Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/9/14
This week, the Rockies signed relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins to bolster the back end of their bullpen. It’s an interesting move on two levels. First, it’s pretty remarkable just how long Hawkins’ career has lasted. Second, it’s another data point that shows that teams are less and less willing to pay big bucks for saves. When Hawkins suits up for his second go-round with Colorado in 2014, it will be his 20th season in the major leagues. He has thrown at least 20 innings in each season since 1995. That’s pretty ridiculous if you ask me. Digging into the Play Index, I find that he really doesn’t have much company in this regard. Here is the list of the pitchers who have primarily been relievers during their careers and managed to pitch in 20 or more major league seasons: Player Seasons Reliever ERA Dennis Eckersley 24 2.85 Jesse Orosco 24 3.12 Rich Gossage 22 2.77 Lindy McDaniel 21 3.14 John Franco 21 2.89 Rick Honeycutt 21 3.36 Hoyt Wilhelm 21 2.49 Tom Gordon 21 3.29 Darren Oliver 20 3.19 Arthur Rhodes 20 3.43 Terry Mulholland 20 4.85 Eleven players. There have been eight other pitchers who pitched in 20 or more seasons and were relievers by the time they reached their 20th season, but I don’t think that’s the same thing. Pitchers who are converted to relief work early in their career — or in John Franco’s case, at the very beginning of it — generally don’t last as long, because the theory goes that if you were really good, you’d be a starting pitcher. Hawkins was a starter himself, once upon a time. In his earlier years, three of which were full(ish) campaigns, he was a back-end starter for the Twins. It wasn’t pretty. He never posted an above-average ERA- or FIP-, and for the period he posted a 6.16 ERA. A poor ERA doesn’t always tell the whole story, but it does a pretty nice job in this case. Hawkins simply wasn’t a very good pitcher at that point in time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that most pitchers who post a 6+ ERA in their first 500 major league innings, don’t live to see another 500. Hawkins has, and is working on his third block of 500 innings because he has been much better as a reliever. It was a slow progression, but after breaking through with a dominant 2003 campaign (38 shutdowns, seven meltdowns, 2.8 WAR), all of the goodwill nearly vanished after a disastrous 2005 campaign. He started the season as the Cubs closer, but lost the job and was dealt to the Giants, where he didn’t have any better luck in high-leverage situations. For the season, he posted 19 SD and 18 MD. Still, the Orioles liked him enough to bring him into the fold in 2006, and everything has been gravy since. From 2006 on, he’s posted 119 SD against 54 MD. Not the best ratio perhaps, but Hawkins has maintained that two-to-one ratio in just about every season, and is coming off a 20-8 season in 2013 with the Mets. With a tandem of Hawkins and Rex Brothers, who himself posted 30 SD against seven MD last season, the Rockies could have a pretty good back end of the bullpen. And with Brothers making the league minimum and Hawkins making just $2.5 million, they’ll have it on the cheap. It is that continual devaluation of the closer on a macro level that makes this deal so interesting. As Dave Cameron noted a couple of weeks ago, salaries keep rising, but there is a growing body of work that shows that teams can have success doing just the opposite with the back end of their bullpen. From Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Kansas City to Chicago to … you get the idea … teams are entrusting the supposedly most important role in the game to youngsters who haven’t yet reached arbitration, or castoffs who they signed for peanuts. Over the past five years, the average salary for the top 25 in saves has declined: Now, perhaps this isn’t the best way to look at this. It doesn’t include high-priced flops like Joel Hanrahan, Heath Bell or Brandon League. But then again, it also doesn’t include league minimum guys like Trevor Rosenthal, Danny Farquhar, Mark Melancon and Brothers. My feeling is that these things probably even out. Except for the part where the guys who have been most frequently trusted to get the save are plying their trade for less than they were before. Back in 2009, seven of the 25 pitchers on this leaderboard earned $8 million or more. That number declined to three last year, and with Mariano Rivera now retired, this year that might be just two — Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano. Both of their contracts look like disasters, as do the contracts for Jonathan Broxton and Brandon League, especially since neither is now a closer. As Jerry Crasnick wrote on Wednesday, teams are wary of making big commitments because it reduces bullpen flexibility. Seems simple. Don’t pay closers a ton of money, because they’re a crapshoot. Except that the game is awash in cash, so there is still a good chance that someone does get to that eight-figure payday. If David Murphy is suddenly worth $5 million a year coming off a 0.4 WAR season, then surely a closer is worth $10 million, right? Maybe. Or what about Craig Kimbrel, who the Braves just have to retain, right? They just have to sign him to a big-money deal! Well, not so fast. Just like the Red Sox haven’t missed Papelbon, we are already seeing some very smart people advocate for the Braves to trade Kimbrel. Longevity is most definitely an issue. Going back to that top 25 in saves from each of the past five years, the only name who shows up on it in each season is Papelbon, and with his saves rank dropping — not to mention his fastball velocity — it’s no longer a given that he is the cream of the crop. In LaTroy Hawkins and Rex Brothers, the Rockies might end up with a closing tandem that costs roughly two-thirds of what they paid Rafael Betancourt last season — and at $4.25 million, they didn’t exactly pay Betancourt a mint. The duo may not look like world beaters on their face, but then, did Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon look like sure-fire relief aces at this time last year? Did Fernando Rodney look like one heading into 2012? The most uncertainty in this game is found in the bullpen, and more teams are beginning to realize that it isn’t worth paying a pretty penny for that uncertainty.
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