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September 29, 2011

Value Picks

Relievers Review

by Mike Petriello

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With the season at an end—well, as I send this in, we’re not sure if that’s the case for Boston, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, and Atlanta—it’s about time we do a little self-reflection and go back through the Value Picks archives to see what picks did and didn’t work out this season. Though I ended up on the starting pitchers beat by the end of the season, most of my year was spent in the bullpen, so that’s what we’ll be looking at today.

Preseason: Hey, good call!
It seems funny to think about now, but one of the enduring mysteries of the winter was whether Pittsburgh would go with Joel Hanrahan or All-Star Evan Meek as their closer. We took a look at that in early February as part of a piece on unsettled bullpen situations:

So we're left with the stats, and here it's ever more important to filter out the pieces which we know are completely irrelevant. Once again, that would be ERA(where Meek's 2.14 is a lot shinier than Hanrahan's 3.62) and particularly Meek's All-Star appearance, which not only should have gone to Andrew McCutchenbut was the result of a totally flawed system. The more advanced statistics generally preferred Hanrahan, including WXRL (2.553 to 2.030) and fWAR (1.4 to 0.8). It's not hard to see why: while Meek and Hanrahan each walked roughly 3.5/9, Hanrahan's strikeout rate was far superior, as he whiffed 12.9/9 to Meek's 7.9/9.

Throwing another wrench into the mix, however, is that the Pirates are starting their first season under new manager Clint Hurdle. Hanrahan seemed to slowly be moving into the role late in the season—10 of his 14 September appearances were to finish games, compared to just four of Meek's 12—but it's difficult to know how much carryover there would be under new leadership. 

With the facts on the table, it's probably no surprise that I recommend Hanrahan as the superior pitcher to Meek. One would hope that the Pirates make the same call.

Indeed they did, and Hanrahan was masterful, saving 40 games and garnering an All-Star appearance of his own. Though his strikeouts were down from 2010, so were his walks, resulting in a K/BB rate of 3.81 that was nearly identical from the year before, and his 2.18 FIP was sixth-best among all qualified MLB relievers.  Looking at him again on February 17, I noted thathe's likely to be an incredibly undervalued one come draft day… and he could very well outperform more heralded closers selected well ahead of him,”which is exactly what happened.

Aside from Hanrahan, I also touted Drew Storen as someone with “real upside as a low-cost choice who could bring solid results,” filed away David Hernandez as a sleeper later in the year, and pointed out that Leo Nunez—or whatever you want to call him these days—lagging behind Meek and Octavio Dotel in ADP seemed like a ludicrous situation to take advantage of. Those all worked out well, along with the idea that Fernando Rodney was not going to last long in Anaheim:

The name I really like here is Jordan Walden. The fireballing former starter overcame several injuries to make a splash as a reliever in a late-season cameo, striking out 23 in 15 1/3 innings to close out 2010. He continued that production this spring, striking out 10 across nine scoreless innings, and ended up making his first Opening Day roster. It may take some time, but eventually either he or Downs is going to unseat Rodney.

Preseason: Not so much!
On the other hand, I started early and often with the “Koji Uehara is going to beat out Kevin Gregg” business, and while Gregg was awful, the Orioles never let Uehara get a shot before trading him off to Texas. I also included Brian Wilson and Joakim Soria as my top two closers on the preseason ranking list, and while I think they were completely defensible choices at the time, it hardly worked out that way for either.

Best of all, I uttered these immortal words in March: “if he’s healthy, I expect Matt Thornton to be a top-ten reliever in most formats this year.” Yep, that’s a thing that happened.

First half: Hey, good call!
On April 14, I noted that Kyle Farnsworth looked like he could be a pretty solid closing option in Tampa despite his history, referencing work done by Mike Fast in January showing that Farnsworth had been able to keep a more consistent release point, improving his performance. Farnsworth ended up having a solid season for the Rays, saving 24 games with a 3.21 FIP. I was also one of the first to tout Mark Melancon in Houston—as I can see from the May 5 piece, he was available in 99% of leagues at the time—and he became a decent second-tier closing option for a horrendous team—good value for a free pickup. Though none became closers, I often touched on David Robertson, Kenley Jansen, Al Alburquerque, and Vinne Pestano for their high strikeout rates, attributes which were certainly helpful in deeper leagues, in addition to Henry Rodriguez as a deep NL-only choice.

In addition, as Philadelphia relievers began dropping like flies, Antonio Bastardo helped me prove a point:

Bastardo could be a good real-world example of my usual argument that “closers are made, not born” because few thought much of him headed into the season, and he was fourth in line (at best) to the throne behind Brad Lidge, Jose Contreras, and Madson (you could argue for Danys Baez and J.C. Romero as well).

Bastardo was one of the hidden gems of the season, grabbing eight saves while generating—along with Jansen and Pestano—one of the ten highest swinging strike percentages of any pitcher with at least 50 innings. In the desert, we got out ahead of the game in June by noting there was something wrong with J.J. Putz before it came out that he was injured and that Hernandez would be a solid replacement.

First half: Not so much!
When Soria started to implode in May, I began calling Aaron Crow a must-add since he was essentially named the new closer. Crow had a solid season but never ended up getting even a single save opportunity before Soria reclaimed his job. In a similar vein, I started talking up Nick Masset not because I really liked him but because I was convinced that Francisco Cordero’s unsustainable peripherals would catch up to him, and at the time, Aroldis Chapman was in the minors. Cordero had more than a few ugly outings in 2011 and a ludicrously low BABIP yet managed to hang onto his job all season and accumulate 36 saves in the process.  As Neftali Feliz struggled, I touted Darren Oliver in Texas, but he never really got any ninth-inning looks.

Second half: Hey, good call!
The second half was abbreviated as I moved over to starters in August, and the July 31 trading deadline didn’t yield any of the expected moves we’ve seen in recent years, as arms like Heath Bell stayed put.  That said, I was happy to have mentioned Jim Johnson back on August 4 and again on August 18 as a viable alternative to Gregg, and Johnson ended up collecting six September saves.

On the 11th, Rafael Betancourt first came into play, as I noted…

Betancourt didn’t make his MLB debut until 28 and seems to fly under the radar, but he’s quietly been one of the most effective non-closing relievers for years, particularly as he’s cut his walk rate since arriving in Colorado midway through 2009. While he’s never really been a “closer”, he’s grabbed at least one save in each year since 2003, and if you believe, as I do, that nearly any effective reliever can survive in the 9th, Betancourt could make the most of this short opportunity.

Betancourt was outstanding in the role, having struck out 30 since his last walk (which, wow), and he was so impressive that there’s talk of Colorado trading Huston Street and keeping Betancourt as the closer for 2012.

Second half: Not so much!
Well, I spent a fair amount of time talking up Vinnie Pestano, and while he was very good, the expected collapse of Chris Perez never happened. We also figured that Bobby Parnell would get the Mets gig after Jason Isringhausen got his 300th save, and while he did, the returns were uneven at best. We also briefly thought Kyle McLellan might get a shot in St. Louis, and that never panned out, though I’m happy to place as much blame on Tony LaRussa for just about anything as I can.

******

And that’s the end of another Value Picks season. A big thanks out to all of you who read, commented, and helped me find new ways to find value.

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

Related Content:  Joel Hanrahan,  A's,  The Call-up,  Evan Meek

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