The MLB’s Market for Relief Pitchers is Starting to Come to Fruition

The MLB Hot Stove is finally starting to get more heat, as trades are being made, and the ones that haven’t yet, are in intensifying talks. And on the side, we are starting to see the reliever market begin to set itself, with key signings being made just recently.

Jeurys Familia and Joe Kelly are the big names who have found new homes while Jordan Lyles, who is more low-key, has found one as well. Charlie Morton is another name to be signed, and while he isn’t technically a reliever, is speculated to be utilized as an ‘opener’ for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Bullpens are becoming more and more valuable around Major League Baseball, in large part due to the analytics revolution. Starting pitchers do not go deep into games as they once used to, so there is an increased importance on relievers to come into high-leverage situations to protect a lead or, if working from behind, maintain a manageable deficit.

And because of the demand, the financial commitment towards required for quality relievers has gone up. It was just a few years back where Andrew Miller scored a four-year, $36 million deal from the New York Yankees. But he was topped by Mark Melancon two years later who signed a four year, $60 million deal with the San Francisco Giants.

But both of these guys were left in the dust by Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. Jansen re-signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for five years, $80 million and Chapman signed for five years, $86 million with the Yankees.

Neither of the three guys who have signed is on the same level as those four at their best. Familia is but doesn’t have the duration at his peak to compare. Thus they did not get anything close to a megadeal like them. However, two of the three were comfortably compensated not even for being the best pitcher in their new bullpen.

It’s always risky business, however, when investing in relief arms. There is a lot of evidence of bullpen arms being volatile, even the best ones. So there will always be some eyebrows raised when a guy gets such a high average annual value as Familia and Kelly received.


Jeurys Familia Returns to the New York Mets for Three Years, $30 Million

Familia was traded from the Mets to the Oakland Athletics midseason last year, and in 72 innings with both teams, he had a 3.13 ERA, 1.222 WHIP, and 83 strikeouts.

In his seven-year career, the veteran righty has made 343 appearances, compiling a 2.73 ERA and 1.211 WHIP. At his peak, Familia was arguably the best reliever in the game. But, for most of his career, the 29-year-old has been good, or very good, but not elite.

But Familia is still a good pitcher and will form a lethal pairing at the backend of the Mets’ bullpen with Edwin Diaz. It’s the type of pairing that can reduce games to seven innings. Or, one of the two guys can serve as the go-to arm for high-leverage situations outside of the ninth inning.

On paper, it’s a good move, but when you realize what New York will be paying Familia, it’s an eyebrow-raiser. As good as he is, the righty isn’t worth $10 million-per-year.

Jordan Lyles Goes to the Pittsburg Pirates for One Year, $2.5 Million

The Pittsburg Pirates just shipped out Ivan Nova, leaving an opening in the starting rotation. Jordan Lyles may be coming in with the opportunity to challenge for a starting spot, but it’s more likely that he is being brought in to serve as a reliever.

The 28-year-old had a 4.11 ERA in his 87.2 innings with the San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers. 16.1 of those came with the Brewers, where he had a 3.31 ERA and 2.49 FIP.

He made 24 appearances, with eight of them coming via starts, but ultimately served best as a reliever, where he owned a 3.32 ERA, 44 strikeouts, and a .609 OPS against in 40.2 innings. And his success may have some legitimacy behind them because he completely changed his pitch usage in 2018, meaning he has a brand-new approach which may lead to sustained success.

Lyles’ deal then puts into question how Joe Kelly got so much from his new team.


Joe Kelly Signs With the Los Angeles Dodgers for Three Years, $25 Million

Leading up to his deal with Los Angeles, reports suggested that Kelly was highly-sought after by numerous team before deciding on Hollywood. He is a starter-turned-reliever who had a 4.39 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 65.2 innings.

ERA is not the best, or most fair, stat to judge a reliever on because of the small sample size they have. The amount of works, or lack thereof, gives them a tiny margin for error, and one bad outing can skew an entire month or season. It’s more about the stuff they possess and the matchup advantages they offer.

2018 was the perfect representation of Kelly in regards to his career as a whole. He has a 3.87 ERA throughout a somewhat inconsistent career. His ERA spiked up this season after owning a 2.79 ERA in 2017. And this season, the Boston Red Sox saw a different Joe Kelly each month.

March/April- 3.09 ERA

May- 0.63 ERA

June- 8.31 ERA

July- 8.38 ERA

August- 1.42 ERA

September/October- 8.31 ERA

In reality, his numbers this season weren’t much different from Lyles, and although he is more established, has not always been great. So how did Kelly get over $20 million and two years more? Because he is the perfect example of a guy, who raised his stock with an excellent postseason.

During the 2018 MLB playoffs, the 30-year-old allowed just two runs (one earned) in 11.2 innings of work, including six scoreless frames with four hits, zero walks, and ten strikeouts in the Fall Classic against these same Dodgers. This after five scoreless postseason innings the last two years.

His fastball averaged 98.1 miles per hour in 2018, and his triple-digit heater completely stifled Los Angeles in the World Series. However, the one downside with his elite velocity is the command or lack thereof.

Kelly is good, but over $8 million-a-season good? Probably not. However, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ front office doesn’t just throw money around. They are very cautious and pragmatic with it.

The refused to match the two years, $20 million Brandon Morrow received elsewhere in 2017 to retain him. So, to see them hand out more money for someone who didn’t match Morrow’s 2017 level is perplexing.

They see something in Joe Kelly which they like and believe that they can be the ones to turn the righty into the consistent elite arm he has the potential to be.

And it wouldn’t be a surprise because this Dodgers’ regime has done an excellent job of utilizing their relievers according to their strengths. They gameplan around those strengths, whether it be altering pitch usage or changing the areas of the strike zone to attack, and optimize the talent.

These moves have set the reliever market. Gone are the days where the relief ace gets $30 million. Now, the complementary arms are starting to as well. It only makes us wonder how much Craig Kimbrel will get, absurd asking price and all.

About Sunit Bhakta

Sports and food enthusiast. Love reading thriller and Comic books. Will talk almost any movie or tv show, especially Westworld!

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