10 August 2012

The Replacement Arms

by Jon Bernhardt

There’s been a lot of talk about the luck the Baltimore Orioles have had in being nine games above .500 going into the second weekend of August, tied for a berth in the new second Wild Card slot and generally playing over their heads across the board.

Specifically, it’s been tied to the Orioles’ record in one-run games—22-6 (.786) –and their record in extra innings—12-2 (.857). Neither of those winning percentages are sustainable at those margins.
The above sentence should be read not as “the Orioles are about to regress in one-run games and extra innings, hard” but instead as “it’s more likely than not that moving forward, they will see a more normal rate of success; that is, closer to .500.” There is absolutely no reason that just because the Orioles have played .750 ball in one-run games up until this arbitrary point, that they must play deplorably to even things out—just that you shouldn’t be too surprised or disappointed if that goes on for a little while. In other words, there’s no such thing as being due. This is elementary probability.
But baseball games—and most human endeavors—are governed by far more than luck, and the most important thing that a team can have in a game that’s late and close is good pitching. As Taylor Teagarden has demonstrated on multiple occasions, if a game goes long enough just about any hitter will do; it’s the pitchers that really matter. Once you get into the soft belly of a bullpen things have a tendency to go south very fast.

The Orioles bullpen, however, hasn’t shown many signs of that—excepting 2011 closer Kevin Gregg, of course, who has been all but explicitly demoted to mop-up duty. In the offseason there was massive turnover in the composition of the Orioles pen from last year, due mostly to the efforts of Buck Showalter and new General Manager Dan Duquette. Showalter is not, and should not, be showrunning actual baseball ops decisions, but the man knows how to put together and use a pitching staff. It’s useful now, I think, as the Orioles go into the final run of the season, to examine a few members of the current Baltimore pen and exactly how they’re doing what they’re doing—especially late and close.
Mop-Up: Kevin Gregg
2011 Role: MLB Closer, Baltimore
2012 Compensation: $5,800,000
2013 Contract Status: Free Agent
Let’s start with Kevin, actually. Gregg was last year’s closer and Gregg was abysmal last year, but one hardly had much to do with the other; Gregg’s a marginal major leaguer to begin with and it’s likely only his make-up and personal bravado kept him hanging around in the late innings as long as he did. Not that Gregg has a bad make-up, per se. Closer mentality is horribly overrated and terribly misused as a term, but the fact remains that the late innings are higher pressure situations than the earlier ones simply because journalists, fans, coaches, and other players act as if it were so. There have been pitchers—LaTroy Hawkins is the classic example walked out here, but there have been others—who have been able to handle every relief duty except the closer’s role. The reason men like Hawkins are so rare are because generally players that can’t psychologically handle closing also can’t handle other instances of high leverage relief, pitch poorly across the board and are quickly remanded back to the minor leagues.

All that said, having a closer mentality doesn’t actually make one better at throwing baseballs, as Orioles fans discovered when Gregg came out. There was a metric last year that I had called the Kevin Gregg Hat Trick: the strikeout, the walk, and the hit allowed in a single inning. There were instances last year where Gregg recorded two of those in the same outing, though he never had an inning where he recorded a save with three, to my knowledge. Considering that recording three Kevin Gregg Hat Tricks requires allowing six baserunners while making no outs on the basepaths, I’m not even sure it’s possible. As the year wore on, he began allowing more hits and walking more batters while striking out fewer and trying to keep a running tally just became an exercise in depression.
Gregg’s been a bit of a nuisance in 2012, but nothing heart-stopping or nightmare-fueling like last year. The reason isn’t because his pitching’s improved all that much—his 105 ERA+, 1.76 K/BB, 1.598 WHIP line in 2012 is better than his 97 ERA+, 1.33 K/BB, 1.642 WHIP line in 2011, but not excessively so—but because his game-entering Leverage Index (gmLI), which tracks how important the situation is to the team when a pitcher enters the game with 1.0 being average pressure, has plummeted from 1.4 in 2011 to 0.5 in 2012. So in essence, he’s being used just like a guy who can give you 60-70 innings of middling with lots of hits, lots of walks, and lots of strikeouts should be used—sparingly. Showalter gave Gregg an entire lost season to prove he could pitch late and build his value, he couldn’t, he didn’t, he’s mop-up, case closed.

