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Attention agents: Insist on overuse clauses for relief pitchers

Relief pitchers coming off of heavy use seasons, especially consecutive ones, may have to settle for discounts or shorter-length contracts in free agency. There may be a remedy for that.

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When Indians closer John Axford learned he'd get just a one year contract after pitching in 74, 75, and 75 games in consecutive seasons, he might not have been pleased.
When Indians closer John Axford learned he'd get just a one year contract after pitching in 74, 75, and 75 games in consecutive seasons, he might not have been pleased.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Among the many interesting things at this year's SABR Analytics Conference was this comment by Stan Conte, Vice President of Medical Services for the Los Angeles Dodgers, on things that his team might look at in evaluating injury risks of potential pitcher acquisitions (for more context, click here for the entire video of the panel, especially minutes 47-48):

"If a guy was used eighty times as a reliever in the last two years each year -- eh, I don't like that guy too much. Because he's been overused, and he's headed down the road for an injury."

It is far beyond my expertise to pass judgment on whether or not this is a reliable factor in predicting pitcher injuries, although it does seem intuitive. What should matter to relief pitchers and their agents, however, is the perception of pitching that much in that span. If other teams share the same perspective as Conte or the Dodgers, one might conclude that a pitcher used in 160 games in a two-year span might have difficulty obtaining the same contract he might have gotten had he pitched in 60-65 games per year.

Few players affected

Of course, pitching in 80 games for two years in a row does not happen very frequently. Still, it stands to reason that if a team would balk at signing a pitcher who played in 160 games over two years, they might be at least somewhat wary of signing pitchers who had thrown in 70+ games in consecutive seasons.

In fact, there were just 12 such pitchers for 2012-2013:

Player Team Games Innings
Joel Peralta Rays 157 138.1
Brad Ziegler Diamondbacks 155 141.2
Matt Belisle Rockies 152 153
James Russell Cubs 151 122
Luke Gregerson Padres 150 138
John Axford Brewers/Cardinals 150 134.1
Rex Brothers Rockies 147 135
Wesley Wright Astros/Rays 148 106
Tyler Clippard Nationals 146 143.2
Jim Johnson Orioles 145 139
Ryan Cook Athletics 142 140.2
Joe Smith Indians 142 130

I don't know whether innings or appearances is more predictive of pitcher injuries, but let's concede that perhaps, Matt Belisle's 152 games (153 IP) were more burdensome than Brad Ziegler's 155 (141.2 IP). I just don't know where that cut off would be, and I'm using games as my metric because of Conte's statement. Given that Bryan Price has planned to use his bullpen very differently because of the taxing nature of bullpen warm-ups, I don't think that's a stretch. Using 70+ games in the last two years has the limitation of not accounting for bullpen warm-ups on days the pitcher wasn't used. Grabbing regular season stats from FanGraphs also doesn't account for postseason innings, which I'm sure teams would look at if they were considering the acquisition of a certain player by free agent signing or trade.

That said, the group above is still interesting. It's very interesting that the Athletics -- long rumored to be ahead of the curve on injury projection -- saw fit to acquire two of these twelve pitchers via trade this past offseason (they have three overall!). It's also interesting that the list is dominated by specialists of some kind: closer, match-up guy, DP specialist. Belisle and Tyler Clippard are their own category, I would say. As for the others, they all tended to pitch less than one inning, which makes sense. The match-up guys have a job to do, more times than not. Same for the DP specialists. And as for the closers -- if you're not a guy that really ever gets used for more than one inning, then as a closer, you'll have more appearances than innings, because you'll fail at least occasionally (walkoff losses).

But back to the issue at hand: the possible impact of usage on free agent contracts. Three of the twelve pitchers identified in my list did hit the free agent market, including Wesley Wright, who was non-tendered by the Rays. Wright signed with the Cubs for $1.425 million (and a small $25k bonus for 50 games), a raise from his $1,025 million salary for 2013. Joe Smith might have made out like a bandit; his three-year, $15.75 million deal does not seem to have come at a discount, at all.

John Axford's situation was a little different, though. He signed just a middling contract for a closer, and for just one season: $4.5 million. The contract does, however, have some significant incentives: $250k for 38 games finished, and an additional $300k at 43, 53, 58, and 63 games finished. All told, Axford could make $5.95 million if he finishes 63 games. There are two ways to look at that short-term, incentive-laden contract: either the Indians were afraid that Axford's stuff would vanish, as had happened in the past (hence the incentives for games finished), or this is injury protection. Neither explanation would surprise me, and it could be both. Let's not discount the possibility, however, that Axford's heavy usage may have limited his free agent contract options (Axford pitched in 224 games in three years).

No retrospective remedies

Even with a much more detailed analysis, we'd never know just how much, if at all, reliever salaries may be depressed by "overuse" -- we can't know what the reliever would otherwise have gotten, and in many cases relievers pitch that much precisely because they're throwing very well.

But that's not the point. Again, this is about perception, and even if teams didn't believe that "overuse" significantly increased future injury risk, it would be enough to affect free agency negotiations if a team could convince a player that they did.

The problem is that a pitcher in this situation -- and there have been few -- has very few options in terms of doing something about it after the fact. Player grievances that do not have to do with discipline/suspensions might tend to be about players not getting to play (like how George Springer might have a bone to pick with the Astros right now), but I can't see a grievance filed because a player was made to play too much.

If you represent a relief pitcher that was made to pitch so much that it limits his free agency opportunities, there's not much that can be done.

Prospective remedies

My proposal, then, is that all agents of all relief pitchers insist on games played bonuses, and not just for readily achievable targets like 60 games. Perhaps all such agents should insist on significant bonuses at 70 games and 75 games, or at 75 and 80. Better yet: $25k-$40k "overuse" bonuses for every appearance after 70, until appearances after 75, when the bonus would rise ($50k or more). And if teams take bullpen warm-ups into account when evaluating potential acquisitions, building those into the framework could also be an improvement.

Why bonuses, rather than vesting options? Well, other than for the oldest relief pitchers or for over-market dollars, vesting options are rarely good for players, in that they typically trigger what is essentially a one year deal. That's bad for players, especially pitchers, who could then be one injury away from unpaid time (and, after all, the point is that they might be more likely to suffer injury the next year).

So for bonuses, why pay for something that's so unlikely to come into play? Because the fact that the overuse bonuses are unlikely means that they should come cheap. I don't have the negotiation experience of many player agents, but buying something that is unlikely should only come at a low cost. And should more and more agents of relief pitchers make overuse clauses standard operating procedure, they might start to find that they don't come at any cost at all.

This is a somewhat limited approach, because not all pitchers in danger of overuse are in a position to insist on overuse clauses. In the above list of 12 pitchers, two (Rex Brothers and Ryan Cook) haven't even reached arbitration yet. Still, we aren't talking only about free agent contracts. Arbitration-eligible players are also in a position to negotiate, as Tyler Clippard from our group did last offseason (but for games finished, rather than games played).

Overuse clauses may make sense in just about every negotiation for relief pitchers' contracts. Yes, every team has an incentive to keep their bullpen arms healthy enough to contribute, such that teams already police themselves to a certain extent. But relief pitchers can be victims of their own success, especially in playoff chases, and there may be no incentive better than the financial kind.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Ryan P. Morrison is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score, and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, a site on the Arizona Diamondbacks with a sabermetrics slant. You can follow him on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.