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June 1, 2011

On the Beat

Relievers Anonymous

by John Perrotto

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Lee Hancock understood anonymity.

The left-hander made 24 mainly unremarkable appearances as a middle reliever for the 1995 and 1996 Pirates, a pair of largely anonymous teams. Thus, it was fitting that Hancock was able to draw the perfect analogy between those relievers who are not in the glamour role of closer and those football players whose job it is to allow their teammates to rack up impressive statistics.

"We're like offensive linemen," Hancock said. "When we do our job, nobody notices. When we don't, we're not anonymous anymore."

Set-up and middle relievers have begun to get a little more credit in the last few years, primarily in the form of All-Star Game berths. Still, in the traditional box scores, the only accomplishments for which pitchers get positive mentions are wins and saves, which middle relievers earn only infrequently.

The lack of control that starting pitchers have over wins has been well-documented in the sabermetric community, but others seemed to catch on last year when the Mariners' Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award despite a 13-12 record. Relievers have even less control over their records, as evidenced by the Athletics' Brad Ziegler, who went 3-7 and tied for the AL lead in relief losses despite a fine 3.26 ERA.

Red Sox set-up reliever Daniel Bard is not necessarily obsessed with statistics for non-closers, saying, "I know how I'm feeling, how I'm throwing the ball, how the hitters are reacting and if I'm contributing to the team winning. That's how I know if I'm doing a good job or not."

Yet, as a reliever who usually hands the ball off to closer Jonathan Papelbon to start the ninth inning and will be eligible for salary arbitration for the first time at the end of this season, Bard does know that statistics matter. That is why he feels a certain amount of frustration over there not being any readily available statistics—such as those distributed to media members covering major-league games—that measure the value of non-closers. Papelbon has averaged 38 saves during five full seasons in the big leagues, but Bard doesn't have a glamour stat to show for his work.

The closest thing to a mainstream stat for set-up men and middle relievers are holds, which are listed in the box scores in USA Today, most of the major metropolitan newspapers, and on all of the major sports websites. However, it is difficult to readily find a list of hold leaders because the hold is not considered an official statistic by Major League Baseball.

"It's really one of the few stats a set-up guy can take into an arbitration case, but it's not a good stat," Bard said. "I think anybody who pitches in my role will tell you that it's flawed."

Pitchers who blow a hold opportunity are charged with a blown save. However, because pitchers who pitch in hold situations rarely get a chance to work in save situations, it greatly skews their save percentages.

Bard, for example, has notched just four saves in 147 career relief appearances. Yet he has been charged with 12 blown saves, giving him a conversion rate of just 25 percent.

"The whole blown save thing bothers me because it doesn't reward you for the times you come in with the lead and protect it but get no credit for it. Yet it penalizes you for the times you don't hold the lead," Bard said. "Unless you're a closer, you're always going to have a bad save percentage. Last year I came into a game with one out and a man on third base in the seventh inning and we were winning by one run. I gave up a sacrifice fly and then got out the inning with the score tied in a game we ended up winning but I still got a blown save."

STATS LLC has developed a statistic called Holds Adjusted Saves Percentage, which is calculated by adding holds and saves and dividing that figure by holds plus save opportunities. However, about the only place that stat can be found is in the annual Bill James Handbooks.

"That would be fair," Bard said. "The thing about the hold, though, is you can use it as leverage in arbitration, but it's not a good stat. I really think it works against you more than it helps you because (the team) can point to your bad save percentage in a hearing. "

Baseball Prospectus' Fair Run Average measures a pitcher's effectiveness by taking into account the number of runs he allows as well as inherited and bequeathed runners. While Bard admits he is intrigued by FRA, he believes it might be too hard to explain to a three-person panel of arbitrators in a hearing. His preference for a non-closer statistic is WHIP.

"I think WHIP is a really good stat when it comes to showing how effective a reliever really is," Bard said. "A guy may not have a really good ERA, but if he consistently has a WHIP of around 1.00 or below then you know he's doing good things. With the amount of luck involved with being a reliever, the biggest thing is keeping guys off base because then you're limiting your bad luck as much as you can. You're not going to win a lot of arbitration cases with WHIP, but at the same time, a general manager wants to build a team that maintains a good WHIP over a period of time."

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Rumors and Rumblings:

While Joakim Soria was removed as the Royals' closer on Monday in favor of rookie Aaron Crow, the move is only temporary. In a perfect world, the Royals want Crow to show he is capable of closing then allow Soria to get on track and close some games before trading him at the July 31 non-waiver deadline… The Rangers would consider trading outfielder David Murphy for pitching help, though they would prefer to deal center fielder Julio Borbon… The Rockies are becoming more concerned about right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez's drop in velocity, realizing that the root of the problem is more than the cut cuticle on his thumb that caused him to go on the disabled list early in the season… Marlins right-hander Josh Johnson won't return from the DL next Tuesday as hoped and will likely be out until at least the middle of the month. Meanwhile, shortstop Hanley Ramirez has admitted his slow start stems in part from lower back pain he has been feeling for more than a month… Blue Jays first baseman Adam Lind is playing in extended spring training games and should return to the lineup sometime next week… Cubs right-hander Matt Garza is expected to be activated from the DL and to start Sunday, and Tigers left-hander Phil Coke is expected to follow suit next Thursday.

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Scouts' Views:

Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona: "He's slipped into most of his old bad habits: no command, letting innings get out of control, getting rattled on the mound. He's a very frustrating pitcher. You know the talent is there, but he beats himself too many times."

Rays right-hander Wade Davis: "He's really taken a step backward this season. His command within the strike zone hasn't been good, and he's leaving too many pitches over the heart of the plate. His velocity has also been up and down. He's still young, so I wouldn't give up on him, but he's going in the wrong direction."

Mariners third baseman Chone Figgins: "I'm just baffled by how this guy has gone off the cliff in two years in Seattle. He was a pretty good player in Anaheim. He looks totally lost at the plate, like he has lost all his confidence. I don't understand it."

Rangers catcher/designated hitter Mike Napoli: "I don't understand why no one will commit to making him an everyday designated hitter. I know he has deficiencies behind the plate and that he tends to be really streaky as a hitter. He has a great eye, though, and when he gets hot, look out. I'd love to see what he could do with 600 at-bats."

Braves center fielder Jordan Schafer: "He's added an element of excitement to that team since being called up. He can really fly and he looks a lot more prepared to be in the major leagues than he did when he was up two years ago. He makes better contact, he's taking more pitches and he's more consistent in the outfield now."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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