Doolittle's promotion makes his contract a windfall

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Is the Sean Doolittle contract everything the Atlanta Braves can't avoid with Craig Kimbrel?

Sean Doolittle is now the closer. Thank goodness he's under contract, but now let's ask why the A's signed Jim Johnson, why they then offered Doolittle his contract in the first place, why Doolittle was happy to accept it, and why signing Jim Johnson is the best thing that could have happened to extend the competition window.

Simple cost control

Last February, Matthew Murphy of The Hardball Times wrote about how paying established closers saves teams money, using Jim Johnson's move to the A's as his example. He hypothesized that teams that had signed veterans to close despite the presence of strong setup men that had performed better than those veterans were doing so in order to avoid dramatic cost escalation in arbitration caused by the save statistic. Using Ryan Cook as his hypothetical non-Johnson closer and assuming Cook signed a series of one-year arbitration settlements through his arbitration years, Murphy concluded:

Ryan Cook, Potential vs. Probable Earnings
Player Arb 1 ($M) Arb 2 ($M) Arb 3 ($M) Arb Total ($M)
Ryan Cook w/Johnson 1.6 4.2 7.2 13.0
Ryan Cook, closer 3.8 6.8 9.8 20.4

Essentially, a full season of closing is worth about $3 million in arbitration, and a full season of setting up is worth only about $1 or 2 million. Substitute Sean Doolittle here, and you likely have a similar track. In a sense, the A's only need Johnson to be a reliever worth $3 million, because the A's would save $7 million down the road.

On December 2, 2013, the Athletics traded Jemile Weeks and David Freitas for Jim Johnson.

The extension

As I prepare for the California Bar Exam, I'm reminded that it takes two to contract. Why were both sides so eager to sign?

Sean Doolittle: Opportunities and Peace of Mind

On April 18, 2014, Sean Doolittle signed a contract locking down Doolittle through his arbitration years with further team options for 2019 and 2020. To that point, Jim Johnson had three poor appearances, but his other appearances made it reasonable to think that they could be assigned to bad luck or new team jitters or what have you. When the closer-by-committee began the morning of April 10, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle had Bob Melvin describing Johnson losing the closer role as "'a break' from closer duties."

April 15, Bob Melvin exclaimed to Susan Slusser that Jim Johnson's two innings in relief in extra innings against the Angels were "Terrific. . . . That was pretty impressive." It seemed like Johnson was going to be given every opportunity to retake the closer role and that the closer-by-committee was only a temporary situation.

Not only was Jim Johnson apparently settling down, but Ryan Cook was settling into a groove by April 18. In his four appearances, he gave up one run in 3⅓ innings, and himself was coming off two seasons of sub-3 ERA setting up, including his brief time as all-star closer in 2012. Thus, it wasn't really clear cut to that point if Sean Doolittle would even get the chance to close in 2015 and beyond.

Don't forget Doolittle's own experience with injury that caused him to take up pitching in the first place, losing most of 2009 to 2011 to knee surgeries.  And then this year, he saw both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin go under the knife for Tommy John Surgery before reaching arbitration.

You have the perfect storm of factors for desiring a long-term deal at the expense of a few dollars: (1) uncertainty of opportunity to close both now in Johnson and later in Cook and (2) the desire for financial security in view of his own injury history and the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries on the A's and in the league.

The Athletics: Doolittle might be great, either as set-up man or as closer

Signing Jim Johnson answers the question of how to keep Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook cost-controlled for their arbitration years. However, it does not answer why the A's were willing to sign an extension now instead of going to arbitration.

By April 18, while Jim Johnson seemed to be settling down, the doubts had to be creeping in about the viability of their other veteran option, Luke Gregerson, to keep expensive saves away from Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, and Eric O'Flaherty was still about two months away from returning. In addition, it seemed Sean Doolittle's first two seasons of MLB pitching were no fluke, and his repertoire was only expanding; he arrived in camp with a new-and-improved slider and changeup.

In choosing Doolittle, it seems the A's were trying to at the least lock down their elite left-handed setup man of the next four years. And they got a pretty reasonable price. Matthew Murphy uses David Robertson as "the best comp for an elite set-up man who never gets a chance to close, earning just under $10 million over the course of his contract." Let's compare that to what Sean Doolittle actually received:

Elite Set-Up Man Robertson vs. Sean Doolittle's Contract
Player Pre-Arb 1 ($M) Arb 1 ($M) Arb 2 ($M) Arb 3 ($M) Buyouts ($M) Arb Total ($M)
David Robertson 0.46 1.60 3.10 5.20 0.00 10.36
Sean Doolittle non-Super 2 0.75 1.55 2.60 4.35 1.00 10.25
Sean Doolittle Super-2 1.40 2.45 3.65 5.00 1.00 13.50

Remember that David Robertson's figures are deflated a little bit from what he might have earned today, since his arbitration years started in 2012. For this contract to work out for the A's, they'll need Sean Doolittle to be an elite set-up man through 2018. For this contract to pay off in spades, Doolittle need only close for one of his contract years.

In signing Doolittle, the A's pay for their baseline risk that Doolittle turns into a premier set-up man and insure themselves against the possibility that Doolittle needs to close at some point.

The windfall

Nobody thought Jim Johnson would be this bad through seven weeks of the season. Who knew that Ryan Cook would leave a game with forearm tightness? Sean Doolittle is the closer, and oh what a windfall the extension will be. Look back to the first table, and substitute Sean Doolittle for Ryan Cook, and assume that Doolittle closes all four years. For Doolittle's projected Super-2 arbitration figure, we'll use Chris Perez's Super 2 year, as pointed out by Matthew Murphy.

Sean Doolittle, 2014-18 closer
Player Pre-Arb 1 ($M) Arb 1 ($M) Arb 2 ($M) Arb 3 ($M) Buyouts ($M) Arb Total ($M)
Sean Doolittle non-Super 2 contract 0.75 1.55 2.60 4.35 1.00 10.25
Sean Doolittle non-Super 2 arbitration 0.50 3.80 6.80 9.80 0.00 20.90
Sean Doolittle Super-2 contract 1.40 2.45 3.65 5.00 1.00 13.50
Sean Doolittle Super-2 arbitration 2.20 5.20 8.20 11.20 0.00 26.80

As the kids say these days, "Bazinga." Doolittle is happy because the A's gave him that insurance against the season-ending or career-ending injury. The A's are happy because it looks like they're about to save ten to thirteen million dollars over the next four years.

In other words, acquiring Jim Johnson is the best thing that could have happened for the Athletics. His presence made it seem apparent that Doolittle would not be closing this season, and perhaps that's what tipped Doolittle into signing a contract good for an elite set-up man.

Don't feel too bad for Sean. There's still plenty that can go wrong. Maybe the American League figures him out or maybe he makes the dreaded visit to Dr. James Andrews. Sean Doolittle has peace of mind, and the A's can now better afford to perhaps turn a championship this season into a twenty-teen dynasty.

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