fan, is your favorite team doesn’t make a $100-million mistake.