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July 9, 2010

Overthinking It

Can't Get No Relief?

by Ben Lindbergh

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Around this time each season, close followers of baseball begin to pick up on a rapidly-swelling chorus of plaintive cries from teams in desperate need of relief—relief from ineffective relievers, that is. While out On the Beat this week, John Perrotto surveyed the majors and rooted out a number of teams’ ongoing efforts to sure up their weaknesses in the bullpen department. These clubs are choosing to dangle their trade bait in a fairly confined body of water; the pool of dependable bullpen arms isn’t deep to begin with, and the subset of those arms available at midseason is shallow enough to merit “No Diving” signs posted around its perimeter to discourage overexuberant GMs from taking a fatal plunge.

Trading for relief help is a risky proposition. A team that deals for a short reliever at the end of July can expect no more than 30 innings of work in return, and that’s assuming both that those innings go smoothly (and unmarred by the wild fluctuations in luck that can derail a reliever’s short season), and that the stretch run results in a playoff appearance. Granted, a key effective inning of work can make all the difference to a team’s playoff odds, as well as its fortunes in October, but the chances are good that most clubs that send away for a reliever won’t be unwrapping impact players upon receipt.

Several relievers changed uniforms last July, with varying results. The Rockies were the big winners of the relief sweepstakes, sneaking into the playoffs after reloading from both the left and right sides by acquiring Joe Beimel and Rafael Betancourt, respectively. Those moves may have made all the difference, as the pair posted a combined 2.64 ERA in 44 innings distributed over the final two months of the regular season, and the Rockies’ ill-fated NLDS appearance. Even more impressively, Colorado managed to obtain both pitchers without sacrificing any blue-chip prospects. Trading for George Sherrill worked out for the Dodgers, but he cost them Josh Bell. John Grabow and Tony Pena pitched fairly well for the Cubs and White Sox, respectively, but neither club made it to the promised land, and Pena, in particular, came with a steep price tag: the Diamondbacks’ No. 2 2010 pre-season prospect, Brandon Allen.

Perhaps the best example of a deadline overpay for relief help in recent memory dates from 2007, when the Brewers cut ties with Joe Thatcher, Will Inman, and Steve Garrison for the privilege of calling 25 1/3 unremarkable innings from Experienced Arm™ Scott Linebrink their very own. Thatcher has since gone on to aid the Padres in both 2009 and 2010, but more importantly (for our purposes today), the LOOGY actually outpitched Linebrink after the Padres called him up shortly after sealing the arms deal. Had the Brewers placed their faith in Thatcher’s impressive pre-deadline performance at Triple-A, and refused to be seduced by the allure of outside help, they could have retained their minor-league assets, and been none the worse for their frugality at the major-league level.

You may be familiar with the Endowment Effect, which describes our tendency to value a bird in our own hand more highly than an identical bird in someone else’s hand. There’s a tale often told at Lindbergh clan gatherings that may or may not illustrate the Endowment Effect at work. As the story goes, my 3-year-old mother was sitting on the porch when her newborn sister was brought home from the hospital. After she’d had time to inspect the recently-arrived relative, a man chanced to walk by on the sidewalk, pushing an unrelated infant in a stroller. My precocious progenitor tottered over to the stroller, peered at the youthful passerby, and completed a cursory inspection. Satisfied, she returned to the porch, glanced meaningfully at her sister, and pronounced, “This baby better than other baby man has.” With apologies to my aunt, I can’t say with any authority (not having been present at this historic event) whether the Endowment Effect influenced my mother’s decision, or whether her sister was, in fact, the superior infant. Nevertheless, I wonder whether that long-ago sister act can tell us anything about how baseball teams operate.

Given our inherent tendency to prize our own possessions over those of others, it might seem surprising that so many teams prove willing to shell out for retread relievers, rather than look to their farm systems for a solution. After all, if fantasy owners are liable to fall prey to overvaluing their own assets, one might be wise to assume that the men and women in charge of the real teams would be subject to the same bias. Why, then, have we been seeing so many pleas for outside assistance? Why don’t more GMs return from inspecting the trade market, size up their own rosters (major-league or otherwise), and decide that their pre-existing pitching possessions are better than other reliever team has? Actually, I’ve little doubt that many of them do, as we’ll see illustrated shortly. Still, I suspect that in some cases, reluctance to rely on an unproven commodity trumps any artifacts of the Endowment Effect, even in the presence of a body of evidence that suggests that such confidence might not be misplaced.

