Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday: Billy Wagner, B.J. Ryan, and 2005's Winter of the Reliever

This off-season is expected to change how relievers are compensated. But as 2005 showed, that may not be the case for long.

by Mike Piellucci
Dec 1 2016, 2:35pm

Luc Leclerc-USA TODAY Sports

While the history-making, jinx-breaking Chicago Cubs provided the baseball season's defining storyline, the on-field trend that will define 2016 was the dominance of the game's best relief pitchers and all the ways they can be deployed.

Traditionally the least-compensated players in the game, relievers dominated headlines and hitters before the season, at the trade deadline, throughout the postseason and well into the World Series.

Now, with two premium options available in an otherwise weak free agent market, relief pitching figures to be the story that defines the hot stove. Longstanding salary benchmarks are a lock to be shattered. If Kenley Jansen doesn't smash the record, then fellow mega-closer Aroldis Chapman will. It's entirely plausible that even Mark Melancon, the third-best reliever on the market by some distance, will get paid more to pitch longer than any reliever going into last season.

In other words, it feels a lot like 2005.

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Eleven years ago this week, Billy Wagner broke baseball's average salary record for a relief pitcher by inking a four-year, $43 million contract with the New York Mets. This came only three days after the Toronto Blue Jays set the record for mark the largest contract ever given to a reliever when the club signed another left-handed closer, B.J. Ryan, to a five-year, $47 million deal. Together, the signings were a statement of intent: Baseball was ready to usher in a new era of compensation for high-leverage relief pitchers.

Only it didn't quite work out that way.

The 2005 market opened for business with two tiers of ninth-inning options. The lesser one consisted of three names: Bob Wickman, Trevor Hoffman and Tom Gordon. All three posted ERAs under 3.00, and Wickman and Hoffman each saved more than 40 games, a big deal at a time when save totals and so-called proven closers ruled the day. But Gordon and Hoffman were already 38, and Wickman would turn 37 before the 2006 season. Time was not on their sides. The reasonable expectation for each hovered around one-year deals, perhaps one year with an option.

Meanwhile, Ryan and Wagner represented the top tier, for different reasons. Ryan brought the intrigue: At 30, he had just saved 36 games for the Baltimore Orioles on the strength of a 12.8 K/9, the second-best ratio of any reliever in baseball. In a market rife with aging arms, Ryan was the best and only realistic option for teams hoping to shore up their ninth inning pitching while not paying for too many years on the declining back end of the player performance age curve.

Thing was, Ryan had only closed for one year, and done so for one of the worst teams in the American League. How would he handle the pressure of a pennant race? He leaned heavily on his fastball, a pitch that didn't even average 91 miles per hour. Could he be counted upon if age robbed him of more velocity?

What does Billy Wagner do when he's signed a record-setting deal for relief pitchers? He goes to Disney World. Photo: Jeff Kern, Flickr/Creative Commons

Wagner, on the other hand, had just posted the lowest ERA of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies. At 34, he remained a hellion on the mound, with the same kerosene fastball and arcing slider emerging from a tiny frame, pitches that had felled men far bigger than him for nearly a decade. He would break down eventually, but that certainly didn't seem imminent. A three-year deal seemed likely, and worth it.

On November 26, one month to the day after the Chicago White Sox won the World Series, Ryan kickstarted the market. His contract stunned the industry. The dollar figure was one thing: For a brief moment, it was the highest ever for a reliever. But it was the length that blew everyone away. No relief pitcher had ever sniffed a five-year contract until Ryan, and he had done so with what amounted to a minimal track record at the time. Moreover, he was the first pitcher of any sort to get five years since Chan-Ho Park's disastrous contract with the Texas Rangers in 2001.

Predictably enough, there was backlash. National baseball writer Ken Rosenthal chuffed that the Blue Jays' front office were "about to be fitted for dunce caps." "On the list of bad contracts, this one would rank among the worst," he wrote. Even the headline for The Toronto Star's reaction column, which praised the move, began with "Jays overpaid for Ryan."

The ripple effect was immediate. Prior to Ryan's deal, the Phillies were making progress on a new three-year accord to retain Wagner. But Toronto's aggressiveness emboldened him to seek a fourth year, and the Mets were eager to hand one over. Wagner joined Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca, each of whom came over in separate trades with the Marlins, as New York's marquee offseason acquisitions.

