Baseball's most underrated reliever


On a spate of bad teams, one reliever has had serious trouble getting guaranteed work over a mostly successful career.

Over the last five seasons, 40 relief pitchers have posted an ERA under 2.00 with 50 or more innings pitched in a season. Of those relievers, 25 of them a) are still active, b) either in their arbitration or free-agent years, and c) have a contract for 2013. The first point eliminates Trevor Hoffman and Brad Lidge, the second eliminates Craig Kimbrel, and the third eliminates Sergio Romo and Darren O'Day, who have yet to settle on salaries with their teams.

The average salary of those 25 pitchers: about $5.4 million. When teams can pay a bit of a premium for a run-preventing reliever, they usually do. Joakim Soria is coming off Tommy John surgery, and he's getting $4 million. Mike Adams is recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome, and he's getting $6 million.

Of those 25 relievers, there is exactly one who will make less than $1 million. There is exactly one who was a free agent this year but didn't get a major-league contract. In an offseason where guys like Chad Durbin and Mike Gonzalez got guaranteed money, there is one free-agent reliever who doesn't make a lick of sense.

Meet Scott Atchison: The Most Underrated Reliever in Baseball.

Now, before we go on, I'm sure you're thinking, "Oh, so you cherry-picked the criteria up there to include Atchison and his fluky season. Good work." Yes. Yes, I did. But my goal isn't to argue that he was as good as some of the other names on the list -- the Clippards, Casillas, and Chapmans of the world. I'm not convinced that he's one of the 30 best relievers in baseball. But I'm almost certain that he's one of the 210 best relievers in baseball, which is how many relievers are usually working at any given point during the season.

And you would think that claim would have at least been helped by the low ERA. As in, a GM is looking at a list of names for back-of-the-bullpen consideration, and while scanning the particulars, he notices that one of them had a ridiculously low ERA last year. It's like a résumé printed on bright pink paper. Of course you're going to notice it.

Except, like a résumé printed on bright pink paper, it gets immediately tossed in the trash. He's underrated because he's not rated. There was no bidding war, no fight for his services. There wasn't even a guarantee of a roster spot. Here was the fate of Scott Atchison:

Or he'll make several thousand dollars -- several! -- in the minors. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

This brings us to the brief history of Scott Atchison:

Performance: After muddling through the high minors, the 28-year-old Atchison pitches well for the Mariners, averaging 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings over 25 games, with a 129 ERA+.

Result: Back to the minors.

Performance: After an elbow injury in 2005, Atchison comes back strong in '06, striking out nearly three times as many batters as he walked, and posting a career-low 2.34 ERA in the Pacific Coast League.

Result: Good job, good effort, but nary a call-up in 2006 for a Mariners team that had six different relievers with an ERA over 10.00. (In 27 combined innings, but still.)

Performance: Eight walks, 51 strikeouts, a 2.01 ERA, and exactly one homer allowed in 53 innings for Fresno, again in the Pacific Coast League. That led to 22 games in the majors for a bad Giants team, where he had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.5 and a 110 ERA+.

Result: No interest from the majors. Left for Japan.

Performance: Good in Japan over two full seasons, finishing his last year with a 1.70 ERA and 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 90 innings for the Hanshin Tigers.

Result: A minor-league deal with the Red Sox.

Performance: The worst year on the list. Atchison has a 4.50 ERA (97 ERA+) and career-low strikeouts-per-nine ratio of 6.2.

Result: Invited back to Boston to compete for a job the next year.

Performance: One of his more impressive minor-league seasons. Over 61 innings, Atchison struck out 72 and walked nine. His performance in the majors was good, with a 3.26 ERA in 30 innings and no home runs allowed. He struck out only 17 in those innings, though, so it wasn't all outstanding. His performance in that fateful September, though: 12 innings, two runs allowed.

Result: Invited back to Boston to compete for a job the next year.

Performance: The fourth-lowest ERA in baseball, just four-hundredths better than Aroldis Champan. Atchison missed August because of an elbow strain, but didn't allow a run in five September innings.

Result: Non-tendered by the Red Sox because they didn't want to pay him the $1 million or so he would have made in arbitration.

What kind of stuff does Atchison feature? He's not a hard thrower, but he wouldn't be an anomaly in a major-league bullpen. It's not like he's topping out at 77:

He was the wrong reliever at the wrong time for the wrong teams. Other relievers might have parlayed one of those seasons into a nice four- or five-year career in the back of a bullpen somewhere. Guillermo Mota has made over $18 million over his career, for example, despite having a WAR between -0.7 and 0.7 in 11 of his 14 seasons. When it comes to Atchison, though, he never got the chance to stick around.

Sometimes baseball is a funny game. And sometimes baseball is a real jerk.

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