21 December 2013

Grant Balfour Going Elsewhere; Why That Might Be Good

Many fans rejoiced when the Orioles had apparently signed Grant Balfour on Tuesday, not necessarily because they knew a whole lot about Balfour, but because his arrival represented the team's first free agent signing of note. However, the soon-to-be 36-year-old right-hander from Australia won't be taking over the closing duties from Jim Johnson after all. Roch Kubatko of MASN hinted on Thursday night that when the Orioles received the results of Balfour's physical, there was some kind of issue. Apparently the issue is with Balfour's right shoulder; as Kubatko mentioned, "Something was revealed on the X-rays that must have raised concerns." Concerns were definitely raised, and by Friday, the deal was off.

So what happened? According to Kubatko, the Orioles simply went with what their doctors said:
Even though the two-year, $15 million contract seemed to be a reasonable deal, it's still a lot of money for an aging reliever. Plus, the Orioles are notoriously wary of taking risks on free agent pitchers (mostly starters, but still):
The Orioles traditionally don’t give starting pitchers deals beyond three years. Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette doesn’t like to do it, and club owner Peter Angelos doesn’t like to do it.
Balfour isn't a starting pitcher, obviously, but the normally cautious Orioles evidently weren't wild about handing over guaranteed second-year money to Balfour. Eduardo Encina and Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun did an effective job on Thursday of going over Balfour's injury history:
[B]efore Balfour, who converted 62 of 67 save opportunities for the Athletics over the past two seasons, emerged as a dependable late-inning arm, he missed two full seasons in 2005 and 2006 after reconstructive elbow and shoulder surgeries.

As a member of the Minnesota Twins, Balfour had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in May 2005. Four months later, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his shoulder, costing him the entire 2006 season.

Balfour has not missed time because of his shoulder since. He’s been on the major league disabled list just twice, having missed 32 games with an intercostal strain in 2010 and 13 games for an oblique strain the next season. Last offseason, Balfour had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, but returned to the mound within two weeks and was on Oakland’s Opening Day roster.
As you'd expect, Balfour claims that he's completely healthy, and as told to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, he had a few choice words for Duquette and the Orioles:
“I called Dan Duquette and told him, “I’ve played in this league for 10 years, I deserve to be treated with respect and you did not treat me with respect. Two well respected physicians said I am completely healthy – because I am healthy. I’m a fighter and a winner and I would have given you your best chance to win.

“I was looking forward to pitching for the Orioles and helping them to go to the World Series, where they haven’t been for 30 years,” Balfour continued. “I wanted to help them as a team.”
Balfour is a fiery guy, and I'm sure he wholeheartedly believes all of that. Still, the Orioles likely realize that the missing piece to their World Series puzzle probably isn't a single good but not fantastic reliever. Besides, Balfour can't help the team if he's injured.

Balfour and his agents understandably have a few doctors on their side. (Kubatko shared an amusing anecdote on one of those doctors.) But they aren't the Orioles' doctors, and the team is going with their word. The Orioles are probably more cautious than most teams -- right or wrong, good or bad. Overall, the whole thing still looks bad for the Orioles, and it will look even worse if Balfour signs with another team and pitches well. But for two years and $15 million, they weren't willing to risk being wrong.

To me, it's laughable that some believe the deal was nixed simply because Orioles' ownership decided at the last minute that they just didn't want to pay that much money for Balfour. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com said as much:
The Orioles traded Jim Johnson away a few weeks ago, and ever since that move they've been linked to a handful of "proven closers" to fill the role. Now that Balfour is no longer an option, the O's are considering Fernando Rodney as an option at closer -- and he won't come cheap, either. If the Orioles were simply being cheap, I'm not sure why they would even bother with Balfour or Rodney in the first place.

Also, it's curious why Oakland didn't try to re-sign Balfour if the cost would have been close to what he and the Orioles originally agreed to. Rob Neyer of SB Nation wondered the same thing Friday morning: "[T]his still doesn't explain why the A's would happily trade for the Orioles' Jim Johnson, who's slated to make around $10 million next season. But it does explain why they let Balfour get away. We were wondering, since Balfour is essentially the same pitcher -- when healthy, that is -- as Johnson, and wound up costing significantly less money."

Maybe Oakland just really wanted Johnson, or maybe they want to see if they can use him as trade bait at the trade deadline. But it's also possible that the A's were, on some level, worried about Balfour's health.

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Before the Orioles' contract with Balfour fell through, I was working on a post on Balfour's change in pitch usage. It may not be as relevant now that he won't be pitching for the Orioles, but considering the injury issues being discussed, I think it's worth noting. So, here we go.

As I briefly discussed on Wednesday, Balfour accumulates three things: strikeouts (9.78 K/9), walks (3.94 BB/9), and fly balls (43.6 FB%). He's also posted sub-2.60 ERAs in each of the last four seasons. When his ERA has been up in the past -- for example, in 2009 when he had a 4.81 ERA -- he wasn't all that different to the current version of himself other than a slight increase in his walk rate. He was, however, unlucky BABIP wise (.296 vs. career .264), and he only stranded 65.4% of baserunners (career 76.8%). Because he doesn't get more groundballs and doesn't limit his walks more, he is not considered an elite reliever, but he is still very good.

Balfour has two main weapons: his four-seam fastball and slider. According to Brooks Baseball, since 2007 (which is as far back as their data goes) Balfour has thrown his four-seam fastball 74.5% of the time and his slider 15.7% of the time. He also mixes in a curveball (6.7%) and an occasional sinker (2.1%) and change-up (1%).

As he's gotten older, though, Balfour's pitch usage has changed in an intriguing way. His velocity has been steady; last year his average fastball velocity was about 93 miles per hour, which is right around his career average. But since 2008, he's throwing fewer fastballs and more sliders each year. Take a look:

Pitch usage chart for Grant Balfour

You'd think Balfour would lean more on his secondary pitch, his slider, if his fastball velocity was dropping, but as noted above, that isn't the case. The movement on Balfour's pitches hasn't drastically changed either. His four-seam fastball doesn't move quite as much vertically as it did a few years ago, but that's really it. The movement on his slider also hasn't changed much.

Overall, Balfour has done an effective job in his career of retiring left- and right-handed batters. Lefties have a combined .272 wOBA off of him, while righties have a .281 wOBA. But he's attacking both sets of batters differently than he did in 2008 (which was the year he really started to pitch effectively).

First, here's how Balfour's repertoire to left-handed batters has changed:



The takeaway there? Fewer fastballs and more offspeed pitches.

How about right-handed hitters?

 


Balfour basically throws only fastballs and sliders to righties. The drop-off in fastballs is much greater here, though, as is the jump in a single offspeed pitch.

Maybe Balfour has simply had to adjust to opposing batters as his career continues. In a time when there are a ton of specialist relievers, it's certainly valuable to be able to summon one pitcher who can pitch well against both right- and left-handed batters.

Changes in pitch usage happen, and it doesn't mean anything is wrong with Balfour's arm or shoulder. His velocity is still consistent with his career average. But maybe not having to reach back and throw as many fastballs has been beneficial for him and allowed him to keep pitching and dodge another major injury. I doubt it's a red flag, but it's at least some kind of flag (maybe with an Orioles' orange hue).

Stats via Brooks Baseball and FanGraphs.

1 comment:

Larry McLaughlin said...

Well Pitchers are fragile (As McPhail used to say) and one has to be cautious before signing guaranteed contracts for large sums of money.

My biggest concern all along was: Why didn't Billy Beane try to keep him? What did he know and when did he know it? He had no problem paying Jim Johnson even more $.