Beefing up the bullpen
“The two most important things in life: good friends and a strong bullpen.”
I don’t want to go into last year’s bullpen struggles. I don’t have any liquor in the cabinet. And even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be enough.
Suffice to say, it was a down year. The one thing I know about relief pitching is a two-fold, almost hard-and-fast rule. 1) You can count reliable relievers on two hands, and 2) you need a lot of arms to get a few reliable ones.
The Rangers are taking two of their most reliable bullpen members, the newly acquired Mike Minor and holdover Matt Bush, and looking at them for the rotation. Beyond that, there’s the resurgent but uncertain Jake Diekman; fiery fireballer Keone Kela; inconsistent rookie Jose LeClerc; surprisingly reliable closer Alex Claudio; and five guys (Nick Gardewine, Ricardo Rodriguez, Tony Barnette, Yohander Mendez and Chris Martin) who combined for a .292 opponents’ batting average, a 1.55 WHIP, and a 5.59 ERA.
Mendez is going to figure it out, and Barnette’s year was a huge dropoff from 2016, but that can be said of many relievers, every year. Martin hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2015 and sports a 6.19 career ERA and a 1.95 WHIP.
The Rangers can do better than that; frankly, to attract any premier starter, they must.
I took four arms (originally six, but two Cubs signings beat me to it – Steve Cishek and, reportedly, Brian Duensing), adjusted for the need to have more guys than you’ll keep, and looked at the current free agent crop. I found some intriguing arms the Rangers could consider for middle- and late-inning duty with some hope guys solid seasons – at reasonable costs.
For all the salary estimates below, I took their last year’s salary and margined up 20% or so for the cost of free agency, as it were. Some guys had an additional premium because of the (ridiculous) reality in baseball today that guys who are “proven closers”, even in the past, get paid more.
Also, the projections are from Baseball Reference’s Marcel projection system, originally developed by Tom Tango. To give you an idea of the reliability, it’s not exactly Baseball Prospectus’ forecasts. It’s base-level statistics at its finest; to quote Tom:
“…it is the most basic forecasting system you can have…It uses 3 years of MLB data, with the most recent data weighted heavier. It regresses towards the mean. And it has an age factor.”
Finally, I looked at a variety of statistics, but focused on three prime categories – which guys had the best projected combination of ERA, WHIP, and BB/SO. Those are probably the three best projectors of performance. And I didn’t rely entirely on the projections. I looked hard at age and 2017 numbers, although if 2017 was an outlier, the projection factored that in, along with age.
I’ll be interested to see how these compare to Baseball Prospectus’ projections when they’re out in a couple weeks. But we’re not going to wait; I wouldn’t have relied purely on those, any more than I would this simple system. No projection system would have given Barnette the level of regression we saw from him last year; for instance, BP in their 2017 guide said Barnette would put up a 3.98 ERA. They read the falloff, but not the degree. So much for projections.
Thus, as Chuck would say, “No wagering, please.” Onto the analysis.
Candidate #1 – Matt Albers
You don’t get a nickname like “Fat” Albers if you suck. It’s just too unfair; big league players are cruel, but they tend to think getting lit up is bad enough. To get a rough nickname, you have to be good (and it has to fit.)
Matt Albers checks both boxes. He’s listed at 6’1, 225. I’m willing to bet that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt:
He’s no Bartolo Colon, but you’re not going to mistake him for Barnette any time soon, either. As he’s gained consistency, especially command around both sides of the plate, his reputation has gone from big pitcher to big-game pitcher. Per ESPN:
“During his first six years in the show, Albers struggled with his control and had only one campaign in which he posted an ERA south of 4.50. Over the past six years though, he’s quietly developed into one of the game’s more effective relievers, pitching to a 2.93 ERA since the beginning of the 2012 season. “His command on both sides of the plate has gotten better throughout his career,” says Nationals backstop Matt Wieters, who spent 2009 and 2010 catching Albers in Baltimore, where some fans became disenchanted with the hurler’s poor performance and started referring to him as ‘Fat Albers.’Since then, the 34-year-old righty has introduced a change-up that he deploys against lefties and started throwing his sinker down and away to righties instead of exclusively down and in. He’s also mixing in a four-seam fastball to go along with the filthy slider he already had. Says Wieters: “His stuff allows him to pitch to any hitter in any situation.”
From that same article, Kurt Suzuki notes, “”You can do all the judging you want, but he goes out there and gets outs. [He’s] one of the best relievers in baseball… One of the best relievers in baseball.”
