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July 30, 2013

Transaction Analysis

The Braves Get Left-Handed Relief

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

ANAHEIM ANGELS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Cory Rasmus for LHP Scott Downs. [7/29]

High-leverage lefties are luxury items for teams whose playoff hopes have evaporated. The Angels don’t have many movable parts, nor would they want to be big-time sellers, since they’ll probably try to retool and contend in 2014. But Downs is an expiring asset and Sean Burnett is essentially the same pitcher, so it makes sense to turn the older impending free agent into another arm.

Rasmus is a 25-year-old righty whom the Braves drafted in the 2006 supplemental round. He couldn’t make it above A-ball as a starter, so he made the switch to full-time bullpen work last season, at which point he began to move more quickly. A hot start for Triple-A Gwinnett this season earned him a call-up in mid-May, and he’s been up and down since then, amassing a total of 6 2/3 innings for Atlanta.

Rasmus works off a four-seamer in the 93-94 mph range, pairing it with a changeup, a slider, and a curve. None of his offerings is really an out pitch, and he doesn’t have pinpoint control. It’s not an impressive profile.

At best, Rasmus is a seventh-inning guy. More likely, he’s a middle reliever whose usage will be dictated by his team’s bullpen depth. It would have been nice to get back someone with a high ceiling, but Rasmus is a pre-arb arm with five-plus years of team control remaining. Given the Angels’ struggles to fill out the back of their bullpen over the past couple seasons, adding another warm body isn’t the worst idea.

ATLANTA BRAVES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired LHP Scott Downs for RHP Cory Rasmus. [7/29].

Downs is the rarest of rare commodities: a reliable reliever. The list of relievers with at least 45 innings pitched and an ERA no higher than 3.15 in each season from 2007-12 is a short one: it ends after Downs, who’s working on extending that streak to seven seasons. Those IP and ERA cutoffs are tailored to include him, but the tiny result set reaffirms what we know about relievers: even the good ones rarely go several seasons without suffering a serious injury or having a high-BABIP blowup. Downs is the exception: since his move to the bullpen in 2006, he’s never been bad.

The 37-year-old southpaw is a soft-tossing groundball guy who throws a sinker almost 80 percent of the time, mixing in a curveball when he’s ahead in the count. Since he stopped throwing his slider in 2011, Downs hasn’t missed many bats, but he’s compensated by getting even more grounders. Since he gave up the life of a struggling starter, he hasn’t had a FIP above the mid-3.00s, and he’s avoided any serious injuries. Aside from a shoulder strain that cost him 20 games last season, his DL entries look like flukes: a 2009 sprained toe suffered as he pushed out of the batter’s box in his only plate appearance since his days as an NL starter, a 2011 gastrointestinal virus, and a fractured toe that he stubbed while playing with his kids in casual footwear. (“We’ve all worn flip-flops,” Mike Scioscia said at the time, “and we know things can happen.”)

Downs is no great shakes against righties, who’ve posted a roughly league-average line against him over the years. But few pitchers have had more success against southpaws. Here’s a list of the lowest True Averages allowed to lefties from 2007 to present, in a minimum of 200 overall innings:

Player

IP

LHB TAv

Billy Wagner

200.3

.178

Neftali Feliz

205.3

.182

Brian Duensing

485.3

.186

Jonny Venters

229.7

.187

Mariano Rivera

338.0

.190

Jonathan Papelbon

397.0

.197

Dontrelle Willis

404.3

.198

Mike Adams

295.0

.201

Sergio Romo

233.3

.201

George Sherrill

241.7

.202

Joaquin Benoit

319.3

.205

Scott Downs

336.0

.205

Remove the retired players, the injured arms, and the pitchers who are already closing somewhere or setting up for contenders, and you’re left with Duensing (whom some team should think about trying in a situational role) and Downs, whose line against lefties is even better in 2013: .196/.255/.216 (.167 TAv). Although Scioscia has used him in more of a situational role since last season, perhaps in a concession to age, Downs is not limited to LOOGY duty in the way that a more righty-allergic reliever like Randy Choate is. Most of the Angels’ multi-year contracts for free agent relievers have ended in disaster, but Downs has held up his end of the deal.

With both Venters and Eric O’Flaherty out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgeries, Atlanta has been looking for left-handed relief. Before this trade, the only southpaw in the pen was Luis Avilan, a homegrown 24-year-old who debuted in 2012. Avilan’s sub-2.00 ERA looks a lot like Venters’, but while Avilan is also a hard thrower who gets groundballs, he doesn’t have the same swing-and-miss stuff. What he does have is a .176 BABIP and a 0.0 HR/FB rate, which suggests that some regression is in store.

Downs gives Atlanta a dependable late-inning option, and some lefty relief redundancy in the event that Avilan slips. He should find his new team a good fit. Only a handful of arms have sustained higher groundball rates in recent seasons (including Venters and former Brave Peter Moylan), and that bodes for Downs’ transition to the NL East. The Angels have allowed the 10th-highest batting average on grounders this season (.249), but the Braves have allowed the fourth-lowest (.221). Downs should enjoy having Andrelton Simmons behind him.

Downs will be a free agent after this season, so he’s strictly a rental, and he probably won’t pitch more than 20 innings down the stretch, plus whatever he adds in what will be his first trip to the postseason. But most of those innings will be important ones, and the cost (a low-leverage reliever and the rest of Downs' $5 million salary) wasn’t high. Trading Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden last winter worked out well for the Braves, and it looks like the Angels have again supplied a solution to the Braves’ bullpen needs.

Thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance.

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

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