Let’s quickly explore the options available to some contending teams as they decide which route to pursue over the coming weeks. I’m going to limit the scope of my search to Triple-A only, since asking a young pitcher to make the jump from Double-A to a prominent role in the majors this late in the season might be closer to wishcasting than a sound course of action, in most cases. We can all think of relievers who seemingly came out of nowhere to make a major impact on the end of a season, but even Francisco Rodriguez (perhaps the prototypical such pitcher), who stormed the mound and laid waste to opposing batters throughout (and just prior to) the Angels’ last successful World Series run, had been promoted from Arkansas to Salt Lake long before this point in 2002.

I’ll also avoid recommending that teams convert minor-league starters to short-relief roles willy-nilly; I don’t want to propose that teams go to extremes to avoid dipping into the trade market, and potentially disrupting a young player’s development would subtract from the value of the approach that I’m cautiously advocating. However, as we’ll cover shortly, it appears that some teams are wary enough of overpaying for outside talent that they are willing to experiment with changes in role for some of their most highly prized young arms.

Here are the bullpen performances of a number of contenders who’ve been rumored to be in hot pursuit of relief help recently, ordered by ascending WXRL:

Team

WXRL

WXRL Rank

ARP

ARP Rank

FRA

FRA Rank

Phillies

0.80

25

14.87

13

4.02

11

Reds

2.70

21

-1.62

21

7.73

20

Yankees

3.05

18

14.50

14

4.22

14

Cardinals

3.36

16

18.61

10

3.81

8

Red Sox

3.39

15

-2.23

22

4.82

22

Angels

3.84

13

-16.82

28

5.46

28

Mets

4.29

11

26.18

7

3.81

7

Dodgers

6.09

3

6.80

17

4.52

18

Let’s briefly tackle these teams on an individual basis, identifying a couple of arms currently playing for each club’s Triple-A affiliate that might be able to lend the capable hands attached to the ends of them to their parent clubs. Alongside the call-up candidates, I’m including Clay Davenport’s Regular Translations, which give us an idea of how we might have expected each player’s performance thus far to hold up in the majors. GBO% stands for Ground-ball Out Percentage (which has a .96 correlation to GB% for pitchers with > 10 IP), and ERALF signifies Clay’s “Luck-Free ERA,” a DIPS-like metric that scales performance to a league average of 4.50. The innings pitched column counts only each pitcher’s work at Triple-A. Of course, simply accepting these numbers as the be-all and end-all oversimplifies the issue; for one thing, they’re retrospective, not forward-looking, and for another, there’s plenty of scouting and makeup information to which I’m not privy that could alter the equation.

Before we begin our quick survey, let’s see how the translated stats for the three most popular trade targets identified by John stack up:

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

SIERA

Kevin Gregg

33

9.3

4.6

59

3.58

3.61

David Aardsma

26.1

7.6

3.6

42

4.19

3.84

Will Ohman

25.1

8.3

4.3

56

4.22

3.98

Octavio Dotel

33.2

8.7

4.0

32

4.24

3.36

Kyle Farnsworth

36.1

6.0

2.1

51

4.34

3.77

Kerry Wood

18.2

7.1

3.8

53

4.48

4.08

Each pitcher is certainly capable of helping a team (Farnsworth, for his part, has already been on the move at two previous deadlines, once to his new team’s benefit, and once to its detriment), but a six-headed Mariano Rivera, this trifecta is not. Now, on to the affiliates:

Phillies (Lehigh Valley IronPigs, INT)

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

Brian Gordon

52.2

7.6

2.4

42

3.77

Oscar Villareal

35.0

6.2

3.7

67

4.13

The Phillies placed the call to Mike Zagurski recently, spiriting him away from what would have been the pole position on this list. That leaves Gordon, a converted outfielder who savored a cup of coffee with the Rangers two years ago, topping the bill. He’s pushing 32, but his strikeout rate has reached new heights, and he’s still allowing walks at his customarily low rate. Villareal is a serviceable arm who has seen some success in the majors at times, but he’s certainly no savior. Still, better to bring up your own Villareal than acquire someone else’s at cost.

Reds (Louisville Bats, INT)

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

Enerio Del Rosario

35.2

4.4

2.5

65

4.27

Aroldis Chapman

77.3

8.5

5.5

44

4.59

Del Rosario already has a successful, if brief, stint with the big club under his belt this season, and the 24-year-old righty could be called upon to add another notch before long. This translation for Chapman isn’t an accurate reflection of his potential as a reliever, since it incorporates his performance as a starter, which encompasses the vast majority of his season. Chapman clearly wasn’t quite MLB-ready in the rotation, but as I mentioned earlier, some teams have elected to pursue bullpen conversions as a means of minimizing the need for outside assistance. Unafraid to tamper with their $30-million-dollar man, the Reds have tried out Chapman as a reliever, with an eye toward a fast-track promotion. He’s responded well, improving all of his peripherals and recording a 1.90 FIP in nine innings since enlisting in the relief corps.

