Monday, December 8, 2008

Contract Incentives and Games Finished

Every year, some free agents sign contracts containing both a base salary and some sort of incentives based on the player's performance over the course of the deal. Those bonuses generally are related to playing time, whether it's games played or plate appearances for hitters or appearances or starts for pitchers. The reason incentives are related to such mundane things like games played is because pretty much everything else is off-limits.

As Major League Rule 3(b)(5) says: "No Major League Uniform Player's Contract or Minor League Uniform Player Contract shall be approved if it contains a bonus for playing, pitching or batting skill or if it provides for the payment of a bonus contingent on the standing of the signing Club at the end of the championship season."

The point of the first part of the rule is to prevent players from putting personal contract incentives over team success. For example, imagine a player gets a nice bonus for reaching 30 homers in a season and he's stuck on 29. So, in pursuit of his bonus, the player swings for the fences and strikes out rather than advancing his teammates along the basepaths. Say a pitcher gets a bonus for reaching a certain strikeout total and rather he tries to blow a batter away rather than seeking to induce an inning-ending double play. Unfortunately it doesn't work and the pitch is deposited 400 feet beyond the pitcher's mound. Sound far-fetched and outdated? Maybe, but that's baseball.

To avoid such situations, contract incentives are pretty much limited to those mundane playing time conditions. For relievers, bonuses are often linked to total appearances or games finished. Usually a games finished incentive is considered only at risk of being triggered if the reliever in question is used as a closer. For all the closers who get such incentives (see Matt Capps: $50,000 for 50, 55, and 60 GF next year), there are also some middle relievers who get them as well. A look at Bobby Howry's 2009 contract with the Giants shows this: he gets bonuses for 45, 50, 55, and 60 games finished next year.

The Giants already have a closer, so it's unlikely Howry comes close to triggering those bonuses. Only eighteen pitchers reached 45 games finished last year and all of those guys were closers. So that makes me curious: what is the upper limit on games finished in a season for a non-closer?

First, the actual definition of "games finished." It should be obvious: the last pitcher to pitch for his team in a game (win or loss) is credited with a game finished. The only exception is a starter who throws a complete game. Obviously, it takes no special talent to get them. You just have to be the guy your manager selects to finish a loss, a closer, or the guy picked for recording the final outs of a blowout victory.

So which non-closers racked up games finished in 2008? That depends on who you consider a closer. Consider pitchers like Jon Rauch and Joel Hanrahan. Rauch was the closer for Washington before a mid-season trade sent him to Arizona. He finished the year as a setup man for the Diamondbacks. He wound up with 51 games finished last season, but only ten came in his 26 appearances for Arizona. The other 41 came in his 48 games pitched for Washington. It should be obvious his games finished numbers are fueled by his time spent as a closer. Joel Hanrahan was the guy who took Rauch's place as the Nationals' closer. Hanrahan appeared in 69 games last season, 48 before taking over the closer's role and 21 after. He wound up saving nine games as the Nationals closer, but got a game finished in 17 of those 21 appearances as a closer. Compare that to 17 games finished in his previous 48 games.

Since I'm interested in games finished numbers for non-closers, perhaps the best way is to limit the number of saves a player can get before being considered a closer. The problem then is determining the limit. If Hanrahan can be considered a closer with only nine saves in two months in the role, the limit has to be lower. On the other hand, setting it too low could cut out some relievers who weren't closers but still managed to pick up some saves. To keep things simple, I'm going to use a limit of five saves.

Using that limit, here are the leaders among non-closers in games finished last season:
  1. Clay Condrey, PHI, 30
  2. Bobby Howry, CHC, 27
  3. Matt Lindstrom, FLA, 27
  4. Mike Timlin, BOS, 26
  5. Jesus Colome, WSN, 25
  6. Aaron Heilman, NYM, 23
  7. Manny Acosta, ATL, 22
  8. Jason Hammel, TBR, 21
  9. Doug Brocail, HOU, 21
  10. Cory Wade, LAD, 21
  11. Jason Frasor, TOR, 21
So, as I mentioned, it's very unlikely Howry will trigger his contract incentives next year without becoming the Giants closer. But hey, what can you really learn from only one season? It's easy enough to look up numbers for more than one season, so let's look at the last decade. It turns out Condrey places fifth on that list:
  1. Justin Speier, 2005 TOR, 36
  2. David Riske, 2005 CLE, 33
  3. Salomon Torres, 2005 PIT, 32
  4. Mike Trombley, 2000 BAL, 32
  5. Clay Condrey, 2008 PHI, 30
  6. Luis Vizcaino, 2002 MIL, 30
  7. Brian Moehler, 2007 HOU, 29
  8. Ken Ray, 2006 ATL, 29
  9. Jose Mesa, 2000 SEA, 29
  10. Tim Worrell, 2000 BAL/CHC, 29
I don't know why 2005 would dominate the top of the list. The three pitchers ran the gamut of teams from good (Cleveland) to middling (Toronto) to bad (Pittsburgh). I think it's safe to say that any team giving out games finished contract incentives to middle relievers doesn't have to worry about paying them out as long as they make the lowest bonus kick in at 35 GF or higher. Going as high as 45 before they kick in is just icing on the non-paying cake.

Here's the all-time list of non-closers who reached 35 games finished in a season. Remember that reliever usage has changed drastically over time. Case in point: this list is dominated by players from the 1980's.
  • Joe Berry, 1945 PHA, 40
  • Jack Baldschun, 1961 PHI, 39
  • Kent Tekulve, 1987 PHI, 38
    Dave Heaverlo, 1980 SEA, 38
  • Pete Ladd, 1984 MIL, 37
    Ron Reed, 1979 PHI, 37
  • Justin Speier, 2005 TOR, 36
    Jose Mesa, 1998 CLE/SFG, 36
    Mark Williamson, 1987 BAL, 36
    Craig Lefferts, 1986 SDP, 36
    Greg Minton, 1985 SFG, 36
    Dooley Womack, 1968 NYY, 36
    Ted Wilks, 1952 PIT/CLE, 36
  • Kent Tekulve, 1988 PHI, 35
    Dave Schmidt, 1985 TEX, 35
    Dave Campbell, 1978 ATL, 35
    Dyar Miller, 1977 BAL/CAL, 35

No comments: