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Monday, January 2, 2012

Extension Watch, Part Three: Sean Marshall

The third edition of this series is going to focus on a rare breed: a reliever worth extending for the long term.  Many individuals in the statistical community tend to dismiss the importance of relievers due to the lack of scarcity at the position and the relative ease by which a reliever can have a breakout season.  It is true that relievers are "a dime a dozen" on most occasions, and it is also true that relievers are prone to breakouts since they pitch on such a short sample size.  I have found in my research that, for the most part, trying to predict the success of a reliever from year to year is rather pointless due to the variance players experience year to year.  However, there are those rare cases where baseball produces a reliever that is worth locking up for a long time.  We think of elite relievers like Mariano Rivera, John Smoltz, and Billy Wagner being cornerstones of their franchises.  Well, this player isn't that kind of player, but he's the kind of reliever that needs to be locked up.  This player's name is Sean Marshall, and he pitches for the Cincinnati Reds.
  

To understand why Marshall is a special breed of reliever, it is first important to know what the league should really expect from its average relief pitchers.  An average roster will probably feature 8 starting position players, 3-4 bench players, at least 5 starting pitchers, which leaves what we'll call 8 different relief pitchers.  That gives us 240 relief pitchers in MLB at any given time.  By fangraphs, relief pitchers produced only 89.4 wins in 2011, which means an average of 0.37 wins per reliever.  So that's what we can expect from our average relief pitcher: .37 wins.
  
In the last two years combined, Sean Marshall has produced a lot of value.  Just how much value is it, though?  Well, here are some other relievers and what they've produced over the past two years:
  
Jonathan Papelbon: 4.2 fWAR
Mariano Rivera: 4.1 fWAR
John Axford: 3.9 fWAR
Carmols Marmol: 3.8 fWAR
Matt Thornton: 3.8 fWAR
Jonny Venters: 3.4 fWAR
Daniel Bard: 3.4 fWAR
Brian Wilson: 3.2 fWAR
Ryan Madson: 3.0 fWAR
Heath Bell: 2.9 fWAR
  
That's not the true leaderboard, but it's most of what people consider the best relievers in baseball (kudos to Craig Kimbrel, but he didn't meet the 100 IP minimum qualifications over the past two years to be considered). So how did Sean Marshall do?  Well, he blew everyone else out of the water.  "Wooly, you be smokin' crack, right?"  Nope, I'm not.  By fangraphs, Sean Marshall led all relievers over the past two years with a staggering 5.0 wins in fWAR.  Yes, FIVE wins, which is good enough to call him the best reliever in baseball over that span by those standards.  Not Rivera, not Papelbon, and not even the guy who was closing games for the Cubs over those two years.  So what we're considering here is an extension for not just a reliever, but one of the more valuable players in the game relative to the position he plays.  
  
Now that we know the importance and value of what Marshall has done, we need to break down the essential pieces of information to whether or not the Reds can and should extend Sean Marshall:
  
1) His future value
2) The structure of a possible extension
3) The ability of the Phillies to extend him
4) Other feasible options for him to look at if he doesn't sign an extension
  
Section One: Future Value
  
Relievers are a special breed that are rather difficult to measure the future success of.  Luckily for us, Sean Marshall has been rather consistent over the past two years, which really allows us to get a good idea of what we can realistically expect from him.  I've mentioned fWAR, but there are a lot of things that are more important to understand about a reliever when we want to look at what he can do in the future.  Here is a look at some of Marshall's rates over the past two years:
  
2010: 10.85 K/ 3.01 BB/ 0.36 HR/ 52.2% GB/ 2.50 xFIP/ 2.34 SIERA
2011:   9.40 K/ 2.02 BB/ 0.12 HR/ 57.5% GB/ 2.50 xFIP/ 2.20 SIERA
  
On the list of things we look for in a pitcher to succeed, Marshall does everything well.  He gets a ton of strikeouts, has good control, doesn't give up home runs (in WRIGLEY), he gets a ton of ground balls, and he has the consistency and durability that should be looked for in an extension candidate.  However, teams don't pay for past success; they pay for future success.  Marshall has done everything well the past two years, so let's now look at how Marshall has gotten those results.
  
In the past two years, Marshall has thrown an even spread of four pitches with a primary pitch that may surprise you:
  
2010:
4-seam fastball: 25.5% (90.6 MPH)
Slider: 14.8% (84.2 MPH)
Cutter: 18.1% (86.7 MPH)
Curve: 41.4% (76.9 MPH)
  
2011:
4-seam fastball: 25.0% (91.3 MPH)
Slider: 15.4% (84.5 MPH)
Cutter: 19.3% (86.8 MPH)
Curve: 40.3% (77.4 MPH)
  
Marshall has a rather odd arsenal of pitches for a pitcher of his size.  At 6'7 220 pounds, he's one of the bigger pitchers in the league, but he doesn't rely on velocity to succeed.  He consistently keeps hitters off balance by mixing in four pitches and showing elite control on all of them.  The curveball is generally his out pitch, but it also serves as a pitch Marshall can throw for strikes early in the count.  In fact, Marshall can throw any of his pitches at any time and throw them for strikes (he can also use all of them as out pitches).  To show the balance in his success, let's look at combined win values for each of his pitches over the past two years:
  
