The Diff: Revisiting the folly of Chris Perez’s future

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote in detail about the struggling Indians offense. Now, I’m talking about everyone’s favorite closer.

The Diff

Chris Perez, 27-year-old closer, is making $7.3 million in his penultimate arbitration year. He’s set to be a free agent after the 2014 season. Chris Perez, now-quiet loud-mouth, has the sixth most saves in baseball since 2010 with a 2.92 ERA. He’s only 19 saves short of the Cleveland career mark. But because of the first fact, does that mean the Indians should be willing move on from him this offseason?

Back in January, Chris Perez reached a very typical one-year deal to avoid arbitration. At the time, he became the team’s second-highest paid player. The salary was an expected increase after he saved 36-plus games in a second straight season. He earned just $4.5 million in 2012.

But the deal was not a no-brainer for some. Yes, the Indians have avoided actual arbitration with any player since 1991. So in that sense, it was likely that the team didn’t have much of a choice in terms of short-changing Perez’s likely open market worth. Yet is it still worthwhile for the team to be doing so?

It’s no secret that I’m a gigantic admirer of the work of my colleague Jon. His 2010 WFNY series titled “SABR-Toothed Triber” is pure gold, despite the bad baseball of those days. He also wrote perhaps the best never-published thing that I’ve ever read.

When he writes, I devour every word. So, when Jon wrote a lot of words in an article titled “The Folly of the Chris Perez deal” back in January, I remembered it quite vividly. Let’s share this excerpt:

“Paying exorbitant amounts of money for a closer is like taking out a life insurance policy on your team’s season.  Teams like the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers or Angels or Rangers—these teams have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their roster.  They have, collectively, committed to spending nearly a billion dollars next season on their respective rosters.  For teams with these sorts of financial commitments, you can sort of understand why they wouldn’t want a question mark at the backend of the bullpen.  Perhaps spending one-twenty-fifth of your total investment to make sure it doesn’t all go up in flames could even be considered prudent, considering the money involved.

The Indians, on the other hand?  Well, a small market team paying big bucks for a closer would be akin to taking out a big fat life insurance policy on your unemployed, alcoholic Uncle Bob instead of using the money to buy him a new suit, a haircut, and a job-interview prep class.  You end up spending far more on the insurance policy than you’re ever likely to recoup, especially when the money could have been used more judiciously in the first place on something you and Bob could’ve really used.”

Generously, for 2014, Chris Perez’s salary likely will be in the $9-11 million range. That’s just how the game of baseball works. Arbitration-related salaries hardly ever go down, not usually for one-moth injuries, and especially not after another sub-3.50 ERA season with 20-plus saves.

Previously, I shared that the Indians have a handful of salaries ballooning between now and the 2014 season. To be exact, Cleveland has $18.2 million in guaranteed raises lined up for just five players next year. That’s a lot of money for a mid-market team.

The team’s Opening Day salary was somewhere in the $76-82 million range this season. None of us as fans know whether that could change for the future. For now, the safest option – and the one with some historical backing – would be to consider that’s the likely 2014 target, give or take just a little bit.

In this scenario, the Indians won’t have a significant amount of wiggle room. Yes, Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds aren’t returning. Three other players add up to a possible total of $23.65 million in 2013 dollars for upcoming free agents. So that leaves a potential net positive of a bit over $5 million when dealing with the guaranteed raises.

But then there’s the arbitration raises likely for a small group of other players – Masterson ($5.69 million this year), Drew Stubbs ($2.83 million) and Michael Brantley ($527K) – and the fact that the Indians, even as a likely mid-80-win team, are still very flawed. The offense continues to struggle and doesn’t have a great outlook. Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera are also free agents after 2014.

So possible other moves would be necessary for this team to peak during its key contention window, which might just be 2014-15. Thus, despite the fact he’s been established for a few years as a relatively solid closer, this could mean saving more money by parting ways with Chris Perez.