One AL scout echoed Suzuki:
“Call him the Michelin Man, Humpty Dumpty, whatever you want. The bottom line is, he performs.”
Given the popularity of the Mavs Maniacs and prime-era Nate Newton, I think the Metroplex would absolutely embrace a big guy who went out and performed. He’s been up and down with his seasonal stats, mixing some clunkers in with good seasons, and his ERA took a beating in 2016 when his struggles mixed with the White Sox using him in innings-eating duty in some rough games.
But last year for the Nationals, he showed what he can do at his best:
Don’t focus too much on the ERA. Remember, for relievers, a bad outing or two can kill it, and a good run can sink it; the latter happened with Albers. The important numbers are that .852 WHIP, the limiting of homers, and the great SO/9 and SO/W rates.
Moreover, he wasn’t too picky about which side he faced. He was markedly better at command and strikeouts against righties, but held his own at keeping lefties down. Thus, the Rangers can use him in a ‘dirty inning’ (with men on) without worry about matchups:
So, what does all this mean for 2018? The projections look solid, and factor in both regression for age (34) and his up-and-down recent history:
That’s a guy I’m willing to give $3-$3.5 million to over a few years. If that’s enough to get him (three years being as long as I go), then we’re looking good. I’d even go up on dollars if the years were kept down. His $1.125 million for Washington sets the baseline low, and while Wade Davis blew the doors off the relief market with his Colorado deal, Albers isn’t going to demand the premium a closer will.
But, as with everyone on this list, the Rangers need to move fast. With the hot stove freeze finally thawing, a quality reliever won’t last long.
Candidate #2 – Seung-Hwan Oh
Doing this, you come across guys who surprise you. Given that I’d never heard of Seung-Hwan Oh tells me 1) I don’t do it enough, and 2) I really still haven’t gotten over 2011 enough to watch Cardinals baseball.
Oh regressed a ton from his spectacular rookie season in the States (he was a Korean League veteran. Here’s 2016, which saw him put up amazing numbers for the Cards:
Luckily for the Cardinals, they didn’t sign him to an extension based solely on that, so his $2.75M salary stuck around for the down year of 2017, which saw almost all his numbers (especially that incredible K rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio, fall back to earth).
Basically, you can see that hitters just saw the ball better off him, didn’t miss contact as often, and did more with it when they got it. He didn’t have a marked drop in velocity on any pitch, but pitch quality tells us something; here’s 2016 vs 2017:
We can see that his four-seamer dropped off in quality, from a high of 13.6 runs above average to a still-solid 8.2. Everything else went down, with the biggest problems being a now-below-average changeup and a badly regressed slider. Since his walks per 9 didn’t drop a lot, nor did his velocity, it leaves me to believe he 1) had less movement or 2) was wild in the zone. Hitter red zones tend to point, at least, to the latter:
He generally went low and away to righties, low and in to lefties, over 20% of the time. When he got it there, he was effective. But you can see, if he missed in the zone, hitters hit .385 there, and lit up his outer half to lefties/ inner half to righties. The batting average against looks like a guy wild in the zone, and the lefty-righty splits back that up:
Interestingly, lefties hit that low and out of the zone inside pitch really hard, which leads me to believe he was probably helped a lot by the Cardinals advanced use of shifts to lower that batting average. The upper zones away to lefties and in to righties was death to him, likely because his pitches have a natural cutting action back over the plate there on fastballs.
I think Oh might be a guy who benefits from a few more walks. That’s odd to say, but he might need to give up a few walks to get guys to chase and setup some strikeouts/ weak contact on that low inside pitch to lefties. For a guy that’s primarily a fastball-slider pitch (his changeup gets hit very hard – .385 BA, .800 slugging percentage – so he has to use it only as a chase pitch, or scrap it altogether), walks can sometimes be a way of life on days where the change isn’t moving. He might have to work deeper into counts, limiting how often you can use him in “dirty” innings (coming in with men on), but on days where the slider is moving, the fastball still has enough life, at 92 or 93, to get by guys high. If he can command the change better, that fastball gets faster and 2016 is what he can do at the height of his powers.
And what’s the 2018 projection look like? Solid, but unlike a few of the guys on this list, I’d be worried this might be a ceiling, not a floor:
That said, fresh faces in fresh places have been known to do wonders for the rare species known as a reliever. He looks like a guy for whom the book got out and around the league. Now, it’s time to see how well he can adjust. Maybe a new league and pitching coach is just the thing for a guy needing to adjust. If we can get him for around what the cardinals paid ($2.5M, ceiling of $3M) and only had to risk a year on him, he’s worth a shot. I don’t think I’d go more than two years at those prices. He’s got to show me more. At best, he comes in, has a solid first half, and is a valuable trade chip mid-season.
