18 December 2013

How Does the Grant Balfour Signing Stack Up?

Grant Balfour (photo via Keith Allison)
The Orioles have been linked to Grant Balfour for more than a week, and yesterday the two finally came to an agreement. Balfour has agreed to a two-year, $15 million contract (or $14 million over two years, with $500,000 deferred each season, as Roch Kubatko mentioned). Kubatko also pointed out this interesting nugget: "Balfour reportedly had a higher-paying offer from another club -- believed to be two years with a vesting option -- but clearly preferred to sign with the Orioles." A sought after free agent reportedly taking a weaker offer from the Orioles? Crazy talk.

Balfour, who turns 36 on December 30, is a late-inning option the O's have been seeking since they traded away Jim Johnson a couple weeks ago. Balfour is technically a "proven closer" (72 career saves), so he is essentially guaranteed to assume the closer's role and will only lose it if he completely bombs. In 473 major league innings, he's posted a 3.27 ERA with a K/9 of 9.78 and a BB/9 of 3.94. So he'll get strikeouts, but he'll frustrate fans with walks as well.

Unlike recent acquisition Ryan Webb, Balfour is not a groundball pitcher (35.2 GB%), which helps to explain his low career .264 BABIP (groundballs are more likely to fall in for hits; home runs don't count). But groundballs can't leave the ballpark, and Balfour has a career HR/FB rate of about 8%. In his last three seasons (all with Oakland), that number jumped up, came back down, and jumped back up:

2011: 11.0%
2012: 5.3%
2013: 11.1%

Those 11% rates, except for a 26-inning stint with the Twins in 2003 (14.3%), are the highest he's posted in his career. The Orioles have to be hoping that number is closer to 5% (or at least 8%) in 2014 and 2015, but he'll now be pitching in Camden Yards, a more home-run-friendly ballpark.

Balfour joins a nice stable of bullpen arms including some combination of Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, Troy Patton, Zach Britton, T.J. McFarland, Josh Stinson, and Webb.


So where does Balfour's contract stack up with other 2014 free agent relievers? Let's take a look:

The above table is not a complete or perfect list. It doesn't include ages or how long each pitcher has played or display in-depth stats. But it's a good place to start.

The O's didn't give Balfour three years, which is certainly a positive. Again, Balfour is good, but he also turns 36 soon. Multiyear deals for relievers can be dangerous enough without even factoring in age.

Another positive: Balfour is not a specialist. In his career, he has retired lefties (.272 wOBA) and righties (.281 wOBA) almost equally well. A few of the names listed above are right- and left-handed specialists, and Balfour is more valuable than that. The Joe Smith contract might be OK, but the Boone Logan deal looks pretty awful. That's also a lot of money for J.P. Howell and Javier Lopez. So $15 million is a chunk of change for almost any reliever for two years, but that signing looks pretty good compared to some of the mediocre ones.

Still, the John Axford signing looks pretty good, and maybe that's the direction the Orioles should have gone in instead. He may end up being just as good as Balfour, plus he signed for a reasonably priced one-year deal. Regardless, though, the O's at least marginally improved their bullpen at a relatively fair price, and the additions of Balfour along with Webb look solid. The Orioles should not be done making moves, but they could have done a lot worse than picking up Webb and now Balfour.


Unknown said...

Curious situation here - The A's did not sign Balfour (Did they try?) but paid more for Jim Johnson.

If the A's did not try to retain Balfour, one has to ask why. Perhaps it was facts beyond the STATs. EG, Jim Johnson had great STATs but anyone who watched him in the 2nd half of 2013 had to wonder if something was not terribly wrong.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Well, Johnson is younger, so that's one thing. Also, they don't have to keep him after this year; Balfour required a multiyear commitment. There's also the possibility that the A's could flip Johnson at the trade deadline for something valuable.

Matt P said...

Jim Johnson said he wanted 4 and 45 to sign an extension. If he wants that much money than he may refuse a QO. Would you rather have Balfour for 2/14 or JJ for 1/10.8 plus a first round pick?

I still take Balfour but I have to think about it.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Yeah, that's also a possibility.

Jon Shepherd said...

I wouldn't put a qualifying offer on Johnson. Figure will likely be about 15 MM a year. To get a third of the money you think you deserve in a quarter of the time, makes sense to probably accept. Additionally, that gamble on the Orioles side would net them a first rounder pick at the end of the round, which is a prospect that would be in the 7th-10th position of their own organizational prospects.

I see a lot of risk and little benefit.

Unknown said...

agree with Jon on the QO. assuming the value of a QO offer increasing at a greater rate than the market price for a "proven closer" (which i believe will happen), we may very soon view all relief pitchers as an automatic non-qualifying offer candidate

Matt P said...

You'd have to be nearly certain he's not going to sign if he has a good year. But who would have thought that Morales would turn down the QO? Or Lohse? And the As did trade for him...

Jon Shepherd said...

What I think might be happening though is that relievers are seeing what other relievers are making this offseason. Evidence is growing that teams will not pay closers the same as other positions. With Morales and Lohse, that was not the case. Morales has a very high opinion of himself as did Lohse. Lohse did not see the money he thought he might get, but he got close to it. Morales? I guess we will see what happens.