When the Tigers signed Joaquin Benoit to a three year deal, I was a little squeamish. Signing 33-year old relievers with injury histories and surgically repaired rotator cuffs did not seem like the best way to start off the offseason shopping. When I looked at his numbers from 2010, though, I warmed up to the idea quite a bit.
His numbers last year, after all, were just sick. You just don't see pitchers give up 30 hits in 60.1 innings, and 75 strikeouts against just 11 walks is just ridiculous. I knew he was good in that Tampa pen, but this? Wow. If the Tigers are going to pick up free agent relievers, this is the kind of guy they should get. Quibble over the dollars if you want. If he puts up numbers like that, nobody will care if he's really "earning it" or not.
Of course, part of the reason you don't want to offer a whole lot of relievers long-term deals is you can't be sure they are going to repeat the numbers that earned them the paycheck. At least that's the common wisdom. Relievers who aren't one-pitch pitchers from Panama tend to be a bit erratic. Throw in the fact that you can never feel too good about a pitcher's health and three year deals seem to be asking for trouble.
So, did the Tigers take a bad gamble on Benoit? I decided to look into it. The way I went about it was digging through Cot's Contracts and looking up every single contract given to a reliever that was three years or longer. There were a few judgment calls (such as Braden Looper, whose contract I didn't count) but what it came down to were 38 contracts of three or more years given to a relief pitcher who remained a relief pitcher.
At first, I was going to break the contracts into categories and talk about each grouping of players. I soon discovered by the time I finished such a piece, Benoit's contract would be over. So I simplified and decided to judge the deals by Wins Above Replacement (WAR). I should clarify. I decided to use the WAR you find on Baseball-Reference.com. If you want to know the difference between that system and what you find at Fangraphs, you can read the discussion here.
Once I decided to look at things in these terms, the next step was to figure out how to classify the seasons. Again, I went with simplicity and decided to categorize them. Below are the categories with an example of a season in each category.
<0.0 WAR (Mike Stanton, ‘03, 45.1 IP, 37 H, 6 HR, 34 K, 19 BB, -0.1 WAR)
0.0-0.9 WAR (Matt Thornton, '07, 56.1 IP, 59 H, 4 HR, 55 K, 26 BB, 0.5 WAR)
1.0-1.9 WAR (Dan Wheeler, '08, 66.1 IP, 44 H, 10 HR, 53 K, 22 BB, 1.5 WAR)
2.0-2.9 WAR (Joakim Soria, '09, 53.0 IP, 44 H, 5 HR, 69 K, 16 BB, 2.7 WAR)
>3.0 WAR (Joe Nathan, '08, 67.2 IP, 43 H, 5 HR, 74 K, 18 BB, 3.6 WAR)
Looking at all the contracts together, we're talking 38 contracts for a total of 124 years. Of course, some of these years haven't been played yet so in those 39 contracts there has only been the capability to play 113 years. Let's look at how all those seasons fall out, paying no attention to what year of the contract it is or whether somebody lost time to injury.
< 0.0 WAR - 23 (20.4%)
0.0 - 0.9 WAR - 28 (24.8%)
1.0 - 1.9 WAR - 34 (30.0%)
2.0 - 2.9 WAR - 8 (7.1%)
> 3.0 WAR - 10 (8.8%)
As you can see, getting more than 2.0 WAR in a season from a reliever is difficult. Luckily, the Tigers are paying Joaquin Benoit $5.5 million per year and the going rate for 1.0 WAR in free agency is going to be somewhere between $4 million and $5 million. So even if Benoit falls short of his stellar 2010, he can live up to his contract by staying in that middle range where about 3 out of 10 seasons fell.
That conclusion left me a little unsatisfied, though. It seemed a shame to have all these contract numbers and not look a little closer. The Tigers are paying for about 3.5 to 4.0 WAR with Benoit. How many of these contracts lived up to the 1.2 to 1.3 WAR per season the Tigers need out of Benoit? Of the 38? Just 14 of them. That's a little scary and when you consider that six of the 14 were gobbled up by Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman - three of the best relievers to ever - it doesn't really help.
The problem with looking at these contracts this way is it doesn't take the individual cases into consideration. How many of these relievers were 33 going into the deal? How many had injury histories? How many were rotator cuff surgery survivors? How many came back from their surgery throwing harder and with more precision than ever before?
That last question is meant to point out what Benoit has going for him. His fastball's average velocity of 94.0 mph last season was the best of his career by more than a full mph. His BB/9 of 1.64 obliterated the best control he had shown in any prior season. That's after missing all of 2009 with the previously mentioned surgery.
Obviously, Benoit is not your typical case. Maybe that's what they need, though. With just 14 of 38 relief contracts working out at the level the Tigers need from Benoit, they need for him to be atypical.