15 August 2014

Why Is Ryan Webb Pitching in Norfolk?

Ryan Webb looking intense (photo courtesy of Keith Allison)
Just over two weeks ago, the Baltimore Orioles fortified their bullpen by adding Andrew Miller in a trade.  Miller was seen by many as not only a player who would help the team make it to the postseason, but as someone who would be even more important when the Orioles made it to the postseason.  That certainly seems to be the case as since the traded deadline, Baltimore has gone 9-3 and have opened up their lead in the AL East to 7.5 games.  According to Baseball Prospectus, the Orioles currently have a 91.8% chance of winning the division and a 94.6% chance of reaching the playoffs.

Of course, the addition of Miller meant that the team needed to make a corresponding roster move in order to make room for him.  As a result, the Orioles designated right-handed relief pitcher Ryan Webb off of the 25-man roster, a move that surprised...everyone.  And by everyone, I mean at least Patrick and I.

What made the move so surprising is that Webb is having the best season of his career and has been one of Baltimore’s three most valuable relievers (according to fWAR) prior to the acquisition of Miller.  As of August 1, Webb had accumulated 0.8 fWAR, just slightly behind Darren O’Day (0.9) and Zach Britton (1.0).  Even after spending the last 2 weeks pitching in AAA, the closest reliever behind Webb is Tommy Hunter, who is currently sitting at 0.5 fWAR, while pitching 0.2 innings more (remember that WAR is a cumulative statistic).  In fact, an argument could be made that Webb has been the Orioles best reliever (non-Andrew Miller category), if you look at fWAR per inning pitched, as the table below shows:

Andrew Miller is far and away the best reliever on the Baltimore pitching staff, and the team paid a substantial price to get him.  But if you’re going to go to the trouble of getting Miller, why do it at the expense of one of the most valuable relievers on your staff?  The only argument that I’ve seen is to preserve depth.  At the beginning of the year, Webb had an option remaining, whereas other (less valuable relievers) in the Baltimore bullpen such as Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz don’t, meaning the team would risk losing them through irrevocable waivers if they tried to send them to the minors.  However, this doesn’t account for the fact that Brad Brach and T.J. McFarland had options remaining as well, so either one of them could have been sent to Norfolk in Webb’s place.

Since an ugly outing on June 8 against Oakland in which he gave up 4 runs in 2 innings, Brach has been excellent, only allowing 3 earned runs in 27 innings while striking out about 24% of batters faced.  So based on his recent production, one could easily make an argument to keep him on the 25-man roster. As for McFarland, he’s definitely useful as the long-man in the bullpen (whereas Webb is not), but Webb is a much better option against both left and right-handed batters, especially if you start looking past their ERA’s.

The move to send Ryan Webb to the minors was confusing at the time, and even more confusing now that he’s been there for a full 2 weeks, despite being one of the best relievers in the Baltimore bullpen.  Admittedly, it’s possible (and probable) that the team knows something we don’t, making this transaction more of an obvious move, but from the outside it appears to be counterproductive.  Maybe this move was done solely to preserve bullpen depth or maybe it was done for a reason that is not obvious to us outsiders.  For the moment, I’ll defer to the front office.  After all, the Orioles currently sit comfortably on top of the AL East.  And as long as they keep winning, moving one of their best relievers off the active roster and to the minor leagues in order to preserve depth may prove to be well worth the gamble.

*Designating a player off of the 25-man roster is essentially the same as optioning them to the minor leagues (Jeff Long of BSL was kind enough to point me HERE when this happened to read more about it).  The Orioles did the same thing earlier in the year with Evan Meek.  The confusion comes from the terminology, which sounds like the player was designated for assignment (off the 40-man roster), which would expose that player to irrevocable waivers.


Bill said...

So, somewhere around Aug. 30, does T.J. get optioned out and Ryan Webb comes back up, so that Webb's on the playoff roster? T.J. comes back two days later when rosters expand.

There (hopefully) is no need for a long man in the bullpen during playoffs. I mean, if you need someone to eat 2+ innings in a playoff game, something's gone horribly wrong, anyway.

But there's certainly a use for one during August.

Mike Bonsiero said...


Webb doesn't have to be called back before September 1 to be eligible for the playoff roster. You only have to be in the organization before that time, not on the 25 or 40 man rosters.

Bill said...

But Webb would have to replace an injured player, subject to the approval of the league office if not on the roster on Aug. 31, correct? And given the current state of relations between the Orioles and the league office, I'm not so sure I want to leave that judgment in Bud Selig's hands.

Send T.J. down on Aug. 31, bring up Webb. Webb is then locked for the playoff roster. Bring T.J. back up to the expanded roster the next day. He doesn't even have to leave Baltimore.

Pat Holden said...

I was so surprised by the Webb decision that I didn't even notice I was the victim of an autocorrect in my tweet about him until now!

Mike Bonsiero said...

He has to replace an injured player, but all that requires is for any single player on the 40 man roster to be injured. So he could, for example, technically replace Matt Wieters. The roster gymnastics you're suggesting are entirely unnecessary.

Unknown said...

As I understand it, having extra players on the DL will help with the roster flexibility come playoff time. If Machado is ready to come off the DL at or just after Spetember 1, they could designate Phelps, have both Webb and McFarland on the roster on August 31, making them both eligible for the playoffs. Then, when Machado comes off the DL, you have expanded rosters anyway.

I'd rather have Webb anyway, but this way both he and McFarland are eligible if you want to play the match-up game with each series, depending on who you are playing.

This was helpful (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=11872). It's from 2010, so as long as the new CBA didn't make any tweaks, it should clarify a little bit.

Unknown said...

Pat, I just thought you had bad grammar.

Pat Holden said...

I like to keep expectations low.

Anonymous said...

It's a more interesting question to think about what they are going to do with the starters in the playoffs, since they will only need four of them and they have six. This is all subject to change based on performance over the next six weeks, but I'm starting Tillman, Chen, Gonzalez, and Norris, and putting Gausman in the pen and pretending that Jimenez isn't on the team.