Baseball’s trade deadline last week provided a referendum on how much value relief pitchers have in today’s game. And the results were fairly clear: Teams just don’t care about saves as much as they used to.
This season, we’ve been using our new relief pitching statistic, the goose egg, to track how bullpens are used. And the way relievers are deployed has, in fact, changed. Although it hasn’t been quite as dramatic as, say, the widespread adaptation of the defensive shift in baseball, there’s at least some evidence of teams using their best relief pitchers in smarter ways — using them in the highest-leverage situations, regardless of whether or not a save is on the line. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who has been the best relief pitcher in baseball this season, is one prominent example. He often enters games in situations that the goose egg rewards but the save does not — such as when the score is tied, or anytime before the ninth inning.1 (A goose egg is essentially a clutch, scoreless relief inning.)
But a series of deadline trades provided evidence on the diminished value that teams place on saves. Plenty of relief pitchers were traded, but teams were seemingly indifferent about whether the pitchers they’d acquired had accumulated high save totals or not. Take the Twins’ Brandon Kintzler, for example, who was picked up by the Washington Nationals for minor-league pitching prospect Tyler Watson and international bonus pool money. Kintzler was second in the American League with 28 saves, and the Nationals have struggled to close out games all season — so you might have expected them to give up a king’s ransom for him. Instead they gave up … Watson, who had been the Nationals’ 27th best prospect before the season and had a 4.35 ERA in Single-A at the time he was dealt.
Other pitchers with high save totals, such as the Padres’ Brandon Maurer’ and the Marlins’ A.J. Ramos, didn’t fetch high prices, either. The prospects the Mets gave up for Ramos — pitcher Merandy Gonzalez and outfielder Ricardo Cespedes — were rated No. 14 and No. 23 in their system by Baseball America before the year began. The Mets also traded their own interim closer, Addison Reed, to Boston, nabbing three prospects; but none of them ranked higher than No. 20 in the Red Sox system. It’s not that the teams are giving up nothing for saves, exactly. But we’re a long ways removed from the days of the (infamous) Heathcliff Slocumb trade, when even mediocre closers could bring an elite prospect or two in return.
And teams aren’t necessarily privileging the closer’s old role when he switches teams. Kintzler isn’t expected to close many games in Washington; instead, he’s the No. 2 or No. 3 option in the bullpen behind Sean Doolittle, who had just three saves for the A’s at the time he was acquired in July. Maurer will only be the third option in the Royals’ bullpen. Ramos will close out games for the Mets, but only because regular closer Jeurys Familia is hurt and Reed was traded.
If teams are looking to goose eggs for guidance instead of saves, the National League leaders are Jansen and the Brewers’ Corey Knebel, who have 33 goose eggs each. Cleveland’s Andrew Miller leads the AL with 31 goose eggs, but he’s now injured, which could allow Tampa Bay’s Alex Colome (30 goose eggs) or Seattle’s Edwin Diaz (29 goose eggs) to pass him.
Jansen has been by far the most effective reliever in baseball, as measured by goose wins above replacement (GWAR). He’s maintained a perfect record on the season with no broken eggs,2 our term for when a pitcher has an opportunity for a goose egg but allows an earned run instead, and 33 goose eggs — good for 4.8 GWAR. Miller leads the AL with 3.2 GWAR. A complete rundown of goose statistics follows in the table below.
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