Pat Gillick, the Phillies' general manager, forecast how that pair of unprecedented deals could adjust the market. Suddenly, everything executives thought they knew had changed. "If Ryan got a five-year contract, now the closers wanting a three-year deal want four, and the two-year guys want three," Gillick said at the time. "Usually you like to go year-but-year with a player like (Gordon or Hoffman), but it goes by the market. I do think these two signings (will carry over) to the older closers. They are going to want two years, or two and an option (year), maybe even three years.

"The (average annual value) doesn't bother me. It's the length that does. When you're talking a four- or five-year deal for a pitcher, either the pitcher is going to be disappointed at the end of the deal because he thinks he's underpaid, and if the pitcher doesn't perform then the team is going to feel like it got the short end of the stick."

In the shot term, Gilick was correct. While Wickman eventually settled for a one-year, $5 million to stay in Cleveland, Hoffman would re-up in San Diego for $13.5 million over two years, plus an additional option year. Gillick's own club would shell out three years and $18 million for Gordon.

But value is a funny thing. In the context of baseball free agency, it is fickle, capricious, circumstantial and, above all, nonlinear. Sixteen years ago, Alex Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers for a MLB-record $252 million. It was expected to become the new baseline. Questions were asked: who would break the record, and how much would he get? Nobody asked when, because it went without saying that the answer would be soon. But it ended up taking seven years–and Rodriguez himself was the one to do it. Another eight years would pass before Giancarlo Stanton surpassed him.

Trevor Hoffman was just a little bit too old to reap the full benefits of the 2005 relief pitcher boom. Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.

The bullpen market experienced a similar stagnation. Relievers are more devastating than ever and baseball revenues are ballooning, but in all the years since Wagner broke the salary record, only 11 relievers have averaged a higher salary. The current standard is the $15 million Mariano Rivera averaged from 2008 to 2010, a number that puts him level with the likes of Derek Lowe and Hiroki Kuroda, and lower than the infamous contract that Colorado gave Mike Hampton all the way back in 2000. To this day, no reliever since Ryan has garnered a five-year deal.

It's worth remembering, too, exactly how suddenly the game's infatuation with relievers came on. Three years ago, the party line within baseball was that the big-money reliever was an endangered species. The 2013 free agent market reflected as much: Then-proven commodities such as Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour and Jim Johnson all compromised on years, salaries or both. Plenty can change over that span, of course, so it's worth remembering the same logic held strong even as recently as a year-and-a-half ago. Relievers are fungible, we were reminded, and the bullpens worth emulating weren't those that paid a pretty penny to import Chapman and Miller, but rather ongoing thrift store operations like Oakland and Tampa Bay's. When the Andrew Friedman-led Los Angeles Dodgers overhauled their relief corps on a budget during the 2015 offseason, it was hard not to take as a signpost for where the game was going. If baseball's most profligate spenders determined that the smart play was to work on the cheap, well, maybe that's how things should be after all.

Now, however, we are all but certain to see multiple relievers earn five-year commitments. Ryan's contract could actually double: Median crowdsourced figures estimate Chapman to sign at $90 million over five years, and Jansen for $77.1 million over the same length of time. Another trickle-down may occur. Melancon, still effective but rife with warning signs, is projected to nab $13.6 million annually over four years, which would be a higher annual salary than all but three relievers in history. Who knows how high the market could go for lesser commodities such as Brad Ziegler and Sergio Romo?

What remains to be seen, of course, is how long the windfall will endure, if it does at all. No amount of role tweaks will change the fact that relievers are volatile, and that they see less game action than any other type of player. All it takes is a brief look back at the aftermath of Ryan and Wagner's deals to recall just how fleeting, and unpredictable, a reliever's peak can be.

After signing his deal Ryan, so excoriated, posted a miniscule 1.37 ERA in Toronto, nearly a full run lower than Wagner's debutante year in spacious Shea Stadium. A year later, Ryan had Tommy John surgery, and by 33 he was out of baseball. Wagner, meanwhile, kept chugging along, well after he was predicted to break down. He posted the lowest ERA of his career at age 39.

Every expectation was defied, every assumption shattered. Eleven years ago, the scope of relief pitching suddenly changed. Today, there are ample warning signs for a similar shift and, indeed, something historic seems likely happen. But baseball being what it is–relievers being what they are–there's no telling how crazy things will get, or how long they'll last.