4-seam fastball: 0.4
Slider: 4.7
Cutter: 15.1
Curve: 13.5
  
So Marshall has four pitches he can rely on to succeed, which stops hitters from looking for one or two pitches to hit in the count.  This, combined with facing particular hitters rarely, makes it nearly impossible to get an edge on Marshall from a scouting report standpoint.  Looking at his charts, he doesn't have a tendency to throw any particular pitch in any particular count.  This mix keeps hitters from guessing and makes them have to rely on reaction time.  When the ball is coming in hot and breaks in so many different ways, you can imagine the kind of trouble hitters have with trying to hit Marshall late in games in pressure situations.
  
Section Two: Structure of a Potential Extension
  
Relievers generally are oddballs when extensions are considered.  A great mix of things has to happen before a reliever should ever be considered for an extension.  A reliever should:
  
Have stamina (150 innings over two years)
Have the aforementioned mix of skills (strikeouts, walks, ground balls, and peripherals)
Avoid being situational (Marshall isn't at all)
  
So Marshall is a guy that fits the bill for a reliever that could deserve an extension.  He does everything well, he's got a great frame, and he doesn't have a laundry list of injury concerns.  He's perhaps the ideal reliever to extend long term.  However, he has only done it over two years, and he will be 29 next year (wrong side of our plateau on our aging curve).  The age could be a concern, but relievers don't have a truly established aging curve due to the extreme amount of difference in relief pitchers.  With that, what can we expect from Marshall over the next few years?  Well, considering relievers are as volatile as they are, anything more than 4 years is probably too long for an extension.  That means (with Marshall being under contract for 2012), we will look at 2012-2015:
  
2012: 2.4 fWAR
2013: 2.2 fWAR
2014: 1.8 fWAR
2015: 1.6 fWAR
  
This projection gives us 8 wins over the next four years (2 wins per season).  To keep consistency in my predictions, I'm going to use the d/WAR projection from the first two entries for Marshall:
  
2012: 4.0 d/WAR
2013: 4.3 d/WAR
2014: 4.6 d/WAR
2015: 4.9 d/WAR
  
This model gives us an average of 4.45 million dollars per unit of WAR for extension candidates over this time frame.  This means that Marshall, being worth 8 wins over the next 4 years, should be given 35.6 million dollars over the course of an extension (at least, this is what fair market value dictates).  This means that, if we include 2012 as part of a restructuring/extension, the contract should look a bit like this:
  
4 years/ 35.6 million dollars (8.9 million AAV)
  
Section Three: Ability for the Reds to Re-Sign Him
  

Unlike other players who are elite at their positions, Sean Marshall will be relatively cheap in the grand scheme of things due to his status as a relief pitcher.  Rather than looking at 20+ million AAV for an elite player, the Reds can lock one up for under 9 million dollars a year.  In fact, I'm rather confident that the Reds could get him for 7 million or less.  Why?  Well, Marshall's not a closer.  In baseball, closers are generally given unfair amounts of credit due to the fact that they pitch in the 9th inning (even though they are probably not facing the toughest hitters in that inning).  With their completely overstated value, closers are getting anywhere from 7-11 million dollars in extensions and on the open market (Papelbon just signed for 11 million a year).  This makes me feel that the Reds will be looking at 7-8 million dollars per year in a more realistic extension.    If the Reds really are going to say goodbye to Joey Votto in the near future, they should invest their money wisely in ways that can lessen the blow of losing Votto.  One of the ways to fix that is to get bargains for other key players, and Marshall (as an elite reliever) qualifies as one of those guys.  He can be had for amounts that are under market value, and he should be extended by the Reds as soon as possible.
  
Section Four: Feasibility of Other Options
  
Realistically, there are a ton of options for Marshall if he ever reaches the open market.  Since he's not a closer, that 7-9 million dollar figure is probably (at most) what Marshall is going to get.  If you take out the super small market teams:
  
Tampa Bay
Oakland
Pittsburgh
Kansas City
San Diego
  
And some teams probably not looking to contend in the very near future:
  
Chicago Cubs
New York Mets
Minnesota Twins
Baltimore Orioles
Houston Astros
  
Then you can probably get an idea of who Marshall could sign with.  Yeah, I think roughly 20 teams could be in play.  Taking out teams with their bullpens on lockdown (Atlanta, Yankees, Phillies, etc) and you are probably looking at a group of 10-15 teams that will look into signing Marshall.  This will very likely drive up his price and will likely take a couple of those teams out of the race.  Therefore, here are the teams I think are the most likely to pursue Marshall after 2012 if he doesn't sign an extension:
  
Boston Red Sox
St. Louis Cardinals
Toronto Blue Jays
Los Angeles Angels
Texas Rangers
Los Angeles Dodgers
Seattle Mariners
  
Take your pick, because right now it looks like anyone could sign Marshall if he gets out of Cincinnati without an extension.  

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