Why the A’s Should Not Re-Sign Grant Balfour
I love Grant Balfour. This year, I bought a shirsey of his – a level of commitment that is reserved for so few players in my world. He is everything you want in a closer, boisterous, exciting and clearly most importantly effective. When a guy is good at what he does, normally you want to lock them in, re-up them. But with closers that simply isn’t the case. Relievers are replaceable. Quite easily so.
How do you judge who is a good closer? Let’s go the most simplistic route: saves a category in which Balfour ($4.5M) finished tied for eighth in MLB with 38. Ahead of him were: Craig Kimbrel ($655K), Jim Johnson ($6.5M), Greg Holland ($539.5K), Mariano Rivera ($10M), Joe Nathan ($7M), Rafael Soriano ($14M), Addison Reed ($520K) and he was tied with Aroldis Chapman ($2M). The key thing here is those bracketed numbers – the amount these players each earned in 2013. The numbers are just so dramatically divergent with closers. Even if you took out the pre-arbitration elibgle guys here, you have Soriano being paid tied as much as Nathan who in turn is being paid about one and a half times what Balfour is being paid. There is a lot of variance. But maybe saves is a poor measure of quality?
Let’s try something like wins above replacement. I have filtered out everyone with at least ten saves (and arbitrary number but these are guys who were closers for at least a decent chunk of 2013). Balfour falls to 25th on this list (out of a total of 35) with his 0.6 WAR. Yet he is ahead of the aforementioned $14M man Rafael Soriano (0.5). WAR isn’t always the greatest at measuring closers, so let’s go with a method I prefer which is the shutdown to meltdown ratio. This means how many times did a closer affect his team’s chance of winning by 6% or more (shutdown) or 6% or less (meltdown). Important stuff. Relievers are there to close out games, ensure victory. If they come in with a team having an 80% chance of victory and shut it down? Shutdown. Likewise if they blow that same 80% chance of winning? Meltdown. Simple stuff. Pretty fair. Here Balfour fares very well, fifth in baseball with a 6.6 ratio behind only, Holland (at an incredible 10.25), Nathan (9.75), Kimbrel (7.8) and Benoit ($5.5M) (7.3). These are in my mind the best at what they do and I think few would take issue with any of these guys being considered among the top five closers in baseball. But again look at that disparity on pay. While that will exist many times, here again we see it at work. Let’s do this list yet another way, by pay.
Here are the nine highest paid relievers in baseball: Soriano ($14M), Jonathan Papelbon ($13M), Rivera ($10M), Carlos Marmol ($9.8M), Heath Bell ($9M), Chris Perez ($7.3M), Nathan ($7M) and Frank Francisco ($6.5M) and Johnson. Would anyone agree that that list is the nine best closers in baseball? There is a reason for this, closers from year to year are wholly inconsistent. Let’s replicate the three measurements of quality for 2012.
So we start with the inexact but simple example of saves. The first perfect example is that Balfour wasn’t even the closer all year. It was a role shared with Brian Fuentes and Ryan Cook, so in terms of total saves he finished a distant 22nd (further proving my point right off the bat). The top ten on that list were: Johnson ($2.625M), Fernando Rodney ($1.75M), Kimbrel ($590K), Jason Motte ($1.95M), Soriano ($11M), Perez ($4.5), Chapman ($2M), Papelbon ($11M), Nathan ($7M) and Joel Hanrahan ($4.1M). First of all the discrepancy pay wise remains, secondly look at the turnover. There are wholesale different names on this list. In fact of the guys on this list, several Motte, Perez and Hanrahan, weren’t even closers in 2013. Let’s look at WAR, why may provide some insight.
Balfour does well on the WAR count in 2012 at 1.5 as he was tied for eighth among those pitchers who had at least ten saves. The list ahead of him includes some familiar names and some first time mentions in this piece with: Kimbrel leading the way followed by, Chapman, Rodney, Holland, Kenley Jansen, Nathan and J.J. Putz. In the shutdown to meltdown ratio category, which again I see as most important, Balfour again performs well finishing ninth among the 34 qualifying pitchers with a 4.6 mark, behind Rodney (17.0), Johnson (15.3), Kimbrel (9.3), Chapman (6.8), Sergio Romo ($1.575M) (5.6), Hanrahan (5.2), Soriano (5.1) and Perez (4.9). These guys represent the best but again their pay doesn’t match that assessment at all.
The point is simple. The best closers vary from year to year. There might be some who are consistently among the best, and Balfour very well may be one of them. But you can get that same production from other people both on the free-agent market who aren’t currently closers, or from converting someone else (and the A’s have several candidates including Cook who served admirably in the role) to become your closer. As far as value, there is so little as everyone knows in paying big on the guy who will shutdown your ballgame. Of the nine highest paid closers in baseball this year, one is playing postseason baseball (Marmol), and he isn’t even his team’s closer. That says something doesn’t it?