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The case for Brad Ziegler, underrated reliever

Groundballs galore!

The player

Brad Ziegler is unconventional by every account. He made his major league debut at age 28 after a circuitous route through the minor leagues in which he cracked his skull twice. He started his professional career as an over-handing starter, changing to a submarining reliever in 2007. From there, it’s been nothing but smooth sailing.

Ziegler isn’t loved by advanced statistics, and that’s just fine. He’s unique in every way, succeeding in spite of a lack of velocity and strikeouts. Typically, pitchers struggle preventing runs when hitters put the ball in play; it’s hard to sustain success when luck is such a huge part of the game. Ziegler’s K/9 has never eclipsed 8, but he’s still put up an ERA sub 3.00 in six of his nine seasons. Part of that is his uncanny ability to get groundballs (a career 66.3% rate) and thereby double plays (114 in his career), and he's undisputedly been a great pitcher for nearly a decade.

Ziegler is beyond the point of wondering if he’ll regress. He’s a flyball averse, soft contact machine and so long as the stuff holds up, the ERA will too.

Will the stuff hold up? That’s not a given and there are bad indicators. His fastball velocity is down, though he did have two of the best years of his career with his slowest stuff. He’s entering his age 37 season and while his style is clearly less susceptible to the ails of father time, the end will come at some point.

In spite of those facts, Ziegler’s results have shown no sign of showing down. Results matter, especially when you consider...

The money

Ziegler’s deal will be significantly lower than that of the top tier relievers. Mark Melancon got 4 years, $62 million, which will probably pale in comparison to the eventual contracts of Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Whoever Zielger lands with will get a relative steal: in spite of the fact that he’s put up similar numbers to the top notch guys for years on end, FanGraphs projects he’ll make somewhere in the range of $30 million over three seasons. Yes, those numbers evoke thoughts of Billy Butler, but they also evoke thoughts of double plays, something Zielger gets in spades.

Make no mistake, $30 million is a lot of cash. Even in today’s outrageous free agent market, one in which a LOOGY who couldn’t get lefties out last year got $11 million, $30 isn't spare change. At $10 million per year, Ziegler would take up somewhere around 10% of the A’s total payroll. That’s a lot for any player, let alone a reliever.

But there’s a lot of nuance in money, specifically with the A’s. For one, spending 10% on one player and being successful isn’t unheard of, nor is spending 10% on a bad player and winning the World Series. There are different financials among the teams who have done so, but it’s far from a death knell.

More importantly, the A’s have to spend the money somewhere. They’ve long said that payroll doesn’t roll over from one season to the next. If the 2017 opening day payroll were to be $1, the other $79,999,999 or so wouldn't be available in 2018. It's a use it or lose it world.

The merits of that are up for debate, it’s something I’ve never quite understood and I once got a B in High School econ. The merits don’t really matter though: it’s reality and it means the A’s should get spending. They're running out of places to spend those dollars, and a solid reliever might be the place to do it.

Free agents are risky, and that risk is more pronounced towards the end of the contract. For a team that’s not an obvious contender, signing a reliever to a multi-year deal doesn’t make obvious sense. The bulk of his value will likely come when the A’s are non-contenders at the beginning of the deal. There is of course a contingency plan that accompanies signing a reliever in a market where pitchers are overvalued across the league. Suck in 2017? Move Ziegler for prospects!

You love Brad Ziegler

The man is part of the same club the Rickey Henderson and Mark Ellis club. Is it possible to not like him? A great story and a great man.

The counterargument

He’s old, and signing a groundball pitcher in front of this infield would be sort of like a lactose intolerant person chugging a gallon of milk before going on a first date and getting stuck in the elevator on the way out of the building. Also, the A’s are at capacity in terms of roster space, especially with pitchers, of whom multiple are option-less. It really shouldn’t be hard to find space for a superior reliever on a team that won 69 games (nice) a year ago, but it’s seriously a question mark.

And no, the A’s have not been linked to Ziegler or any free agent relievers. Let a man dream!