11 June 2014

The Quiet Effectiveness of Ryan Webb

One of the first sort-of-notable moves the Orioles made in the offseason was to quickly ink Ryan Webb to a two-year, $4.5 million deal. Considering the O's signed Webb just days after trading Jim Johnson to Oakland, they figured that Webb was a useful, but also much cheaper, alternative. The Orioles went on to sign Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz in February, which drew more fanfare and excitement than a middle reliever signing in December.

Cruz has been excellent; Jimenez has not. But the unheralded Webb has been pretty good so far in 26.2 innings. Looking at any slice of a single season of relief pitching, or even an entire one, can be misleading. Still, so far, his strikeouts are up (7.76 K/9 vs. 6.39 career), his walks are down (2.03 BB/9 vs. 3.06 career), and he's not outpitching his peripherals (2.70 ERA/2.52 FIP/2.92 xFIP). He's getting plenty of ground balls (54.8 GB%) and not giving up many home runs (0.34 HR/9; 5.6% HR/FB) -- which are things he's been good at throughout his career.

Zach Britton and Darren O'Day are typically mentioned as the O's two best relievers, and they both have been excellent so far. But even though Webb doesn't have an ERA around 1, he's been just about as valuable. He doesn't have O'Day's nearly perfect strand rate or Britton's absurdly high groundball percentage, but his FIP and xFIP are actually lower, suggesting Britton and O'Day may run in to some tough luck in the near future after being a bit fortunate.

Besides those three, though, the O's bullpen has been a revolving door. Tommy Hunter, who just recently returned from the disabled list, pitched poorly and then got hurt. Troy Patton only pitched a handful of innings after returning from his suspension and then was traded. Brian Matusz (5.73 K/9, 4.09 BB/9) has not been good. And T.J. McFarland, Preston Guilmet, Brad Brach, Josh Stinson, and Evan Meek have taken turns being shipped from Norfolk to Baltimore when extra innings are required. McFarland has probably been the best of that group, but not by much.

Factoring in the loss of Johnson, the disappointing Hunter, the underperforming Matusz, and the Grant Balfour saga, Webb has clearly been a big help to the bullpen. His pitch usage is about the same as it has been the last few seasons (mostly sinkers and sliders, with a few change-ups mixed in). He has also yet to throw a single four-seam fastball in 2014. (He doesn't throw many of them anyway.) His sinker still sits between 93-94 mph (decreased slightly from earlier in his career), and he throws his slider around 83 mph (also a few mph slower than previously in his career). But his pitches are still moving just about as much, and he's getting more whiffs on his change-up and about the same on his slider.

He's not getting quite as many swings and misses with his sinker, but, as you'd expect, that's his groundball pitch.

It's worth wondering if the Orioles should perhaps use Webb in some higher leverage situations. According to FanGraphs' Leverage Index (where 1.5 and above is considered high leverage and low leverage is below 1), Webb has a 1.11 Leverage Index when he enters the game. That's currently tied for sixth-best on the Orioles, behind O'Day, Britton, Matusz, Hunter, and Meek. (He's tied with McFarland.) Webb won't get used in higher leverage situations than O'Day and Britton (and Matusz, as the team's go-to lefty), but he could eventually surpass someone like Hunter, who is no longer the team's closer and is someone who allows too many baserunners.

For his career, Webb only has an average Leverage Index of 1.09 when he enters the game. So it isn't surprising for him to be used this way. Maybe there's a reason why Webb is tied with Matt Albers for career games finished without a save (83) -- a topic that is frequently discussed on Baseball Prospectus's Effectively Wild podcast -- or maybe it can just be chalked up as another baseball oddity.

Stats, via FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball, as of June 10.

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