December 9, 2008
The Seach for Good, Cheap Relief
Game Five of the 2008 World Series will long be remembered for its umpires' Beatles-inspired belief that, as John Lennon sang, "When it starts to rain, everything's the same," a philosophy which prevented sundry sodden millionaires (and Carlos Ruiz) from seeking shelter until the middle of the sixth. Despite the headlines garnered by this debacle, however, an equally intriguing story lay behind the first two relievers that Joe Maddon sent to the mound when play resumed two days later. Why does this tale of two stoppers matter? Because not long before they found themselves charged with holding the Phillies at bay in the highest of high-leverage situations, Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell were readily available. While the Rays made a point of adding this particular pair, the auction for relief help really never ends; by examining two who got away, future bidders may improve their chances of spotting tomorrow's bargains.
That Balfour and Howell were on the spot at that juncture wasn't a surprise given the duo's regular-season performance. They had been charged with similarly demanding duties (and fulfilling them capably) for some time, placing fourteenth and seventh, respectively, among major league relievers in WXRL. The farther back we go, however, the more unlikely it appears that anyone could have predicted the tandem's development into the two-headed anchor of a pennant-winning bullpen. Exactly a year before their pressure-packed outings in the World Series, the pair were coming off of disappointing 2007 campaigns followed by almost four weeks' worth of offseason. Both had posted impressive lines in Triple-A (Howell, a starter prior to this season, led the International League in strikeouts), but ERAs near eight in the majors led to the ominous appearance of labels like "journeyman" and "Quadruple-A pitcher" in their BP2K8 player comments. PECOTA wasn't especially optimistic, either; each hurler handily exceeded his 90th-percentile forecast, though it's important to note that both Howell's and Balfour's projections featured big Improve/Breakout Rates.
The Rays acquired Howell from the Royals in June of 2006 in exchange for Joey Gathright and marginal infield prospect Fernando Cortez. Just over a year later, they sent Seth McClung to the Brewers in return for the Balfour; it should be mentioned that Balfour had missed all of 2005 and most of 2006 rehabbing from surgeries on a veritable Triple Crown of pitching-related trouble spots (labrum, rotator cuff, and UCL). Any of the 28 teams not involved in each of these transactions could have mustered packages of equal or superior value; none chose to do so, although some proved willing to expend more valuable commodities during the same period for short-term rentals of Bob Wickman, Jorge Julio, Scott Linebrink, and Eric Gagne, to say nothing of the lucrative multi-year contracts awarded to Danys Baez, Scott Schoeneweis, Jamie Walker, and David Riske over the '06-'07 and '07-'08 offseasons.
Before the Rays turned the two around, Balfour and Howell were "there for the taking"-not "free" talent, exactly, but talent firmly ensconced in the bargain bin. They weren't the only ones whose potential went undetected; a number of other tried-and-trashed relievers joined them in experiencing dramatic gains in effectiveness this season. Thirty-five relievers lowered their Fair Run Averages (RA adjusted for inherited and bequeathed runners) from 2007 levels in 2008 (minimum 40 IP per season). Here are the 20 who enjoyed the greatest improvements:
Rank Diff Pitcher FRA08 FRA07 1 3.32 Dan Wheeler 2.94 6.26 2 3.07 Joe Smith 2.97 6.04 3 3.00 Carlos Villanueva 2.27 5.26 4 2.10 Salomon Torres 3.94 6.05 5 2.09 Guillermo Mota 4.04 6.12 6 2.06 John Grabow 2.70 4.76 7 2.00 Trever Miller 3.32 5.32 8 1.99 Matt Thornton 3.37 5.36 9 1.97 Clay Condrey 3.75 5.72 10 1.80 Geoff Geary 2.58 4.37 11 1.63 Brad Lidge 2.32 3.95 12 1.57 Mariano Rivera 1.35 2.92 13 1.43 Jason Grilli 3.53 4.96 14 1.22 Darren Oliver 3.20 4.42 15 1.12 Javier Lopez 3.14 4.26 16 0.94 Matt Lindstrom 2.81 3.74 17 0.92 Chad Bradford 2.97 3.90 18 0.79 Frank Francisco 2.86 3.65 19 0.76 Scot Shields 3.26 4.03 20 0.73 Jason Frasor 3.68 4.41
Had Balfour and Howell qualified, they would have topped this list, but neither accumulated the requisite innings in relief in 2007; minimum-innings limits tend to exclude "free" talent from consideration, in favor of pricier fare. A brief examination of those who did make the cut, however, might help us predict some of the names on next year's version, as well as future non-qualifying successes like the Tampa Bay twosome.
