The Problem with Valuing Relievers Via Trade

The trade deadline has come and gone and now a number of teams set their eyes on the postseason. But, the 2016 trade deadline, like so many others, left a mark. The 2016 deadline made us think and re-evaluate some of our conceived notions. One of them is how we value relievers.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In the offseason a couple of trades involving relief pitchers had the internet shaking their heads. Those were the Craig Kimbrel and Ken Giles trades. (Kimbrel was sent from the Red Sox to the Padres for Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Logan Allen, and Carlos Asuaje. Giles and Jonathan Arauz were sent from the Phillies to the Astros for Vincent Valasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Thomas Eshelman, Mark Appel, and Harold Arauz.)

Not only were these trades weird, for some they were unfathomable, especially by the Astros. The Red Sox had just hired Dave Dombrowski, who’s garnered quite the reputation for trading his prospects. Luhnow is the antithesis of that narrative. He’s the young and progressive GM: the one with the huge database, the one who knows that relievers aren’t that valuable. Yet, Luhnow paid a hefty price for Giles.

Some, therefore, started suggesting that there was a divide between the way front office members and we the public value relievers, also noting that WAR may not be the best measurement of the trade. Russell Carleton wrote about this in an article entitled, “The Kimbrel Gambit”. Carleton stated that WPA was a better way to evaluate relief pitchers.

Then the 2016 trade deadline arrived and, as a number of people noted, the reliever market was nearly unbelievable. Deals for Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith, and Andrew Miller were all seen as overpays. I mean, Miller was traded for Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen. A huge haul, but perhaps most surprising is that the Indians gave up a bigger hall to get Miller than the one for Lucroy.

Now, Lucroy ended up vetoing the deal, but it was still surprising and befuddling to see this.

All of this culminated into the idea that there is a disconnect between the way the public and the front office values relief pitchers.

But does this make sense? More precisely, does it make sense that we are basically re-thinking the way we evaluate relief pitchers based on trades?

The answer to this is not entirely. Yes, if teams didn’t think relievers had some value, then they probably wouldn’t trade valuable assets for them. WAR, as Carleton demonstrated, is also probably not the best way to evaluate relief pitchers. Each team also has their own analytics department, and it’s very possible that they have different and better metrics to value relievers.

But, the biggest problem is that we are only looking at one element in these trades, and that is the value of the relief pitcher.

The reason, a number of people get befuddled by these trades is because of the return. But, maybe we need to reevaluate the value of the return. In all of these takes and analysis, no one has stopped to ponder on the value of prospects. Maybe it’s not that relievers are netting necessarily a higher return, but that prospects in general aren’t being valued as highly. More precisely, over the past year, teams seem to have been more willing to part with their prospects. It’s possible that teams, in general, are realizing that holding onto prospects is a risky proposition. This can work out very favorably, but can also bite you in the butt especially if the prospects don’t work out.

Let’s use the Red Sox as an example. When Ben Cherington was in charge, the media went after him hard for his unwillingness to part with his prospects. And, in some cases, Cherington was right: just look at Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Mookie Betts. These three prospects swarmed the baseball sphere in trade rumors, but they became very valuable pieces to this year’s team.

Then, however, there’s the other side. The Red Sox held onto prospects such as Deven Marrero, Henry Owens, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Garin Cecchini, and more. None of these players worked out, at least not as they’d hoped, and basically went from highly touted prospects to busts who don’t have a lot of value. This is basically the risk.

It highlights that for teams who are looking to acquire big league talent, it’s not necessarily about keeping or trading prospects, but knowing which prospects to trade. Knowing that you should hold onto Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley, but at the same time, know to trading Webster, Cecchini, Owens etc. Maybe teams are starting to figure that out, which is why we are seeing more prospects being traded.

Changing the way we value relief pitchers based on trades also ignores the market. If we simply assume that since relievers are garnering a greater return than before, then relief pitchers are more valuable than before, then we must assume that Andrew Miller is, in fact, more valuable than Jonathan Lucroy. The Indians traded for both players, and in many scout’s eyes, the return for Miller was better than the one for Lucroy.

But, this ignores the external factors of these deals. The market for relief pitchers seemed absurd because many teams needed pitching. In fact, every contending team needed pitching. That’s the thing about trading pitchers. It’s that no matter the market, teams can always use more pitching because there are twelve pitchers on a team compared to only two catchers. Lucroy might not have provided a big upgrade for some contending teams, but Andrew Miller would have provided a big upgrade for every team. Because at the end of the day, Miller is much better than the twelfth best pitcher on your team. While Lucroy isn’t necessarily that much better than the best catcher on your team.

The Brewers also seemed to have more urgency than the Yankees. Even after the deal fell through Rosenthal wrote, “Oh, he will be traded, most likely to the Rangers, a team that can acquire him without his permission.” The Brewers could have kept Lucroy until the offseason, but that would have hampered his value. The Yankees on the other hand were in no rush to trade Miller. Meaning that they could sit back and wait until a team met their price. The Yankees could be irrational with their demands, while the Brewers had to be more reasonable.

Finally, we assume that the people making these deals are acting like rational beings when in reality emotion and competitiveness play a factor. The deal for Chapman was probably an overpay. But, the Cubs haven’t won the World Series in more than 100 years. No living member of the organization has seen a Cubs World Series and this might be their best chance. The Cubs decided to give up some of the future, future that is unknown, to improve the one spot that needed to be improved, the closer role. Some of the Cubs front office members won’t be there when Torres reaches the majors. Some of them won’t be there next year. The Cubs move, while being an overpay, was done to win now because the Cubs are in a great position to win now, a position that isn’t necessarily going to re-occur.

The same thing can be said for other clubs. These were trades being made by humans, and even though humans are very smart, they are also often driven by emotions.The idea isn’t that we are underselling or overselling relievers. The idea is that coming to that conclusion based on trades is problematic and ignores other factors that could be influencing a team’s decision in making a trade.

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2 comments on “The Problem with Valuing Relievers Via Trade”


Not always, but usually pitching wins playoff series. In today’s run challenged environment this is even more true. A part of the run scoring decline has been the buildup of bullpens with a parade of super-charged arms. If you “win” the 7-9th innings with your pen and the first 6 innings with your top 3 “aces”, you win the series. Over a season, Lucroy will go a long way to getting a team to the playoffs, but a RP like the ones mentioned will allow you to win it.

Julien Assouline

I mean, I’m not sure I follow your logic. Are you arguing that bullpens are more valuable in the playoffs? If yes, the I agree, but a player such as Lucroy will always have more value than a RP, even in the post season. That said, the point of the article was not to argue the value of the relief pitcher per say. Rather it was to argue that coming to a conclusion on the value of the RP based on trades is problematic.

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