The Dodgers, the Red Sox, and paying for relievers

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers gave Brian Wilson an expensive one-year deal, while the Red Sox signed Edward Mujica to a far more sensible two-year contract. What do these deals tell us about the two franchises' differing attitudes toward roster construction?

On Thursday, two teams with high hopes for 2014 added important pieces to their bullpen puzzles, as the Dodgers signed Brian Wilson to a one-year, $10 million contract, and the Red Sox knotted up Edward Mujica for two seasons and $9.5 million total. The fact that Boston will be paying Mujica less money despite handing out the lengthier contract speaks volumes about L.A.’s spending habits and the persistent silliness of baseball’s relief market.

Even though the Dodgers already possess the quintessential example of why you should never invest too much in relievers, they chose to throw more money at a relief pitcher this winter, and reportedly, even gave Wilson an $8.5 million player option for 2015. Now Wilson isn’t a bad reliever, though he is three years and a Tommy John surgery removed from his dominant seasons with the Giants. In a very small sample, he pitched quite well in 2013, allowing just one earned run and racking up 13 strikeouts in 13.2 innings to go along with six scoreless frames in the postseason.

During his late-season stint with the Dodgers, his average fastball velocity (94.4 mph) took a slight downtick from his best years in San Francisco, but Wilson coped by mixing in a ton of cutters, throwing the pitch 69.5% of the time. This new wrinkle in his approach worked (again though, very small sample), with Wilson’s cutter yielding a .192 batting average against and an .043 opponents’ ISO.

The issue here, though, isn’t the bearded pitcher’s effectiveness, but more the $10 million the Dodgers gave to a reliever who has thrown 15.2 innings since the start of 2012. Such money is admittedly a pittance for L.A.’s owners, who could have probably paid Wilson $30 million this season and hardly have known the difference. But compare Wilson’s salary with Jason Frasor’s, who compiled more WAR (0.8) and a better xFIP (3.62) in 2013 than Wilson did in his last full season in the majors. Early in October, Texas signed Frasor to a one-year deal for $1.75 million.

The point, of course, is not to debate who is the better pitcher, but merely to suggest that, in no way, will Wilson be five times more valuable than Frasor in 2014.

Which brings us, in a roundabout manner, to the Red Sox and Edward Mujica, a reliever who has been quite good for three straight seasons now. Multi-year deals for relief pitchers can often prove foolish, but given Mujica’s consistent track record, relative youth (he turns 30 in May), and fair price tag, this appears to be a safe bet for Boston.

The right-hander’s pitch usage has changed drastically since his early days with the Padres. As the table below shows, Mujica has increasingly depended upon his splitter dating back to 2010, while throwing fewer and fewer fastballs:

The change in strategy has paid off, with Mujica posting a 132 ERA+ along with 156 strikeouts and just 31 walks in 206 innings pitched from 2011 to 2013. Last season, he walked only five batters and finished with a 3.53 xFIP. Most significantly, that splitter he leans on so much was pretty good—yielding a .224 opponent’s batting average and a 30% whiff/swing percentage.

As multiple observers pointed out yesterday on Twitter, with his love for splitters and general aversion towards free passes, Mujica could be Koji Uehara's doppelganger.

In many ways, comparing Mujica’s deal with Wilson’s demonstrates the disparity between these two franchises 15 months after the Nick Punto trade changed everything. In short, the Dodgers and Red Sox approach team-building with far different attitudes and actions. L.A. is never afraid to spend too much money, even on a reliever, while the Red Sox have committed to seeking a more cost-efficient (and, in their minds, sustainable) method for filling out a roster.

Hastily splurging money on free agents didn't do the Red Sox much good, although they ended up falling prey to budget constraints that L.A.'s brass doesn't appear too worried about. For the time being at least, these conflicting strategies are working for both clubs.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and also works as a Staff Editor at SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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