>Saving K-Rod: Part 2

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Yesterday, in Part 1, I examined the declining peripherals of Francisco Rodriguez and how things may not quite be all doom and gloom for K-Rod and the Mets in 2010. Today, in Part 2, let’s take a look at Frankie’s miserable second half and how monkeys can help us understand why closers get overpaid.

Cause of worry #3: The second half

The guy who the Mets brought in the shut the door in 2009 and beyond surrendered 20 runs in 25.1 innings post All-Star break. Which is to say “not good.” Again though, things aren’t as bad as they look – it’s not the end of the world as we know it (though Lenny Bruce is still not afraid.) Despite creating a terrible 6.75 ERA for himself, K-Rod blew just four saves for the Mets in the second half, only one more than he blew in the first half. He wasn’t terrible everyday, but the 6.75 ERA still needs some reckoning. How does an all-star have such an awful half-season?

To start, Frankie got lucky in the first half of the season, but then his luck changed for the worse in the second. Frankie’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP), the rate at which balls in play turn into hits, was low in the first half, checking in at .227 – his career BABIP is .269. Balls initially found their way into gloves, but things balanced themselves out in the second half of the season when Frankie’s BABIP shot up to .309. The Mets defense apparently didn’t give Frankie much help after the all-star break. Some of the 6.75 ERA wasn’t entirely his fault. Just some, though. A majority of the damage was Frankie himself.

However, 25.1 innings is too small a sample to judge someone by – especially someone who has been a top reliever for the six and a half previous seasons. 25.1 innings can be heavily influenced by a bad game, or just two bad pitches in this case.

Like as is often said about Oliver Perez and A.J. Burnett, there were two K-Rods in 2009: one was good, and the other was heroically bad. In Frankie’s 35 saves he posted an ERA of 1.65 over 32.2 innings (Good K-Rod), but in his seven blown saves he posted an ERA of 27.32 in 5.2 innings (Bad K-Rod). For comparison, Billy Wagner’s ERA in his 2008 blown saves was less than half that, 13.01. Frankie’s blown saves, especially in the second half, weren’t tight one-runs leads being slapped away by a few well placed singles – they were much more like the explosions in Michael Bay movies. Excessive and painful to watch, only without the slow-motion running and robots in disguise.

In fact, most of the damage to Rodriguez’ second half ERA came from two heroically bad appearances. He surrendered two walk-off grand slams, one on August 7th against the Padres and the other on September 30th against the Nationals. He gave up 10 earned runs -10- in those two appearances and recorded just two lonely outs. As a general rule, surrendering grand slams is one of the better ways to hyper-inflate your ERA – if Frankie had instead surrendered a walk-off single to the Padres and gotten himself out of the bases-loaded, two-out jam against the Nationals, his second half ERA drops to 4.26, about league average. Two bad pitches did megatons of damage. In fact, Frankie’s second half ERA outside of those miserable two appearances was just 3.29. It wasn’t so much that K-Rod had a horrible second half – his K rate actually went up – but more that he had two awful appearances that happened to take place in the second half.

Frankie’s 6.75 second half ERA was accumulated for an unwatchable team out of the race, in a small number of unlucky innings, and an overwhelming majority of the damage was done by two bad pitches in two unwatchable innings. His previous six-and-a-half seasons of good work were not undone by two grand slams in 2009 – my guess is that if those two pitches had stayed in the park, no one is worried about Frankie for 2010. He’ll be fine. Not great, but fine.

Cause of worry #4: The contract, particularly the $17.5 fourth year vesting option.

While a lot of Frankie’s down year can be attributed to some poor luck and two miserable outings, all those runs he surrendered did count and his performance added up to just 0.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which Fangraphs valued at $1.5 million dollars. Frankie’s average salary over the three years of his contract, plus the (inevitably) vesting fourth year option, is $13.63 million dollars. So Rodriguez seems to be getting massively overpaid – but then again, so is every closer. Even the almighty Mariano Rivera may be getting more than he deserves. Even when you take into account that closers pitch innings of greater importance than the average pitcher, there is no way Frankie is going to be worth $17.5 million in 2012. His highest WAR season was 4.0 in 2004, and his second best season was 2.5 WAR. It’s not going to happen, simply because no closer adds enough wins to their team to be worth that much. It’s just not possible – closers don’t pitch enough innings to become worth $17.5 million, and their value is further undermined by being used to often “protect” 3 run leads in the ninth.

But teams keep giving big contracts to closers, even the “smart” teams. It’s devoid of logic – Spock would disapprove. And this, well, this is where the monkeys come in. You may have read this before in the New York Times or in the book “SuperFreakonomics“, which I recommend you read – when you’re not reading this blog, of course. This selection describes how scientists taught capuchin monkeys to use money. You know, for scientific reasons. Maybe they were bored. Dr. Zaius ran the experiments. Something like that, I don’t know. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

“[Man of science] Chen next introduced a pair of gambling games and set out to determine which one the monkeys preferred. In the first game, the capuchin was given one grape and, dependent on a coin flip, either retained the original grape or won a bonus grape. In the second game, the capuchin started out owning the bonus grape and, once again dependent on a coin flip, either kept the two grapes or lost one. These two games are in fact the same gamble, with identical odds, but one is framed as a potential win and the other as a potential loss.

