11 December 2015

Should Darren O'Day Become The Orioles' Closer?

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After a terrifying delay, the Orioles finally made a big move in the offseason (and a positive one this time!): They brought back Darren O'Day. The four-year, $31 million contract became official on Monday; since O'Day took his physical on Wednesday, it appears that the deal is for real, although the team hasn't announced it yet. Baltimore will continue to have one of the game's top setup men in O'Day, to pair with an elite closer in Zach Britton.

But should they fill those roles? As crazy as it sounds, perhaps the Orioles would be better off if they switched the two. Instead of O'Day manning the eighth and Britton the ninth, Britton would relieve the starting pitcher and O'Day would shut the door. While it breaks from the tradition Baltimore has established over the past two seasons, it would probably benefit the club enough to make it a worthwhile change.

The Orioles signed O'Day as a free agent, giving him a locked-in salary for the next four campaigns. By contrast, Britton came up through the Baltimore farm system, which means the arbitration process will establish his price. Despite the flaws of the save, many people within baseball still value it heavily when evaluating reliever performance — including those who set salaries for players such as Britton.

Look at some of the projected salaries for young closers, compared to those of similar setup men, and you'll see a trend. In Pittsburgh, Mark Melancon and his 51 saves could receive as much as $10 million for 2016. Meanwhile, Tony Watson, who accrued 41 holds in 2015, should earn around $4.6 million. Melancon does have an additional year of service time, warranting a higher salary, but it's unlikely that Watson will even approach eight figures next season. These two have identical profiles: Both were top-10 NL relievers in 2015 (and have been since 2013), both have spotless injury records, and both will turn 31 next spring. Only their roles set them apart.

Take another, cross-team example. Marlins reliever A.J. Ramos will enter arbitration for the first time this offseason, which will likely net him around $2.8 million. That comes pretty close to the probable $3.4 million salary of Jays reliever Brett Cecil, now in his third trip through the system. At age 29, both men have solid futures, as well as similar resumes: Cecil's 67 ERA- over the past three years matches Ramos's 68. But Cecil's greater experience should earn him more, and the reason it doesn't is his assignment — with just 11 saves since 2013, he won't see closer money. Ramos moved to the ninth inning in 2015, which pumped up his salary for 2016 and beyond.

Other, similar cases abound. Rays reliever Kevin Jepsen, a four-year veteran of arbitration, will likely gain around $6 million this time. A 31-year-old who has dominated across the last two seasons, he'll provide the Rays with a comparatively cheap eighth-inning option. Erstwhile Oriole and current Cub Pedro Strop, who turned a corner after heading to Chicago (doesn't that sound familiar?), has a projected price tag of $4.7 million. For a 30-year-old going through the process a third time, that's a bargain. The arbitration system rewards saves, not holds, an inefficiency that the teams who employ men like this will happily exploit.

I am far from the first person to note this. During the 2014 offseason, Matthew Murphy put forth this exact argument at The Hardball Times — that it makes fiscal sense for teams to divert their homegrown relievers away from the closer track as early as possible. (He goes into more detail with examples, so read it if you'd like more proof.) Now, two-ish years later, the Orioles have a perfect chance to follow his advice: By swapping Britton and O'Day, they'll potentially save millions on the former.

This idea does seem to have a flaw, though: O'Day struggles against opposite-handed batters, which could lead to his undoing in the ninth inning. Shouldn't the Orioles have their most indiscriminate reliever finish out the game?

While the platoon argument does have some truth to it, it doesn't solely apply to O'Day, as Britton has also carried a handedness split in his relief career:

Pitcher, Years wOBA vs. L wOBA vs. R
O'Day, 2012-15 .303 .229
Britton, 2014-15 .168 .267

O'Day has always stranded an incredible amount of runners, so the fact that he has higher wOBAs against than Britton does makes little difference. More importantly, O'Day's platoon split has shrunk recently — across the past two years, left-handed batters have managed a .270 wOBA against him (right-handed batters have held steady at .227). He's shifted his pitch usage against southpaws, suggesting it probably isn't a fluke:

Since O'Day came to Baltimore four years ago, lefties have crushed his slider for a .298 BABIP and .311 ISO. They've fared much worse against his sinker and four-seam fastball — particularly the latter, which has held them to a .119 ISO and .241 BABIP in that span. Along with an occasional changeup, this spike in hard pitches has helped O'Day to keep opposite-handed hitters in check, making him capable of pitching any time.

Of course, the Orioles will almost certainly stick to their 2014-15 blueprint. As the Proven Closer™, Britton presumably has the job secured until his arm falls off, leaving O'Day to come in before him. And even if the Orioles did shift them, it would net them a couple million dollars at most. Still, it would function as an interesting experiment, for a team that has shown an inclination toward those. Whatever happens, at least we can look forward to having a top-notch bullpen for years to come.


C Moore said...

too late now but should have flipped him to Houston for Velasquez
nice controllable starter. Then made O'Day closer.

Anonymous said...

Another option to consider is a platoon for the 8th and 9th innings: If O'Day and Britton are flexible enough, they could be asked to pitch in either order depending on the handedness of the upcoming batters.

Ryan Romano said...

Philly did get an incredible haul for Giles, so yeah, the Astros' aggression would have been nice for the Orioles to capitalize on. And the handedness idea is even more forward-thinking than this, but I've learned with Baltimore that we have to take baby steps.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

To be fair, most clubs do not employ match-ups for the 9th inning and usually opt for one guy to fill that role. I'm sure there are a couple of teams who may be flexible, but I can't recall off-hand. That doesn't mean it's the best way to do things, however.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the Rays last year?

Matt Perez said...

On the one hand, it would have saved money by using Britton as a set-up man. Then again, using Britton as a closer was a desperate move.

On the other hand, using Britton in such a role would cause his agent to file a grievance due to the demotion, significantly disgruntle the player, cause him to demand a trade and make other free agents less likely to come here.

I think this is one of those things that looks great on paper and works less well in reality.

Ryan Romano said...

This is a good point. (With this in mind, though, I would expect to see the Astros try this strategy if they had a similar situation, since they seem to care very little about their players.)