Yankees (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, INT)

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

Mark Melancon

48.2

7.7

5.1

69

3.67

Jonathan Albaladejo

42.2

8.5

2.7

49

3.80


Both of these names should be familiar to Yankees fans, since each has made appearances in pinstripes in multiple seasons. Neither has managed to stick thus far, but there’s ample reason to believe that the pair is capable of bigger things. Albaladejo is showcasing better strikeout stuff than he has in years past, and Melancon continues to be a high-strikeout-rate, high-ground-ball-rate beast, though the spike in the formerly stingy 25-year-old’s walk rate is a concern.

Cardinals (Memphis Redbirds, PCL)

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

Fernando Salas

26.0

7.6

1.5

45

3.17

The Cardinals have been mentioned in connection with starters more often than relievers, but they did just sign Mike MacDougal, which seems like a clear acknowledgement of perceived need, if not an outright cry for help. Salas was just sent back to Memphis for the third time this season, and he’s performed admirably in his periodic major-league auditions. Yet another trip to St. Louis awaits.

Red Sox (Pawtucket Red Sox, INT)

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

Fernando Cabrera

33.2

10.4

5.0

44

3.70

Michael Bowden

88

4.6

3.1

21

5.97

The Red Sox recently called up Robert Manuel, who may or may not have made an appearance here otherwise. If Quadruple-A pitchers exist, he’s likely one of them. Clay’s translations don’t think particularly highly of his work for Pawtucket (though his ERA was quite fetching), and he was greeted rudely in his first appearance by Jake Fox and the Orioles. Cabrera’s stuff isn’t in question, but his control is, and his major-league results to date have been uneven, to say the least. Like the Reds, the Red Sox have decided to see whether one of their rotation prospects can make good in short bursts, placing a reliever hat on 23-year-old Michael Bowden’s head (where it sat, briefly, unsuccessfully, and without any preceding transition period, for the Sox in 2009). As was the case with Chapman’s, this translation doesn’t make any allowance for Bowden’s pen period, which is only two innings old.

Angels (Salt Lake Bees, PCL)

What can I say? I got nothin’. The Angels’ Triple-A affiliate doesn’t seem to employ any panaceas at the moment, but Roger Bomman needn’t start praying yet. The system has already graduated a number of current contributors, including Francisco Rodriguez the Younger, and the Halos should expect improved results from Kevin Jepsen in the second half. The arrival of the internal cavalry may not be imminent, but the situation wasn’t particularly dire to begin with.

Mets (Buffalo Bisons, INT)

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

John Lujan

29

8.6

3.5

69

3.36

Manny Acosta

30.0

7.8

3.8

50

3.93

The Mets followed the Chapman-Bowden plan to a tee with Jenrry Mejia, only they did it in reverse; in the wake of Mejia’s return to the minors, manager Jerry Manuel has gone public with his demands for a replacement. Bobby Parnell would have cracked this list, but as of a few weeks ago, he’s a Met. That leaves us with Lujan, who sports an unsightly ERA (thanks to a cringe-inducing .421 BABIP), and Acosta, who’s had success in the majors before (the primary qualification of many of the pitchers placed on the major-league trading block). And, hey, there’s always Brian Bruney, right? Anyone?

Dodgers (Albuquerque Isotopes, PCL)

Name

IP

K/9

BB/9

GBO%

ERALF

Tim Corcoran

67.1

7.1

2.8

65

3.35

Jon Link

34.3

6.6

3.4

63

3.85

Hyang-Nam Choi*

24.2

5

2.5

40

3.98

A Corcoran call-up would take some guts, since the 32-year-old righty (who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2007) currently carries a 6.01 ERA at Triple-A. However, the pitcher has been plagued by an ugly .413 BABIP; clearly, he acted as John Lujan’s accomplice in whatever act of blasphemy angered the BABIP gods. Link has seen some time in LA this season, but the aged Choi, who’s been deserving of a call-up in his two previous minor-league seasons, has never sniffed The Show. Perhaps the Dodgers could give the guy a whiff. It may also be worth mentioning that Kiko Calero is a recently discovered Isotope, though his stuff hasn’t been up to snuff this season. The Dodgers may be best-served by standing pat.

*Editor's note: Choi was recently released, giving any relief-hungry teams the chance to bring him aboard. 

 Any readers who’ve had the pleasure of following these teams more closely than I should feel free to chime in to suggest additional names (including those of players at lower levels whom I’ve intentionally, but perhaps unfairly, overlooked). Sure things on the farm are few and far between, but the same could be said of the major-league relief landscape. When weighing their options at the deadline, clubs must decide whether a younger, cheaper, and more familiar face already under team control could duplicate or approximate the performance of an outsider with superior service time. The risk-adverse may take comfort in a proven quantity, but in some cases, second-half fortune favors the bold.  

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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