Despite their substantial improvements in FRA from '07 to '08, these pitchers' peripherals remained relatively static. They induced more ground balls and handed out fewer free passes relative to the league, but their strikeout rates, perhaps the most predictive component of relief performance, actually declined in comparison to the competition. Since factors directly under the group's collective control can't account for such dramatically improved FRAs, we've nowhere left to turn for an explanation but-you guessed it-factors primarily out of their control. Not only do we find that the pitchers who relieved these twenty players in 2008 stranded their inherited runners with greater frequency than they had in 2007 (a fact for which FRA accounts), but we also discover that this season's models pitched in front of the defensive equivalent of the 2008 Rays (first in MLB in DER), while last season's endured fielding follies analogous to those of the 2007 Rangers (22nd). One way to represent the impact of this variance is through the discrepancy between each group's expected BABIP: since both groups allowed line drives in roughly 18 percent of plate appearances, we would have anticipated league-average .300 BABIPs in both cases, rather than the actual figures of .311 in 2007 and .279 in 2008.
At first glance, the prominent role which fortune plays in relief performance appears to preclude the possibility of accurate forecasts: no one has yet perfected the art of predicting luck, despite what some have claimed. Both Steven Goldman (in BP2K6) and Jon Weisman investigated the turnover among relievers using Adjusted Runs Prevented, a metric engineered (and explained here) by Michael Wolverton. What they found, in short, was that annual ARP leaderboards had fluctuated wildly from year to year, a pattern which held true this season: only two of 2007's top 10 ARP leaders, and 44 of its top 100, returned to their corresponding lists in 2008, compared to six of 10 and 56 of 100 on the offensive VORP list.
Why is relief performance so volatile? Consider that after his first seven starts and 43
Consequently, Weisman concluded that, "finding a relief pitcher you can count on is like a dartboard toss. Track records are almost completely useless." This assertion contains an element of truth, but while identifying next year's firemen may present an even greater challenge than explaining what Julio was doing down by the schoolyard, it probably overstates the case. Leveraging luck into success usually requires a certain amount of skill. Not only was our group of twenty's average strikeout rate well above the MLB baseline in both seasons, but only seven of its members posted below-average strikeout performances in 2008 (in 2007, that total was only five, despite the bloated FRAs). Of those seven, four (Torres, Condrey, Lopez, and Bradford) made up for their inability to elicit swings and misses by inducing grounders at an elevated rate, and three (Geary, Oliver, and Lindstrom) compensated either by posting flukily low line-drive and HR/FB percentages, or by facing an inordinate number of batters who had stolen Jobu's rum (a similarly unrepeatable skill).
Strikeouts limit balls in play, so high-strikeout relievers who limit balls in play within an already limited sample stand to gain (and lose) the most from fluctuations in BABIP. While that may not be good news for last year's BABIP beneficiaries, it's a glad tiding for the relievers who have thus far shared their performance, but not their luck: given health and opportunity, the members of the latter group may soon find themselves conditioned to greet the sound of a ringing bullpen phone with an impromptu rendition of "This Will Be Our Year."
With that in mind, I've come up with my own list of ten prime candidates for a Howell/Balfour-like breakthrough in 2009. I've excluded career minor leaguers and highly-regarded prospects who may have found their initial cups of coffee scalding, although the former category is certainly one worth examining. The following alphabetically ordered players have had their chances at the major league level, and have either blown them, or failed to seize them in fashions which led to permanent, prominent roles-but in the process, they've shown enough to suggest that next time, if it ever comes, might be a different story:
As visions of a five-year, $75 million contract dance in Francisco Rodriguez' head, the GM who does his Christmas bullpen shopping at a discount may save himself an awful lot of MORP-ing around (buyer's re-MORP?) a few years down the road.
Ben Lindbergh is an intern with Baseball Prospectus and a student at Georgetown University. You can contact Ben by clicking here.