Let’s take a look at some of the most notable contracts ever handed to a closer in recent baseball history:

Billy Wagner: Signed 4-year, $43 million deal in winter 2005 before age-34 season
B.J. Ryan: Signed 5-year, $47.5 million deal in winter 2005 before age-30 season
Francisco Cordero: Signed 4-year, $46 million deal in winter 2007 before age-33 season
Kerry Wood: Signed 2-year, $20.5 million deal in winter 2008 before age-32 season
Francisco Rodriguez: Signed 3-year, $37 million deal in winter 2008 before age-27 season
Joe Nathan: Signed 4-year, $47 million deal in spring 2008 before age-33 season
Brad Lidge: Signed 3-year, $37.5 million extension starting in 2009 for age-32 season
Heath Bell: Signed 3-year, $27 million deal in winter 2011 before age-34 season
Jonathan Papelbon: Signed 4-year, $50 million deal in winter 2011 before age-31 season
Rafael Soriano: Signed 2-year, $28 million (backloaded) deal in winter 2012 before age-33 season
Brandon League: Signed 3-year, $22.5 million deal in winter 2012 before age-30 season

Yes, in relation to this obscene list of over-priced part-time players, Chris Perez very much does have age on his side. After signing whatever deal he receives in free agency in 2014, he’ll only be entering his age-29 season. But FanGraphs also has broken down the awful recent rate of long-term success for under-30 closers, too.

Yet, the biggest problem in relation to that list might be that fact that Chris Perez is also not an elite closer, but merely an above average one. Take a look at his career stat line, noting the ERA+ and sOPS+, which mark his success relative to league average.

chris perez career stats

Even I was surprised to see some of the numbers in this chart. Oddly enough, Perez’s career ERA+ of 124 actually supersedes his ERA+ from any individual season besides his remarkable 2010 campaign. That’s fairly impressive.

Consistently, he’s blown exactly four saves in each of the last four seasons. His K/BB ratio has never been spectacular, but is notably improved over the last two years. His OPS+ is actually slightly worse than the average this season, the worst of his MLB career.

Chris Perez’s 5.4 career WAR ranks 347th among relievers all-time, per Baseball-Reference. Even though he ranks 35th in relief appearances since 2008, he only ranks 43rd in terms of WAR.

Since 1954, there have been 186 seasons of a reliever tallying 3.5+ WAR. That averages out to about two or three per year, which has been the case fairly consistently throughout this span.

Perez has just one season with a WAR greater than 1.0, and that was his 2.5 WAR season in 2010. That’s the only year he’s been in the category of the game’s top-five relievers statistically, outside of merely saves.

Thus, if one was ever concerned about tossing around eight-figure deals to any single part-time player expected to face just about 250 batters – the equivalent of about 1/25th of a season – then the thought of over-paying a solid, not great such player should be even more terrifying.

Recently, I finished reading Jonah Keri’s tremendous book “The Extra 2%” about the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays under a group of former Wall Street executives. The main success stories emerging from Tampa Bay’s run of on-field prominence: great drafting, development, pitching health and the ability to find cheap value. In essence, the myth of the traditional closer is dying, as an ESPN Insider article stated.

That’s the new “Moneyball” spirit. It’s not just about taking walks and drafting well anymore. For teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay and Cleveland to compete, it’s near essential to not waste $13 million on two players for -1.7 WAR – looking at you, Reynolds and Myers – or give $11 million to a merely above-average closer. Even if it’s just for a single season.

Without Chris Perez, the Indians still will have a collection of somewhat similar above-average reliever talent: Vinnie Pestano should be back, Cody Allen is an emerging 24-year-old, and Bryan Shaw and Marc Rzepczynski are having surprisingly solid campaigns. Along with them in 2014, you’d probably expect to add in two more players from the near-AAAA mold and possibly a cheap free agent. Perhaps Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin also could be best utilized as middle relievers.

If the Indians move on from Chris Perez, I don’t think it will be because of declining performance or really anything on-the-field. He is who he is: An above-average reliever with usual health and a fiery personality. Any such reason for moving on will be about economics: The Cleveland Indians as an organization simply can’t afford an eight-figure closer.

Let’s skip ahead one last time to Jon’s article from January to close this out:

“But I told myself that if the Indians opened the 2013 season with Chris Perez on the roster, they will have blown the off-season.  They will have taken an asset and, simply by doing nothing, turned it into a liability.  A young, promising talent is on its way to becoming the one thing a team like the Indians can never have—a final year arbitration player counting down the days to free agency, leaving town for free.

Maybe I’m wrong about all this.  Maybe the Indians will claw their way into the post-season by the skin of their teeth, powered primarily by the talented young bullpen we saw on display last year.  Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything without their hirsute closer.  Maybe closers matter way more than I think, and this’ll be the year I’m proven wrong about them, once and for all.  I sure hope so.