How did the capuchins react? They far preferred to take a gamble on the potential gain than the potential loss . . . In similar experiments, it turns out that humans tend to make the same type of irrational decision at a nearly identical rate. Documenting this phenomenon, known as loss aversion, is what helped the psychologist Daniel Kahneman win a Nobel Prize in economics.”

Basically people and monkeys vastly prefer a perceived gain opposed to a perceived loss, even if they finish with the same outcome. Loss aversion. What does this have to do with over-paying K-Rod?

Let’s play a similar game to the one the monkeys played. You are a free agent fan – human, monkey, or “Planet of the Apes” intelligent monkey – and you have the choice to root for two different teams, Team A or Team B. Here’s how their respective seasons played out:

First, Team A, the Augusta Avengers: Te
am A won 85 games over the course of their season, but 15 of those wins were of the late inning, come-from-behind variety. The lineup featured a few all-stars and the rotation was shaky at best – Team A was really able to make all the comebacks because their bullpen, led by ace closer Alan Aldaman, was dominant. They kept the game close, allowing the offense to scape together some late runs, and could lock down the late innings when need be.

Now Team B, the Bismarck Bovines: Team B has a great offense with slugger Barry Bondsman, and an above-average rotation fronted by flame throwers Bob Barkerman and Bo Biceman. The lineup scored early and often. In fact, Team B actually led going into the 8th inning 100 times on the year. Unfortunately, their rag-tag bullpen, led by no-name closer-by-default Billy Beaneman, choked away an astounding 15 late-inning leads, decimating their win total for the year.

Which one would you rather watch over the course of a season? Team A would be labeled by fans and shouting heads as gritty and possessing a never-say-die attitude, while team B would be written off as chokers and underachievers and a heartless bunch of bums who oughta be shipped outta town on the next train. But both teams win the same number of games, 85. It shouldn’t matter who you root for. Then again, it kind of does.

Team A, because of their comebacks, is seen as having gained something, whereas Team B is seen as having lost something – even though they win the exact same number of games. The talent levels, the ultimate destination, is exactly the same, while the journeys are quite different. Personally, I would much rather watch Team A, especially since I’ve already seen a group like Team B play – they were called the 2008 Mets. Or the 2007 Mets. Pick one. Team A is fairly similar to the 2007 Phillies. Who would you rather root for?

Now, these examples have been exaggerated – I don’t know if any team’s bullpen is capable of choking away that many games, even the 2008 Mets – but the situations are set up just like the monkeys and their grape gambling. The outcomes are the same, but one is framed as a loss (with a bad bullpen) and the other a gain (with the comebacks). No one wants to feel like they’re losing something, be it grapes, leads in baseball games, actual money, whatever. We would much rather think that we are making a gain. A $5 surcharge? I don’t want to pay that. A $5 rebate? Sign me up. It’s why blown saves are so crushing and late-inning comebacks are so euphoric. A bad bullpen rips your heart out over and over again, and even if the team finishes with 89 wins, it seems like a lot less because of all the ones that got away.

If a team took the money it spent on its ace reliever and spent it more efficiently on a starter or an outfielder, they’d get more out of their money. They’d win more games, but they may also end up like the Bismark Beavers, losing bunches of games in soul-crushing fashion because of their sub-standard bullpen. The overall win total would increase, but the overall “sanity level” would be decrease. Come the ninth inning, everyone feels the temperature rise. So the next year they let the outfielder walk and ink up an all-star closer. The blowing of saves stop, but now there are also less games to blow. Their win total decreases, but the sanity level increases. The team is probably more fun to watch, they make more late inning comebacks, clueless announcers say they have a lot of heart. But they win less games.

It’s not rational. Teams waste money on closers and relievers all the time. Logically, they shouldn’t be doing it. But it happens anyways because everyone hates that feeling of losing something you thought you had. It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the point – no one is actually completely rational. Capuchin monkeys aren’t, baseball general managers aren’t, I’m not, you aren’t, fans of the Bismarck Bovines aren’t. Watching lead slip away night after night is maddening – it causes normal, everyday people to turn into raving lunatics.*

*You know why there are so many deranged super-villains in Gotham City? Because their baseball team had a crappy closer.

K-Rod’s contract indeed overpays him for what he does on the field. Massively, even. The $17.5 million dollar option should be a fireable offense for Minaya. K-Rod’s deal is an especially illogical contract, but every team overpays for relievers. It’s crazy, they shouldn’t do it, it doesn’t make any sense. Frankie’s never going to be worth the actual dollars even if he rebounds into dominance. Remember the monkeys though. The pain of a perceived loss – a blown save in this case – is greater than the joy of a perceived gain. Consider the money spent on K-Rod the price of sanity, the cost of loss aversion. Because, really, what are you willing to pay to avoid reliving 2008?

Image of Francisco Rodriguez licensed under CC from here, image of capuchin monkey from here.

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