With Joe Nathan gone, the Twins are making noises about replacing him with a proven closer. This is a bad idea for multiple reasons. First, as many have pointed out, the most successful closers in team history have all been starters or inexperienced relievers converted to the closing role. But more importantly, paying for a player with closing experience is too expensive. All across MLB, closers are grossly overpaid for the role they play.
And I have numbers to prove it.
The table below shows the five highest paid starting pitchers in MLB in 2011 who did not miss significant time due to injury. On average, they get paid somewhere around $20,000 per batter faced. Not a bad gig!Starting Pitcher
$ per plate appearanceC.C. Sabathia
(Salary data gathered from Baseball-reference.com. Figures are approximate)
But now look at the top paid closers:Relief Pitcher
$ per plate appearanceMariano Rivera
Rivera earned more money last year per batter faced than the average American household earns in a year. You may look at his salary and conclude that he’s just getting overpaid by the free-spending Yankees. But the Yankees are the same team that is overpaying Sabathia and Burnett, and neither of them makes half of what Rivera does per plate appearance. Closers generally face less than a third as many batters per season as starters do, but they are often paid nearly as much per season. Bell just got a pay raise, by the way. If he faces 256 batters again this year, he’ll average $35,156 for each one.
Bell is an elite as far as closers go, but even past-their-prime closers get paid handsomely. Consider the deal Joe Nathan got with the Rangers. He’ll collect $7 million from Texas in 2012. If he faces 273 batters (his average total from 2004 through 2009), that comes out to $25,641 per hitter. That’s actually a decrease from the $58,900 he earned in 2011 (though that number is inflated due to a month on the DL). The Twins’ highest paid starter in 2011 was Carl Pavano, and he made $8 million – just $8,376 per hitter.
The pay discrepancy comes despite the fact that a starter’s job is tougher in almost every way. I’ve heard the argument that closers face greater pressure because they pitch late in games. Admittedly, I don’t understand what it’s like to pitch in MLB, but I’m pretty sure that no player can make it all the way through the minors if he cracks like Ray Finkle every time he faces a pressure situation (I will use any opportunity to link to that movie in a post). A starting pitcher who couldn’t handle pressure would lose his job just as fast as a closer would.
You might think that a closer has a tougher time because he can be called on to face the heart of an opponent’s order in a closer game. But a starter has to face the heart of the order two or three times, and every game is close when the starter takes the mound. Closers often have to pitch with one or two run leads, but starters face an even closer game, a 0-0 tie, nearly every time they pitch. Closers often have to face opposite-handed pinch hitters, but starters pitch against entire lineups designed to hit them. Closers can give their maximum effort on every pitch, since they’ll throw 25 or 30 at most. Starters have to pace themselves, pitch with stamina, and constantly pull new tricks out from their sleeves. Hitters will see the starter multiple times per game, so they can adjust to a starting pitcher’s approach and time his pitches. Unless the starter has multiple ways to get a hitter out, he’ll be punished by the second or third through the lineup.
When they’re not busy punishing starters, position players also contribute more than closers d0. A durable position player will bat for at least 600 plate appearances in a season, more than twice as many as a closer pitches. And that doesn’t even count his time in the field, which is harder to quantify but still crucial. Yet only the most highly paid superstar position players make more than top closers. If the system were more fair, only the top closers would make as much per season as average position players.
What does this tell us? That a “proven” (read: “expensive”) closer is an over-priced luxury. If you’re building or rebuilding a team (as the Twins certainly are), the closer is the last thing that you should worry about.
For the Twins, this means that they should either promote within for the closer job or sign a scrap heap player for a minimal price. Sure, an unproven or second-tier closer may blow a few games, but scrimping on the closer role would have less negative effect on the team than shortchanging on their other needs, like outfield or starting pitching. Glen Perkins would be the logical choice for this role, since he’ll make about $2.5 to $3 million next year whether he closes or not.
Let’s assume that the Twins have $22 million left to spend on 2012 salaries (that would place the payroll at about $110 million total). They need to divide that money up between their three remaining needs: a right fielder, a starting pitcher, and another reliever – either a closer or a replacement for Perkins as a setup man. Ideally, the starter would be on the mound for about 850 plate appearances next year, while the reliever should be counted on to pitch to 250. The outfielder will get around 600 if he stays healthy. This brings the total remaining need to about 1,700 plate appearances. If you divide up the need equally, the Twins should spend a little under $13,000 on each plate appearance. That comes out to roughly $7.5 million per year for an outfielder, $11 million for a starting pitcher, and just $3.5 million for the reliever.
Coincidentally, $11 million per year is in the right ballpark to sign Edwin Jackson. I’m just sayin’….
If you think the Twins have less money to spend – perhaps you buy Terry Ryan’s $100 million payroll comment – the numbers drop, but the proportion remains the same. The Twins would be wasting money if they spent more than $3 to $4 million on a closer, because that is money better spent on more important facets of their game,
[UPDATE: this post was written before the Twins re-signed Capps. Since there are some indications that they may still be looking for relief pitching help, the figures above remain largely relevant. The Capps signing was a bad financial decision, and any further relief pitchers the Twins sign would eat into money that could better be spent elsewhere.]