On Relievers and Roster Construction Theory

With the off-season in mind, I have some thoughts on the Braves' dilemma with regards to the impending free agency of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano and how the team will attempt to fill the void.

One of the primary concerns among Braves fans this off-season is how the team will deal with the back end of the bullpen. With the impending free agency of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, the Braves are losing their two best relievers and many fans worry about how the team will fill the void. A lot of people will ask: How will the team expect to compete without a "proven closer"?

I don't pretend to know how the team will attempt to fix the problem, but I do have some thoughts on how I believe they should do it.

First of all, the whole "proven closer" thing is hogwash. Plenty of teams have gone into a season with no such reliever and had no trouble closing out games. Even more teams have gone into a season with a "proven closer" only to see him fail miserably and have to scramble to close games. Take the 2009 Phillies for example. Brad Lidge was 41/41 in save opportunities with a 1.95 ERA 2008. For his efforts, he received a grotesquely large contract only to post a 7.21 ERA and blow 11 saves in 2009.

This stems from the fact that relievers are, in general, a gamble. Granted, there's instability everywhere, but a team's bullpen is particularly volatile. Relievers are relievers for a reason. A starting pitcher of equal ability is more valuable than a relief pitcher. Teams convert pitchers to relievers because a) they weren't good enough to make it as a starter or b) their arms wouldn't hold up for 200 innings. No matter which way you slice it, relievers are inherently risky. I can think of very few examples of relievers that didn't, at one point, experience a complete meltdown and lose their effectiveness.

Therefore, building a successful bullpen is about managing these risks. The best way to manage risk with relievers, just like the stock market, is to diversify. Investors spread their resources around, investing in various markets, so that their overall financial health isn't dependent on one particular investment performing well. Because, after all, there's an inherent risk of failure with every investment an investor makes. They manage their risk and pit it against their upside by diversifying, such that they're able to survive in the event of an investment's failure. If you invest $100 in 1 stock and the stock fails, you lose $100. If you invest $1 in 100 stocks and one fails, you lose $1, and you're largely un-phased. You may lose the battle, but you live to fight another day.

Furthermore, predicting the failure of investments is a fool's errand. You can study the markets to your wit's end, but at the end of the day you only have a slightly better idea of which investments will fail than someone who simply chooses them randomly by picking them out of a hat.

The same is true with relievers. Because relievers are so risky and unpredictable, diversification is the best play. For instance, say a club has $10 million to spend on shoring up their bullpen. They can either a) spend all $10 million to bring in a premium free agent closer or b) spend the money on two or three relievers of the buy-low or set-up variety. In doing b, sure, they probably sacrifice a bit of upside. However, they also minimize their risk. What are the chances that one reliever turns into a bust? Pretty high. What are the chances that three relievers all turn into busts? Not nearly as high. Provided they have the same rate of failure, it's 8 times more likely that you'll have a successful closer if you spend the $10 million on 3 relievers rather than one. This is a vast oversimplification, of course, but you get the point.

Dave Cameron of USS Mariner discusses this phenomenon in general baseball terms in his brilliant piece on roster construction theory. I think it's even more applicable when specifically discussing the bullpen.

It's tempting for teams to pay market rate for these premium closers for obvious reasons. If it works out, you've got an excellent closer. But in doing so, you've also assumed a great deal of risk. When you throw all of your eggs into one basket, you're always one injury or episode of ineffectiveness away from not having a viable option, which disproportionately weakens your team. It's not that other players aren't at risk to the same phenomenon, it's that relievers are particularly vulnerable, more so than other players in general, to said injuries and episodes of ineffectiveness.

You'll undoubtedly read various articles this off-season written by national analysts, local columnists, and beat writers that suggest the team needs to go out and sign Jose Valverde or to retain Rafael Soriano or to ship a bag of prospects off to Boston for Jonathan Papelbon. Don't buy it. Having a premium closer is a luxury, not a necessity, and just because a pitcher is labeled as a premium closer doesn't mean they're any less risky than the guys you'll find on the scrap heap after teams like the Cubs and Mets overpay everyone else. The smart teams realize that managing their risk is more important than the upside play. I'm sure one of these moves will make a GM look very smart. But it's just as likely to make a GM look very stupid (I'm looking at you, Francisco Rodriguez).

This may seem counter-intuitive to the casual fan. After all, how is a proven, known commodity more risky than a buy-low proposition? But again, it's not that the buy-low relievers are individually less risky than a premium closer, it's that having multiple viable options--even if they don't possess the upside of a Francisco Rodriguez or a Jose Valverde--minimizes your overall risk. The whole is greater than the sum of it's parts, so to speak.

I don't pretend to know what the Braves will do. They could go out and spend all their money on a Jose Valverde or a Billy Wagner. And it may work, I'll certainly be happy if it does. Though if it doesn't, they're in deep doo doo. And I think that managing their risk by diversifying their resources and picking up two or three quality set-up men or buy-low candidates is the smarter play.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.