Candidate #3 – Trevor Rosenthal
We go back to the Cardinals, but this time, for a guy most of baseball has heard of. Saving 40+ games twice, the latter in an All-Star campaign, for a perennial contender will do that for ya.
Despite that, 2017 might have been the best, if sneakiest, of Rosenthal’s seasons. He had career highs in Ks per 9 and in WHIP:
Of all the guys on this list, Rosenthal is the one I’d go after hardest, right along with Albers. And it’s going to cost us. He made $6.4M for the Cardinals, and I think he’ll be looking for a three-year, $25 million or so deal. I’d strongly consider it, were it my money.
Sure, you’re paying a premium for the fictional value of being a ‘proven closer’, but I’m telling myself I’m doing it for an elite strikeout guy who doesn’t get hit hard when he puts the ball where he wants:
When he stays to the corners, which is a solid percentage of the time, he just isn’t hit. He’s got solid stuff; he fares equally well to lefties and righties; every pitch was between a 2 and 4 in wins above average; and his velocity charts are strongly consistent, and well above-average:
2018 projects as strong, if not to the level of 2017, but part of that is the previous two (still solid) seasons bringing down his averages; I see these are conservative projections:
He’s got a lot going for him. He can close, as needed. He doesn’t give up many hits and walks, and he strikes out a TON of hitters. That’s a ton of value for the price, especially coming into just his Age 28 prime seasons.
Candidate #4 – Tony Watson
Tony Watson has a lot of what you want in a reliever. He’s been remarkably healthy throughout his career (coming into his Age 33 season). He’s made more than 60 appearances (including all levels of pro ball) in the last seven seasons. Despite missing most of 2009 with elbow inflammation, he didn’t require surgery, and while he has had Tommy John (in his junior season at Nebraska), that was more than 10 years ago. He’s going to eat up innings.
What’s more, he can do it effectively. He’s been up and down in his career, breaking out in 2013-2015 with the Pirates (highest ERA over that span was 2.39, and twice it was below 2.00) and he had a phenomenal early-career home run rate (averaging 0.52 over three seasons with the pirates). The last three years, he’s come back to earth, as just an average reliever, but that tends to happen as innings add up, and, as noted, he’s a workhorse.
Here’s 2017 overall:
Those aren’t Matt Albers numbers, but they’re solid. The FIP is a dead giveaway that he’s ready for regression, but his splits show he could be a decent situational guy against lefties, with especially good command against those hitters:
The problem is how hard righties hit him. Part of that may have to do with command versus stuff.
His changeup went from being a plus pitch each of his last three seasons to a -6.1 runs above average last year, probably due to location.
(To give you an idea of what an exceptional pitcher looks like, consider a frequent comparison here: Kenley Jansen’s awesome cutting fastball was 20.2 runs above average. That’s elite-level stuff.)
His slider is consistently around average value (1.1 last year) and his fastball improved from 2016’s negative year to 5.0. That essentially made him a two-pitch pitcher, without much of an offspeed pitch. With command, which he had against lefties, you can get away with that. Righties, where it was lacking, not so much. As with some of the arms we looked at among the new Rangers starters, it’s likely not stuff (his fastball has dropped a bit).
He comes with a delivery not unlike Jake Diekman, dropping down to three-quarters or a bit lower. That’s one reason lefties have such trouble against him. It’s also one reason he has the command issues he does. It’s the rare guy who can find command in and out when he’s “slinging” like that. However, a fix for Jake might be just the one for Tony, and Doug Brocail could get a 2-for-1 deal in the process.
What can we look for in 2018? Well, here’s the base projections; the good news is, this might be fairly accurate as a floor, given that it takes the last three (down) years into account:
That’s good enough for me, as a floor, to take a chance on a lefty with a variety of pitches to work from. With command, which is a lot more volatile than velocity or movement, it wouldn’t be outrageous to see Watson outperform the projections. He’s a bit spending, coming off a $5.6 million contract with the Pirates, but given down numbers, I think you could get him for around that same figure for a year or two. I’d take that gamble and hope for the best.
To put a fine point on it, any of the above are probably better than what we saw from the underperforming pen last year. And the best part is, if they’re performing better than the team, they become one of the most marketable qualities at the trade deadline: quality relief pitching.
Every one’s a gamble, but to keep up fan confidence and interest in what might be a lost season, signings like these can be economically efficient harbingers of hope. That’s what the Rangers have to bank this season on: hope.