Friday, November 14, 2008

2008 Season Review: Bullpen

The Reds bullpen was a bit of a pleasant surprise in 2008. Of the many problem areas of this team, the bullpen wasn't really among them. In 2008, the Reds relievers put up an 8th ranked 3.81 ERA , but a 21st ranked 1.45 WHIP and a 24th ranked .342 opponents OBP. Here is what the preseason projection looked like.

Francisco Cordero

2008 Projections
Bill James: IP: 61.0, ERA: 3.69, WHIP: 1.33, K/BB: 66/24, SVs: 33
ZIPS: IP: 70.0, ERA: 3.34, WHIP: 1.26, K/BB: 80/27, SVs: n/a
Actual 2008: IP: 70.1, ERA: 3.33, WHIP: 1.41, K/BB: 78/38, SVs: 34

Former GM Wayne Krivksy's big free agent signing was effective, but really didn't do much to alter the fortunes of the Reds.

Closer is an interesting position and one I find difficult to properly value. Their limited workload reduces their opportunity to impact the game, but when they actually are used in high leverage situations their value is beyond measure. However, managers don't always use the closer in the high leverage situations, choosing instead to utilize their best reliever in situations where the team has a 3 run lead and nobody on base.

However, it's undeniable that an ineffective closer can destroy the confidence of a team and cost the team victories in the Win/Loss column.

Rany from "Rany on the Royals" wrote an interesting blurb (which I've quoted below) about Nate Silver's keys to postseason success.

"Before my friend Nate Silver became the world’s most famous pollster, he used to write about baseball. One of his most-cited articles, in “Baseball Between The Numbers”, was an analysis of which teams are likeliest to win the crapshoot that we call the baseball playoffs. What Nate found was that there were three things that were most correlated with a team’s ability to win in the playoffs. Those three things are: 1) Team defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA); 2) The strikeout rate of the team’s pitching staff; 3) The quality of the team’s closer, as measured by WXRL. To rephrase this: over the last 40 years (i.e. the divisional era), it is in fact true that good pitching beats good hitting in October. And the best way to beat good hitting in the playoffs is to keep your opponent’s batting average down. The way you do that is to prevent them from making contact (K rate), and when they do make contact, prevent them from getting a hit on balls in play (FRAA). If good pitching beats good hitting, one pitcher matters above all: your closer. With more at stake in each game, managers are inclined to use their closers more aggressively, and all the extra off-days make it easier to run your closer out there. Plus, since every team is a playoff team, blowouts are rare and close games the norm, and the cool October weather also dampens scoring and increases the likelihood of a tie game. Mariano Rivera has never appeared in more than 74 games in a season, and his career high in innings as a closer is 80.2 (he did throw 107.2 innings as a set-up man for John Wetteland in 1996). But since joining the Yankees in 1995, the team has played a total of 128 postseason games, and in just 128 games he’s made 76 appearances and thrown 117.1 innings. Game for game, Rivera has had twice as much impact in the postseason as he's made in the regular season. These three aspects of a team are known as the Secret Sauce.”

While Silver's findings comport with my belief in the importance of defense, they also reveal the importance of a good closer to postseason success. However, Billy Beane has had substantial success with his "Trading the Closer" philosophy, which basically entails selling his closer when the cost gets too high and replacing him with a less expensive, but equally effective reliever. It worked in large part because the marketplace overvalued the "save" statistic, rather than looking to the underlying performance.

So, what is value of a closer? Is it an overvalued position that can be filled easily without resorting to throwing big money at a free agent? Or, is it a key factor for team confidence and postseason success?

To be honest, I'm not sure anymore. I will say that I think the value of the closer would be higher if managers were more willing to use them in high leverage situations, rather than just the traditional 9th inning role. Why waste your best reliever in a low leverage situation like the 9th inning with no runners on and a 3 run lead?

Setup: David Weathers

2008 Projections
Bill James: IP: 75.0, ERA: 3.84, WHIP: 1.35, K/BB: 54/31
ZIPS: IP: 68.0, ERA: 3.84, WHIP: 1.35, K/BB: 46/26
Actual 2008: IP: 69.1, ERA: 3.25, WHIP: 1.53, K/BB: 46/30

Weathers is pretty extraordinary. I have been doubting his ability to maintain a quality level of production since he was 36, but at age 38 he continues to prove me wrong. How does he do it?

Well in 2008, Weathers changed his approach. His pitch mix was as follows: 59.5% fastballs, 32.9% sliders, and 7.6% change-ups. This is a significantly different mix than he used in 2007, when he used more fastballs (74.8%), fewer sliders (23.0%), and fewer change-ups (2.2%).

