27 August 2013

Left Behind?: How the Bullpen Lefties Will Be Key to a Playoff Berth

With September right around the corner and the Baltimore Orioles' playoff hopes still a volatile situation, the remaining 33 games left in the regular season loom large with the O's 5.5 games out of first place in the American League East and two games behind in the Wild Card standings. Add to this the fact that 78 percent of the remaining games for the Orioles are against AL East brethren and the importance of every series, every game, and every inning is further amplified:

Team # Games %
BOS 9 27
NYY 7 21
TBR 4 12
TOR 6 18
Total 26 78

In general, the AL East are teams built upon offense; when you consider that the top three AL offenses as measured by Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are from the East (Baltimore being third), then the key to a fruitful remainder of the regular season becomes an exercise in run prevention and taking advantage of a weakness in a team's lineup. Looking at AL East offenses further, a trend pops up, in the form of the amount of offense generated by each team's lefty hitters. Here, I provide a table showing how many lefties (with at least 100 plate appearances) each of the other AL East teams have and how much they contribute to the overall success of the team's offense (again, as measured by WAR):

BOS 4 11.5 45%
NYY 6 9.7 103%*
TBR 5 6.2 23%
TOR 3 6.2 48%

New York's totals are a bit wacky, for a couple of reasons. When you look at total WAR, the Yanks generate 9.4 wins above replacement, yet, their six lefties generate 103 percent of that. This comes not only from how lefty heavy their lineup is, but also from how many players are or were producing negative WAR values on the team. Added up, the Yankees have had 17 players contribute negative offensive WAR, including call ups and pitchers hitting during interleague play, along with players just performing poorly. If you remove these players and add up only positive WAR contributions, the lefties of the Yankees still contribute 66% of the offense for the team (9.7 out of 14.7 WAR).

Math gymnastics and caveats aside, we essentially have three AL East foes that rely upon their lefties for roughly half of their offense. Given the nature of AL games in terms of offense as well as the generous use of pitching matchups, the play and success of the lefthanders in the Baltimore bullpen suddenly becomes magnified. 

While the bullpen in recent games has become a tad maligned, the three portsiders in the bullpen -- Brian Matusz, T.J. McFarland, and Troy Patton, have all been capable pitchers and have performed admirably against the lefties they face in the later innings. While they don't quite generate the stats or the fervor of their righty bullpen counterparts, their roles and appearances will become more important and valued in the coming weeks.

With the help of Brooks Baseball, let's get to know each of the lefties a little better and see how they each go about generating these crucial lefty on lefty outs.

Brian Matusz

Just looking at pitch types, Matusz has evolved from his starter days and is essentially a two pitch pitcher -- fourseam and slider -- though he does occasionally show his other pitches. He is your typical lefty, in that he uses his change up exclusively against righties. Compared to his bullpen lefty cohorts, he displays above average velocity on the fastball.

Now, let's look at how each pitch is handled by the batter. Matusz's slider is a great weapon against lefties, not only in generating swings and misses (Whiffs, Whiff/Swing), but also in generating ground balls (GB, GB/FB, and GB/BIP). His fastball is no slouch, either, also generating a lot of whiffs and weak contact. However, when not properly located, Matusz can get in trouble with his fastball, as his 36% line drive per ball in play percentage (LD/BIP) attests. Overall, it appears that Matusz uses fastball velocity and location to set up his slider to generate most of his outs against lefties.

T.J. McFarland

Another converted starter, McFarland does things a little different than Matusz, given his average, at best, fastball velocity. Another two-pitch reliever, McFarland relies heavily on the heavy downward movement of his sinker, with an occasional slider thrown to change a hitter's plane of vision or to move their feet a bit. The remnants of a couple of other pitches due to his past as a starter still remain in the form of a four seam fastball and a change up, but overall, McFarland is a sinker/slider guy.

...and a good sinker it is, generating lots of swings and ground balls, keeping the right side of the defense busy with ground outs. He also appears to be the opposite of Matusz in another way, in that he gets in trouble with his slider, giving up more line drives and home runs with it than with his sinker.

Troy Patton

Now to Patton. In terms of velocity and stuff, he is midway between his other lefty cohorts in the 'pen and also displays the willingness and ability to be more than a two pitcher pitcher against lefties, adeptly incorporating both a four seam and sinker/two-seamer into his repertoire. Also of note is Patton's departure from his bullpen mates and pitchers in general, by pitching backwards, relying more upon his slider than his fastballs.

While he does it in a slightly different fashion, Patton also displays some success in keeping the ball on the ground and getting a good amount of whiffs, particularly with his slider. However, Patton's use of the curve ball seems to be detrimental, as it more frequently than not gets elevated and turns into a home run.

A final table to take a look at each of their 2013's against lefties (as of August 26th):

Brian Matusz 27 5.00 9.67 2 3.00 0.161 0.222 0.267 0.219
T.J. McFarland 26 9.69 9.35 1.73 3.46 0.272 0.308 0.485 0.341
Troy Patton 22.2 9.53 5.96 0.79 2.78 0.267 0.309 0.437 0.324
Data courtesy of Fangraphs

What we find is a trio that, just looking at the standard stats, are very similar in approach and effectiveness; in reality, each goes about getting those crucial lefty outs in their own ways -- Matusz with the above average fastball velocity and slider, McFarland, with a great sinker, and Patton, with a mixture of good pitches on top of pitching backwards, off of his slider. All three also benefit from deceptive deliveries; McFarland's arm action in particular, is very effective in making 86 MPH sinkers look more like 96 MPH sinkers.

Overall, the final push to the postseason is one filled with trepidation for the Orioles. However, they are suitably armed with a trio of lefties in their bullpen that are more than capable of neutralizing a large percentage of their AL East foes' lineups. The effectiveness and ultimate success of the bullpen and the Orioles overall will ultimately fall upon the shoulders of these aforementioned lefties, and in doing so, will be playing to one of the many strengths of the Orioles.

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