To his credit, Gregg’s taken his demotion with surprising grace considering his willingness to call out former teammate Koji Uehara last year when the Baltimore media began debating whether Gregg or Uehara should close, and there were reports that he’s tried to take on some sort of mentor role towards younger players on the team. Good on him, I say. It’s a savvy move, too: if you’re not going to beat the world on the field, you better show that you’re worth something to a club off of it. Gregg probably won’t have trouble finding work with a club next year, though it won’t be for the ludicrous 2/12 the Orioles gave him.
Middle Relief: Troy Patton
2011 Role: MLB Middle Relief, Baltimore; AAA Long Relief/Spot Starter, Norfolk
2012 Compensation: $480,000
2013 Contract Status: First Year Arbitration Eligible
Troy Patton’s had an interesting year; in fact, it might be the most interesting of all of pitchers that returned to the pen from last year’s squad. Patton came to Baltimore in the (first) Miguel Tejada trade, which sent Miggy to Houston for Luke Scott, Patton, Matt Albers, Dennis Sarfate, and Mike Costanzo. Scott is now a Tampa Bay Ray, Albers a Diamondback by way of Boston, Sarfate’s in Japan and Costanzo is tooling around the Cincinnati organization, but Patton remains in Baltimore. He was the best prospect in the deal (Scott was already a major leaguer, if a part time player of sorts before coming to Baltimore), and he rewarded the Orioles by immediately tearing his labrum and missing all of 2008. He stayed in the minors for almost all of 2009, pitching only 2/3 of an inning, but then came up late in 2011 put up a 142 ERA+ and 4.40 K/BB (components: 6.6 K/9, 1.5 BB/9) in 30 IP working mostly in relief of beleaguered Orioles starters. He looked to build on that in 2012.
He has: 50 IP, 156 ERA+, 4.18 K/BB (8.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9). He wasn’t used as much of a longman in 2011 (1.5 IP per G), but that’s fallen even further in 2012 (1.04 IP per G); Patton also has the distinction of being the only left-handed pitcher in the pen most nights in 2012, so Showalter will occasionally use him in match-ups situations; last year Mike Gonzalez had that honor, and usually made a horror show of it.

I will begin by falling on my own sword: I wasn’t particularly impressed with what I saw of Patton last year despite the numbers and I thought the Orioles should have kept Zach Phillips, who came over from the Texas Rangers at the same time as Pedro Strop, as the match-up lefty. Phillips has been decent in AAA, but Patton has been one of the most useful lefty relievers in baseball, putting up a 1.6 rWAR.

Patton’s going to get some money in arbitration, but he’ll be around for a bit longer, and that’s good. He came up as a starter but baseball in general and Baltimore specifically could use more guys who are able to pitch 80-90 elite innings out of the pen with multiple innings per appearance—it’ll be interesting to see if Patton will turn into a guy like that. The Orioles starters could use it.
Middle Relief: Luis Ayala
2011 Role: MLB Middle Relief/Set-Up, New York Yankees
2012 Compensation: $825,000
2013 Contract Status: $1,000,000 Club Option ($100,000 Buyout)
Luis Ayala is a fantastic example of cheap lightning in a bottle. He’s been a bit less overwhelming of late—it’s hard to play over one’s head forever, especially in the AL East—but he’s put up a 159 ERA+ with a 3.00 K/BB (5.5 K/9, 1.8 BB/9). For his career Ayala has a 2.2 BB/9, which highlights a common thread of the Baltimore bullpen this year: they don’t walk just about anyone. 

“Not walking anyone” correlates almost exactly with “being a good relief arm;” a certain number of walks are acceptable so long as they’re nullified by strikeouts, which don’t give those free runners much room to advance like long flyballs into the corners or simple grounders to first can, but really not walking anyone is the best policy. Some of the biggest problem children of Orioles bullpens past—Chris Ray, for example, or last year’s Mike Gonzalez and Kevin Gregg (hello there!)—struck out a lot of guys but walked a whole lot, too. A little bad luck on batted ball placement and that goes south real fast.

So Luis Ayala will likely be back next year, especially considering the general esteem surrounding his current season, and he might be less lucky than he’s been this year on batted balls or he might be luckier still, but he’s certainly not a bad arm and at his cost, grabbing his option is somewhat of a no-brainer.
Middle Relief: Darren O’Day
2011 Role: MLB Mop-Up, Texas; AAA Relief, Round Rock
2012 Compensation: $1,325,000
2013 Contract Status: Third Year Arbitration Eligible
Darren O’Day was one of the last acquisitions of the MacPhail regime, picked up only a few days before Andy MacPhail stepped down as Executive Vice President of Baseball Operatons—and so, one might presume given his team and when the Orioles grabbed him, O’Day is an Oriole because manager Buck Showalter wanted him. It was a good call.

