PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 14: General Manager Rubin Amaro Jr. helps Jonathan Papelbon of the Philadelphia Phillies put on his new uniform as Papelbon signed a four-year, $50,000,058 contract, at Citizens Bank Park on November 14, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images)
Every team in baseball at least pays lip service to on-base percentage now. You might hear some mainstream writers or managers make a big deal about pitcher wins, but you rarely hear GMs mention them. The revolution is over. Condolences. The bums won.
But if there's one area in which the blognoscenti and front offices vary wildly, it's with the value of closers. Teams love to pay them a lot of money. Analysts think that money would be better used at almost any other position. Old Hoss Radbourn cuts to the core of the argument in fewer than 140 characters:
"Yes, I'd like a job. I only work one hour per day. It has to be from 4-5 PM or I'll throw a fit. Oh, you must pay me for the entire day."
Closers will usually handle about four or five percent of their team's innings for a season, yet established closers will take up a huge chunk of the total payroll. The Miami Marlins just committed $27 million to Heath Bell. I remember the last time they committed $27 million -- it was called "the entire 2008 season." The Marlins are a team that's learning how to spend, and their first key acquisition was to get a closer. It's a substantial, curious expenditure for just a few innings.
They're supposedly the most important innings, of course. They're important for morale, both in the clubhouse and for the fans. Blown save after blown save would make frustrated fans start following indoor lacrosse instead of baseball, and players would mail in the rest of their at-bats or innings for the rest of the year. Or something.
Quick quiz: what do the following players have in common?
That's a list of some of the players who were worth exactly one win above replacement level, according to Baseball Reference. Wilson, who had 36 saves last season in 57 games, will make $8.5 million in 2012. The Giants, who scored 36 runs last season in 162 games, are loudly and openly proclaiming that they're not going to spend a lot on their offense in free agency. You would think there would be an obvious desire to trade Wilson to free up money, but the last time his name was mentioned on MLB Trade Rumors was in March, when he switched agents.
This isn't to pick on the Giants -- every team that can afford to spend money on a closer, does. Even the Rays gave $6 million to Kyle Farnsworth on a two-year deal, the largest free-agent commitment to any Ray on the 2011 roster. It's not like they went out and paid market prices for a Papelbon, but they still sunk a large portion of their budget into a closer.
So what gives? Why do teams constantly give big contracts to closers? It's possible, maybe even probable, that most of the teams think closers are that important to winning ballgames. It's also possible that there is a public-relations benefit to having a closer who is perceived to be an asset. It's probably a big tapestry of reasons that make varying degrees of sense.
What I do know, though, is that just about every team is willing to pay a lot of money for a closer now and again. They might not all have to have a shiny new reliever in the driveway, but at some point in the past five years, just about every team has paid a pitcher more than $5 million to throw 60 or 70 innings for them. Even the smart teams. Sometimes especially the smart teams.
I'm not sure why this is, but my choices are to rail against the collective lunacy of groupthink, or assume that there's something they know that I don't. I'm leaning towards the latter. So Heath Bell for three years and $27 million? Fine. The Giants keeping Wilson, or the Royals hanging on to Joakim Soria? If that's what they're worried about. Whatever team pays $50 million to get Ryan Madson? They've probably figured something out that I haven't.
Done railing against contracts for closers. It was fun for a while -- oh, we had our moment in the sun, B.J. Ryan -- but it happens every year. I'll just throw up my hands and assume there's a reason for that.