For a team which finished below .500 last year (79-82), the Florida Marlins have been particularly aggressive in terms of pursing bullpen help this year. They were linked to both of the big two names - Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen - only to lose them to the Yankees and Dodgers respectively. But they finally got their man, signing Brad Ziegler to a two-year contract worth $16 million, plus potentially up to another $2 million in incentives.
He’ll join another recent signing Junichi Tazawa in the Marlins’ bullpen. It’s not clear whether Ziegler will replace A.J. Ramos, who was apparently the anointed closer: obviously, Z closed for Arizona, but moved further back in the Red Sox bullpen after his trade to Boston. However, given the Marlins’ pursuit of a closer, I’d say it seems they clearly were not happy with the in-house options. But should the Diamondbacks have offered something along those lines?
The case for
There’s not much doubt that, in his time with Arizona, Brad Ziegler was the best reliever the Diamondbacks have ever had. Here are the top 10 relievers, by ERA+, with 100 or more innings for Arizona.
Top D-backs relievers (min 100 IP)
About the only category in which he doesn’t lead is FIP, and that’s because a significant chunk of Ziegler’s effectiveness is due to his ground-ball double-play skills. Since 2011, Brad has piled up 72, the most by any major-league reliever (only three others have managed even 50 over the same time). Never mind the D-backs, over that time, he has been among the very best relievers in all of baseball. Among the 158 relieves with 200+ innings over the past six season, Ziegler’s ERA+ ranks seventh. That puts him ahead of both Mark Melancon (who signed a four-year, $62 million contract with the Giants this winter) and Jansen (five years, $80 million). On that basis, getting him for about half the rate seems unquestionably like a great deal.
That’s especially the case for Arizona, whose bullpen will have, of necessity, a very different look from the one on Opening Day 2016, when our 7th/8th/9th-inning guys were Tyler Clippard, Daniel Hudson and Ziegler. Clippard was traded and Ziegler now gone, leaving Hudson the only possible returnee, and since he is currently a free-agent, who knows? The signing of Fernando Rodney does offer some veteran presence, but in terms of high-leverage experience beyond that, the 2017 D-backs currently look like they’ll be thin on the ground. The money saved from trading Jean Segura and DFA-ing Welington Castillo and Rubby De La Rosa could have been used to bring Ziegler back.
The case against
Ziegler just turned 37, so is certainly on the down side of the aging curve. However, that may not be a major problem; his health has generally been very good, and his pitching style isn’t what you’d describe as high-impact. Additionally, he’s also more than two years younger than Fernando Rodney, whom the Diamondbacks signed recently, so it’s clear the new front-office does not regard age as an impenetrable barrier to performance.
A bigger block is likely the concept of overpaying for saves in general. In raw terms of work, $8 million per year is a hefty price for someone who has averaged just 67.2 innings over the last three seasons, almost regardless of how good they are. Given the general volatility of relievers, I tend to agree that the meaningless "save" statistic inflates the price for proven closers, when in 95% of cases, similar results can be obtained for less, by acquiring good pitchers who have worked before the ninth inning. Let’s not forget, this is basically what we did with Ziegler: over the two years before he was dealt to the D-backs in July 2011, he had precisely two saves for the Oakland Athletics.
There’s one other factor which could significantly reduce Ziegler’s effectiveness in 2017. In May, an MLB think-tank agreed to a change in the strike zone:
The committee agreed on a motion to effectively raise the lower part of the strike zone to the top of the hitter's knees, sources said. The current rules stipulate that the zone begins at "the hollow beneath the kneecap," but the change is a reaction to a trend by umpires to call strikes on an increasing number of pitches below the knees.
As of October, the proposed change still apparently needs to be approved by the league playing committee. But Ziegler’s bread-and-butter over the past five years has been that sinking pitch down at the bottom of the zone which, as that previous link shows, was not a strike as recently as 2009. Hitters can’t take it, if it’s being called a strike, but if they swing at it, the odds are they end up on top of the ball, typically chopping into an easy ground-out to the infield. But if that were to be taken away from Ziegler, with a higher percentage of those strikes becoming balls, then batters would be better able to lay off them. It’ll be interesting to see, if the rules are changed, whether this leads to Ziegler walking more batters, etc.
I’m very happy for Ziegler, finally getting a payout his skill-set deserves, and I’ll be sorry to see him go. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching him pitch for the Diamondbacks over the past five-plus seasons, and will wish him all the best in Florida. That said, I personally think $8m per year is an over-pay for any relief pitcher, and I think the 2017 Arizona roster has enough other holes which need plugging, that the money could be better spent somewhere else instead. But what do you think? That would be what the poll and comments section are for...