New York Yankees: Down With Rafael Soriano, Down With All Closers

Too few innings at too high a price. - Jim McIsaac

As the price of closers rises, the return on investment becomes ever smaller. Rafael Soriano isn't worth the money, and at this point, even the beloved Mariano Rivera would have a hard time justifying his own price.

I have only one comment to make on the Rafael Soriano opt-out: The Yankees should be thrilled. The value of closers is vastly overstated. The Yankees are supposedly moving towards a more restrictive payroll and are already overcommitted. In any situation where resources are scarce, when choosing between a relief pitcher and a good position player, go with the position player. Think of it this way: There were 279 plate appearances against Rafael Soriano this year; an everyday player can have well over 600 and sometimes over 700. Reliever ERA isn't the best way of approaching pitcher quality, but I think it will suffice in this instance: Soriano allowed 17 runs in 67.2 innings. The average American League reliever had an ERA of 3.55. That's a difference of 10 runs. Conversely, this year Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher both generated about 20 runs above average, and neither ranked in the top 50. Just so you get a sense of the range, Mike Trout , the most productive hitter in baseball, was roughly 60 runs above average. And we haven't even discussed defensive or baserunning contributions by the position players.

It's for this reason that Soriano at his best is worth(depending on whose system you use) 1.5 to 2.5 wins above replacement whereas Swisher and Teixeira (to stick with our examples) were in the 3.0-4.0 range. You can say that a closer's usage in high-leverage situations should enhance his value, but as we saw again and again this year when the Yankees failed to capitalize in such situations, batters have high-leverage situations too.

I am always fascinated to observe that as much as we venerate Mariano Rivera, we sometimes misunderstand his value. The difference between the best closer and the average closer is perhaps a couple of blown saves a year. Every year a couple of closers self-destruct so the legend of "the closer mentality" was born, but they merely confirm what we think; the record tells us that not all pitchers can close, but most can. That is true, in part, because the way the saves rules permits saves in soft situations, such as with a three-run lead; even the worst major league pitcher can, on any given day, get three outs before he gives up three runs. Rivera's value, at least in the regular season, was not that he converted many more tough saves than everyone else, but that he was so consistent -- another problem with relievers is that most of them are highly variable due to the limited nature of their playing time. This was never true of Rivera. (In the postseason he was Superman, but that's another story altogether, and not a skill that most teams can count on exploiting on anything like a regular basis. )

Obviously, in an ideal situation, a team could afford to have strong players at every position and a top-flight closer, but that might be a problem for the Yankees this winter given their commitments and lack of inexpensive young players to bring down the team's average salary. Fortunately for the Yankees, they have David Robertson around, so they don't have to choose.

I would even argue, sacrilegious though it may be and as much as I'd hate to see it, if we're being strictly objective, the Yankees should be more than willing to have Mariano Rivera retire. Given their narrowly constrained workload as well as the Yankees' strict 60-inning usage policy (which puts a heavier workload on the rest of the bullpen) with the increasingly fragile Rivera the last few years, his is more constrained than any pitcher in the game who isn't a spot-lefty reliever -- $15 million and up for a closer just isn't worth it if it means taking a lesser position player as well.

There just isn't enough return to justify the expense.

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