Every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the Consumer Price Index, which tracks the prices of a basket of goods and services and is used as a rough proxy for the rate of inflation. Given absurd recent rises in gas, pipe tobacco, hockey sticks, airline fares, and essentially everything else that's part of the index, the CPI rose more between January and May than it did in all of 2006. Most alarming, though, is that this rapid gain is surely vastly understated — after all, the BLS doesn't even track the price of relief pitching.
Yesterday, as if to make the point, the Philadelphia Phillies signed closer Brad Lidge, 31, to a three-year, $37.5 million contract that makes him either the second-highest-paid reliever in the game, if you go by the contract's average annual value, or the sixth-highest-paid, if you go by its total value. Best-known for surrendering a 900-foot home run to Albert Pujols while a strike away from winning the pennant in the 2005 playoffs and running up a 5.28 ERA the next year, Lidge isn't one of the top two relievers in the game, or one of the top six. He may not even be one of the top 20 — there are a lot of terrific short men in the game, and while Lidge has great pure stuff, it isn't all that different from Kyle Farnsworth's. So how, aside from Philadelphia's traditional insistence on paying relievers as much as possible, to explain this?
Most obviously, the man is having a spectacular year. In 31 games, he's given up only five runs, and never more than one at a time. He has yet to blow a save, and he's struck out 47 and given up no home runs in 35 innings. That's ridiculous, all the more so given that he pitches his home games in a shoe box in front of the cruelest fans in the sport. Eight different Phillies earned saves last year, and five the year before that. It's easy to see why a team that felt compelled to put their no. 2 starter in the bullpen last year would want to lock down their relief ace.
A bit less obviously, this is what established closers cost these days. The best-paid reliever in the game is Mariano Rivera, who makes $15 million a year and is completely unique. The next tier comprises Billy Wagner, B.J. Ryan, Francisco Cordero, and Joe Nathan. All were between ages 29 and 34 when they signed their contracts. All make between $9.4 million and $11.75 million a year. All had pitched between 207.2 and 212 innings in the three years before signing, with strikeout rates ranging between 10.7 and 12.4 per nine innings. All save Ryan, who was used as a closer only in his walk year, had racked up between 103 and 116 saves in those three years.
Lidge fits into this group eerily well. Over the last three years, taking in the second half of 2005, he's pitched 211.2 innings with 12.2 K/9 and 93 saves. During this time, which includes his lousy 2006, his ERA has been 3.40 — a hair lower than Cordero's 3.42. He's making more than these other pitchers per year — $750,000 more than Nathan, and $1 million more than Cordero, previously the best-paid relievers who don't pitch in the Bronx — but he's also the only one without a guaranteed fourth year, and he's giving up his right to test the market while sporting a shiny 0.77 ERA. This is, all around, a pretty fair contract; the question is less why Lidge is making so much than why closers in general are making more.
Part of that, of course, is baseball's bizarre fixation on the save, easily the most useless statistic in the game. Another part is supply and demand: Great relievers can come from anywhere or nowhere, and many of the best are failed starting prospects, Rule 5 draft picks, career middle relievers, and so on, who can be paid next to nothing. If you don't happen to have one of these around, though, and you happen to be a contending team like the Phillies, the theoretical availability of cheap relief pitching doesn't do you so much good. You have to pay for what you need.
Mostly, though, the inflation in reliever salaries has to do with how badly underpaid ballplayers are generally; they make far less of a percentage of the sport's revenues than do their peers in any of the other major team sports. NFL players are guaranteed 59% of the sport's revenues by contract, NBA players 57%, and NHL players 55.6%. It's tough to pin down just what baseball players are getting, because of the sport's opaque accounting, but the Sports Business Journal reported in March that it has varied between 51% and 55% in recent years. Last year, Major League Baseball payrolls (which, to be clear, are far from the only player-related expenses for teams) added up to $2.475 billion, just 40.6% of the sport's claimed $6.1 billion in revenue.
Given this, there's no reason to be especially surprised when a very good but not elite player such as Lidge cashes in for $37.5 million with a team whose needs he answers, any more than there's reason to be shocked when gas prices creep toward $5 a gallon. In each case, that's where broad underlying forces are pushing the market; in one as in the other, one may as well be dismayed by it as shake a fist at the moon.