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September 2, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Sneaky Saves Sleeper

by Jason Collette

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Below, we have two relief pitchers with identical VORPs and statistical lines that not terribly different.

PITCHER

IP

HR/9

BB%

K%

AVG

OBP

FIP

VORP

A

74.2

0.4

5%

17%

.250

.289

2.79

9.3

B

51

0.4

4%

21%

.209

.246

2.47

9.3

Despite the similarity in value of these two pitchers, their roles on their respective teams could not be any more different. One is paid $2.75M this season while the other is paid $0.975M to do nearly the same work.  Both have been the most valuable reliever on their respective teams in terms of VORP yet Pitcher B has 22 saves for his team while Pitcher A has just two saves on the season.  Despite their similar production and value, that silly stat Jerome Holtzman created many years ago programs many who follow baseball to believe one pitcher is better than the other, and that problem is exacerbated in fantasy baseball since the saves category represents 20 percent of potential scoring in standard scoring leagues.

Pitcher B is Kyle Farnsworth, who has been a boon for fantasy owners that drafted him for single digits in March when Joe Maddon had not yet named a team closer. The fact is, he still has never referred to Farnsworth as the team’s closer despite the fact he has seen nearly ever save opportunity this season for the team. Pitcher A is Baltimore’s Jim Johnson, who has had to toil behind the semi-effective Koji Uehara and the terribly ineffective Kevin Gregg and Mike Gonzalez this season in Baltimore.

Johnson, as the best reliever on the Orioles’ staff, has worked 38 percent of his innings this season in the seventh inning for a team that had a lot of starting pitchers chased early in the game.  He has been the team’s workhorse in the 7th as he has faced twice as many batters as any other pitcher on the staff in the seventh inning this season.  Uehera has led the team in eighth inning work this season, but Gregg has had the yeoman’s share of the work in the ninth while Johnson has faced just 27 batters all season in the final frame.

I am right at the front of the line in loathing the “closer” label in baseball, but since it is a popular scoring category in fantasy baseball, we have to acknowledge it.  To Buck Showalter’s credit, Johnson is at least being used in high leverage situations as he leads the team in high leverage opportunities this season, and batters facing him in that situation are hitting .272 with just a .665 OPS.  Compare that to Kevin Gregg, whose opponents have a .823 OPS against him. Gregg is a free agent after the season, and the Orioles would be criminally insane to bring him back.  With Uehara and Gonzalez both sent to Texas this season, so as long as the Orioles do not fall into old and comfortable habits and purchase a free agent closer, I believe they have their 2012 closer on the roster right now. He comes at a discount for them compared to the going rate for closers in the 9th inning and will most likely at a bargain rate for fantasy owners as well.  That includes those of you in keeper leagues that already own him as well as reset leagues where there is no visible track record for ninth inning success that the average fantasy owner tends to rely upon.

Most relievers are not given the ninth inning role for a variety of reasons. Years ago, the Orioles gave Arthur Rhodes a psychological profile and determined that he did not have the mindset to take the ball in those late inning pressure situations. I am not sure if the Orioles are still employing tactics like that, but let’s examine Johnson against what typically blocks relievers from becoming closers for teams that focus on traditional roles in the bullpen.

Splits

SPLIT

PA

K/BB

BA

OPS

Vs RHB

534

2.3

.268

.681

Vs LHB

498

2.0

.250

.661

Johnson does not have a drastic career split one way or the other, and we’re looking at a rather large sample size. His year-by-year splits show some improvements, and his numbers against lefties are in a three-year improvement trend with his OPS going from .746 in 2009 to .668 in his injury-shortened 2010 to .623 this season. That is not even his best effort as he held lefties to a .574 OPS back in 2008 despite walking more than he struck out. In his last 209 plate appearances against lefties, he has 42 strikeouts while walking just five of them after walking 33 lefties in 274 plate appearances in 2008 and 2009. Against righties, Johnson has a .646 OPS this season in 149 plate appearances, bested only by his numbers in 2008. His current number is 100 points better than his 2009 and 2010 figures, so there is no splits issue with Johnson.

Batted Balls
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a cozy environment that is problematic for flyball pitchers. Uehara had issues from time to time with this, particularly against the Yankees, and it was one reason the move to add Gregg to the roster was not a popular one given his own flyball tendencies throughout his career—never mind the fact his strikeout rate and walk rates are heading in the wrong directions for a third straight season.  As Johnson has matured as a reliever, he has become increasingly tougher to hit out of the ballpark. His groundball rate has been at least 51 percent each season he has worked at the major league level, and this season alone it is ten percentage points better than it was last season: a career best 62 percent. Johnson’s style is a perfect fit for the ballpark as well as the homer-friendly environments throughout the American League East.

Leverage
For his career, Johnson has worked 91 games in what is classified as a save situation and has a given up fewer hits than innings pitched while striking out 69 and walking 29 in 110.1 innings of work. For his career, his numbers in high leverage situations show a .271 opponents’ batting average with a .709 OPS. That OPS has improved each of the past three seasons from .771 to .732 to .665 this season, and he has given up just two home runs in his last 188 plate appearances in high leverage situations. Compare that to the five home runs he gave up in those situations in 2008, and the improvements look even better.

Stuff
Johnson throws three pitches: a fastball, curveball, and change-up. The change is a big part of his success against lefties these past few seasons, and his fastball still works in the low-to-mid 90’s. The league average for generating swinging strikes by a reliever is ten percent, and that is where Johnson has sat each of the past two seasons.

In summary, Johnson has shown an ability to pitch in high leverage situations, he has shown the ability to pitch in save situations, he is effective against both lefties and righties, he keeps the ball in the yard, and he is a pitcher with results rather than just a thrower in the bullpen. He is also going to cost less than $2.0M next season, which would seem to make him the perfect closer for a budget-conscious Orioles team that enters yet another phase of rebuilding. Consider that Kyle Farnsworth was acquired for less than $10 on draft day in most AL-only leagues and maybe for $2 in most mixed leagues and, with similar skills, has been a fantasy boon this season. Johnson could be the exact same thing next season if the Orioles give him the chance to do it and resist the temptation to throw big money at one of the many closer types that are going to be on the open market this off-season.

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

Related Content:  Baseball Ops,  Kevin Gregg

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The BP Broadside: Heyw... (09/01)
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