Weathers seems to be able to adapt his game to the situation and continue to pile up quality innings. However, in keeping with my tradition, I'll say that the Reds should part ways with Mr. Weathers. If they keep him another year, then they will have ridden his value into the ground. This may be the last chance the Reds will have to exchange the value of David Weathers and apply it to a younger asset.

Still, Weathers will probably pitch until he's 50 just to spite me.

7th Inning Guy: Jared Burton

2008 Projections
Bill James: IP: 40.0, ERA: 4.28, WHIP: 1.48, K/BB: 33/19
ZIPS: IP: 67.0, ERA: 4.16, WHIP: 1.45, K/BB: 54/32
Actual 2008: IP: 58.2, ERA: 3.22, WHIP: 1.38, K/BB: 58/25

Jared Burton is flat out nasty and that's all there is to it. The Reds really did their homework when they nabbed him as a Rule V selection from the A's. I'm still surprised that the A's left him unprotected so that they could grab Jay Marshall in the Rule V draft. Marshall is another reliever with a funky arm slot and the A's are believers in those guys, but I'd imagine they'd like a mulligan on this one.

He struck out almost a batter an inning and was probably the Reds most effective reliever. Burton features a Splitter (93.03 MPH), Cutter (88.73 MPH), and a Slider (87.22 MPH). Everything he throws is hard and really moving.

All that's left for him to do is improve his walk rate and workload. He logged 43.0 innings in 2007 and 58.2 innings in 2008, so it would be very beneficial to the Reds if they could get his workload up to ~75.0 innings. Outside of that, the Reds are very lucky to have Burton in the mix.

Middle Relief: Jeremy Affeldt

2008 Projections
Bill James: IP: 200.0, ERA: 4.46, WHIP: 1.46, K/BB: 150/97
ZIPS: IP: 72.0, ERA: 4.75, WHIP: 1.54, K/BB: 48/39
Actual 2008: IP: 78.1, ERA: 3.33, WHIP: 1.31, K/BB: 80/25

Before the season, I had Jeremy Affeldt pegged as a breakthrough candidate or a bust. Thankfully, he broke through. In addition, I really liked the signing because it was a good way to troll for compensatory picks.

Affeldt threw a lot of quality innings for the Reds in 2008 and is now exploring the free agent market. He's earned a hefty payday, so probably won't be back with the Reds. He struck out more than a batter an inning and racked up 121 groundballs and only 60 flyballs.

From a production standpoint, Affeldt would be a nice guy to keep around, but his cost and ability to bring back a draft pick makes it better to let him walk.

Middle Relief: Todd Coffey

2008 Projections
Bill James: IP: 50.0, ERA: 4.86, WHIP: 1.46, K/BB: 36/15
ZIPS: IP: 75.0, ERA: 4.92, WHIP: 1.52, K/BB: 50/25

Lefty Specialist: Kent Mercker

2008 Projections
Bill James: N/A

Both Mercker and Coffey imploded almost before the season got underway. They combined to log a paltry 23 innings and that was the end of it. Despite possessing good stuff, Coffey was once again undone by the mental good side of pitching.

As for Mercker, his career ended with a whimper, not a bang. Injuries caught up with him, but he had a very nice career and should enjoy his retirement.

Middle Relief: Mike Lincoln

2008 Projections
Bill James: N/A
Actual 2008: IP: 70.1, ERA: 4.48, WHIP: 1.28, K/BB: 57/24

I owe Mike Lincoln a mea culpa. I honestly didn't get the signing and couldn't imagine what the Reds saw in him. However, Lincoln was fairly effective and he certainly exceded my expectations. Health was likely all he needed to be a reasonably effective MLB reliever.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about his season was his heavy groundball tendencies. He posted a stellar 1.70 GB/FB ratio, which is always a plus in Great American Ballpark.

Given the volatility of relievers, Lincoln probably won't be able to maintain his success into 2009, so perhaps it isn't surprising that the Reds seem to have little interest in bringing him back.

Lincoln does bring up an interesting observation about Walt Jocketty. One thing that is hard to overlook about Walt Jocketty is his preference for groundball pitchers. It was a built-in philosophy for the Cardinals. Jocketty acquired them, Dave Duncan groomed them, and Tony LaRussa put them in the best position to succeed. It seems like every starting pitcher they had was a groundballer and Anthony Reyes couldn't succeed in that organization because he wasn't a guy who would get groundballs.

Perhaps Mike Lincoln is the first sign of the groundball trend being carried over to the Reds organization, which would be a good thing given the reduced pull of gravity that seems to exist in Great American Ballpark.

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