O’Day pitches submarine style, and so far this year has been good for him and for Baltimore: 45.2 IP, 165 ERA+, 5.50 K/BB (8.7 K/9, 1.6 BB/9). Once again, O’Day doesn’t walk anyone; and once again, like Ayala, his BB/9 is a bit lower than his career rate (2.3 BB/9 in 226.1 IP). The best bullpens are lucky and cheap, and the Orioles’ three major middle relievers not walking anyone while costing less than $2.5 million altogether is a good instance of that.

There’s been little discussion of splits here amongst the middle relievers because Showalter doesn’t play to those, for the most part; Patton, Ayala, and O’Day are all average an inning or more of relief, and Showalter doesn’t have any one out guys he likes to play with—outside of the stalwarts, bullpen spots are filled by guys that Showalter and Duquette want to take a look at, like Stuart Pomeranz, Miguel Socolovich, Steve Johnson, and Miguel Gonzalez. In the case of the latter two, they liked that look enough to give the guys starts, and so far both have paid off. Sometimes Tommy Hunter or Dana Eveland have hung around as long relievers and swingmen, but otherwise the bullpen is essentially five or six guys.

Given his season and that he’ll likely be fairly cheap next year too, I’d expect to see O’Day resigned before going to arbitration instead of non-tendered.
Set-Up: Pedro Strop
2011 Role: MLB Mop-Up, Texas; MLB Set-Up, Baltimore; AAA Relief, Texas
2012 Compensation: $482,500
2013 Contract Status: Under Team Control
Strop is a bit of a conundrum. He was acquired from Texas at the end of last year for Mike Gonzalez and ever since he arrived he’s been lights out. After a very good end to the 2011 season with Baltimore, he was in contention with Jim Johnson for the closer’s spot going into camp this year—a spot Johnson won mostly based on seniority and himself being a good pitcher. Not that this seems to be a problem; Pedro Strop is pitching in the 7th and 8th innings and is tied with Aroldis Chapman for the most valuable reliever, by rWAR, in baseball with 2.8.

But how? Strop’s ERA+ is amazing, 332, but really ERA+ isn’t too useful when evaluating relievers beyond “below 100 is very very bad.” His K/BB, however, is only 1.58 (6.9 K/9, 4.3 BB/9). He’s doing what Chris Ray and Mike Gonzalez before him did: he’s walking far too many batters. How, then, is he getting away with it?

Strop is inducing terrible, terrible contact and getting very, very lucky. His GB% is 68, with a 3.79 GB/FB rate. His BABIP against is .231. His strand rate is 90.3%. Some of this might be sustainable—specifically, the groundball rate—and if it is it will make the other stuff more sustainable, but being real: Pedro Strop is not Aroldis Chapman. He’s just gotten outcomes vaguely like him. The good news is that Strop does have strikeout stuff, and if he can figure out how to make it move and make it a strike at the same time, he could turn into a legit late inning guy.
Closer: Jim Johnson
2011 Role: MLB Relief Ace, Baltimore
2012 Compensation: $2,625,000
2013 Contract Status: Third Arbitration Year Eligible
Johnson pitched 91 innings out of the pen last year in 69 games, showing up anywhere from the sixth to the ninth innings; he rarely showed up for less than one and he regularly threw two. By the end of the year he was the closer in all but name, and there was some discussion over the offseason whether or not Johnson would return to starting as he had in the minors or if he would become the team’s closer.

He became the closer, and while generally I think that’s been a waste of his talents as a durable sinkerballer who doesn’t strike a lot of guys out, walks even fewer, and gets a lot of groundballs, the performance of the rest of the bullpen hasn’t really pushed the issue and I’m willing to accept that Showalter probably knows better than I do. That said, Johnson’s gotten very lucky on grounders finding defenders up until recently—the last couple weeks have highlighted why the strikeout is preferable, especially with a bad defense behind you. Nevertheless, he’s been fine for what he is.
Honorable Mention: Matt Lindstrom
Lindstrom’s been hurt a bit, only recording 30 innings to the 45-50 innings of the other three middle relievers, but just about every results-based analysis of them applies to him too. He’s been valuable, and the Jeremy Guthrie for Jason Hammels/Matt Lindstrom deal is looking like the steal of the year even if neither Oriole pitcher is especially healthy right now.


So the Orioles pen going into the last fifty or so games of the season is essentially six men (and Kevin Gregg), all of whom are having some degree of an amazing year and none of whom are locked in for long in case that goes south in 2013. All in all, I’d say the Orioles front office did a pretty good job with this one.

But then there’s still fifty or so games to go, aren’t there?

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