But would I bet $7.3 million on it?  Nah.  I’d rather have a real DH and just get Uncle Bob that job already.  That’s just me, though.”

In 2013, the Indians surpassed Jon’s — and all of the WFNY staff’s — expectations and remain on the precipice of the playoff race. A good bullpen is always a helpful thing to have when actually playing meaningful baseball, unlike the past few Augusts.

But would I go all-in with nearly $11 million on Chris Perez in 2014 just to make the Cleveland bullpen a wee bit better? Nah. I’d rather find a way to renounce his rights or trade him to a team that can afford that deal, and construct a more cost-effective bullpen without him.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Well done and very timely Mr. Rosen as I just commented not only on missing out on an opportunity to trade Perez but even worse Asdrubal Cabrera. I could see bringing back Perez largely because of the lack of a replacement. Seeing Pestano’s troubles I guess I can’t complain. The fact that the minor leagues are absent a real replacement also doesn’t help. Cody Allen could possibly be the answer but not for a team contending for a playoff spot. Fast forward to the winter and I can’t see the Indians paying up for Perez. As you have demonstrated in your writing it wouldn’t make sense fiscally either.

    $12M the last two years on Sizemore and Myers plus whatever Reynolds received makes me think the Dolans might return to their more fiscally fickle ways. I for one am hoping this isn’t the case. This past winter was a breath of fresh air but clearly much more breathing must be done in order to make this roster into a true contender. Based on the fact that nothing substantial other then a left handed specialist has happened since this winter I truly question whether or not the upcoming winter will be as bountiful as the last.

  • Harv 21

    very nice, Jacob (I love when the stats back up what I’m seeing).

    Here’s my broken-record comment to all mention of “ya dummies shoulda traded him when his value was high”: Show me the deal they turned down or prove to me they refused to trade him before you claim the FO blew it. Because just getting “anything” is not more valuable than what Perez has done this year. If it’s apparent to ESPN and Jon and you and me that many big contracts given to big name closers have backfired, it’s presumably apparent to potential trade partners. Screaming “just trade him” is as mindless as those that scream “just trade down and get a bunch of great picks” before every NFL draft. Sensible trades require partners willing to give value at least equal to what you reasonably anticipate your guy will give you. And, btw, the same goes for Astrubal.

  • WFNYJacob

    Agreed. I talked in the fairly abstract. Would love to see any realistic trade offers. There might not be many. But Perez is making eight-figures next year. I’d prefer that not be in Cleveland. We’ll see what actually happens.

  • WFNYJacob

    Gracias Kool-Aid man.

  • mgbode

    first, well-worded and argued article per usual.

    now, here is where I am at with Perez and Asdrubal this offseason. I don’t care about getting “value” back anymore. I am screaming, as Harv mentioned, “just trade him” because I agree that we cannot afford his $11mil salary on our budget. I am saying the same thing for Asdrubal because we cannot afford his $$ and hope he has a bounceback year at the plate.

    so, yes, I have gone from last offseason of “get value but trade” to “just trade them.” I sure hope we get something of value (guys who pan out regardless of where they might be ranked), but I really want to move them.

    and, this is all said with the understanding that Perez has been a big part of our efforts since the allstar break. outside of one performance, he has been very good. he is an above average closer and really a top10 guy since he came back from the DL. regardless, he’s the fancy toy that we need to do without.

  • WFNYJacob

    Perez’s first 16 games back from the DL through end of July: 17.0 IP, 11 H, 1 R/ER, 3 BB, 12 K, 0.53 ERA, .509 OPS.

    Perez’s 11 games in the month of August: 11.0 IP, 12 H, 7 R/ER, 3 BB, 11 K, 5.73 ERA, .865 OPS.

    So yes, the one 4-run game obviously skews that, but the point is he’s been pretty mediocre overall after his sensationally hot start from returning from the DL. In general, his success over this 27-game stretch (2.57 ERA, .658 OPS) is generally on par with his career numbers. He is what we thought he was.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Harv we’ll never know what if any deals the Indians FO may have had or didn’t so that angle isn’t very provable. Personally I don’t even know if they ever considered trading Perez or even Cabrera for that matter but they should have once they saw how this team was performing. The fact that the FO has all but been silent despite the team contending on August 29th is disgusting.