Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Solid Game Plan

Which would you rather have as a free agent member of your bullpen based on their 2008 numbers? 


    • Reliever A: 29 yrs, 92.0 mph fastball, 55.1 innings, 39/24 K/BB and a 5.07 FIP
    • Reliever B: 32 yrs, 92.1 mph fastball, 46.1 innings, 38/21 K/BB and a 6.13 FIP
From April 1st until June 8th, Reliever A threw 28 innings with a 20/16 K/BB ratio and a opponent batting average of .292 while accumulating an Runs Allowed Average of 6.75.  From March 31st until May 20th, Reliever B pitched 19.1 innings with a 18/16 K/BB ratio and a similar opponent batting average of .295.  During a stretch of the season, both pitchers had hiatuses from the Majors for completely separate reasons.  Reliever A returned to the Majors on July 10th and from there until the end of the season, he pitched 27.1 innings with an improved 19/8 K/BB ratio and a hefty .304 opponent batting average.  Reliever B would return to his club on July 3rd and throw 27 more innings and would also improve his efficiency, striking out 20 and walking just six as he lowered his opponent average against to .230. 
In regards to batted balls, both had opponents hitting the ball solidly.  Reliever A saw 21.6% of balls in play scorched as line drives while Reliever B had 23.7% of balls in play roped on a line.  According to Inside Edge's Player Report Cards, Reliever A had a higher average of well-hit balls (.286 vs .251) than Reliever B indicating that opponents were making slightly better contact against him.  Both relievers had 37% flyball rates, and both were victims of a heavy number of those aerial assaults sneaking over the fence.  Reliever A witness 11.6% of his flyballs turn into home runs while Reliever B saw an incredible 20.4% of reach the bleacher seats. 
When The Hardball Times released their 2009 Marcels projections (defined indepth here), both pitchers projected strikingly similar:
    • Reliever A: 30 yrs, 59.0 innings, 45/24 K/BB and a 4.52 FIP
    • Reliever B: 33 yrs, 53.0 innings, 44/22 K/BB and a 4.55 FIP
Reliever A recently signed a minor league deal with an American League club while Reliever B is still on the market.  Give up?  Reliever A is Juan Rincon and Reliever B is Eric Gagne
To recap, these are two very similar pitchers in the sense that they have struggled mightily in the past few season (Rincon more so with control and Gagne with health issues).  The difference is what they will command in earning potential.  The Tigers offered Rincon a minor league deal with the hopes that former Twins Minor League Pitching Instructor and now Tigers pitching coach, Rick Knapp, will iron out what he perceived as bad mechanics.  If he performs well in spring training, the Tigers may have an inexpensive solution in their bullpen.  On the other hand if Rincon flops, he will be roster filler in AAA at minimal cost.  Meanwhile, if Gagne receives the speculated one-year, $2 million dollar contract, this would make him the second-highest paid member of the Twins bullpen.  Though Gagne showed evidence of improvement in the later portion of the season, there would be better options to extend a one-year contract to, specifically former Cardinals reliever Russ Springer
    • Gagne - 2008: 32 yrs, 92.1 mph fastball, 46.1 innings, 38/21 K/BB and a 6.13 FIP
    • Springer - 2008: 40 yrs, 91.5 mph fastball, 50.1 innings, 45/18 K/BB and a 3.51 FIP
Yesterday, Seth Stohs noted that the Twins may be in negotiations for the free agent reliever.From the Twins perspective, adding Springer makes complete sense.  For starters, Springer has pitched admirably in the past two seasons with the Cardinals, throwing 116 innings with a 2.48 ERA and a 111/37 K/BB ratio.  Secondly, like the aforementioned Gagne, Springer is speculated to be in the one-year, $2-$3 million contract range but unlike Gagne, the Twins can have a level of confidence that their free agent is less of a gamble.  The aspect of Springer's game that aligns the most with the Twins is that Springer is a flyball-oriented pitcher.  In 2007, 50.6% of his batted balls went skyward.  Last year, 49.3% were elevated.  Amazingly enough, not that many found their way to the seats -- he gave up three home runs in 2007 and four in 2008. 
The Twins are frequently abused for not "thinking sabermetrically enough" and for their "lack of transparency".  True, the Twins may not verbalize their intentions but when you read between the lines, you can see that there is a method to the madness.  What is unsaid is that the Twins seem to recognize the fact that they have a very strong defensive outfield - at least in comparison to their infield - but especially with Gomez and Span shrinking the potential gap real estate.  In 2008, the infield had a revised zone rating of .762 (with a league average of .772 in the AL).  Their outfield had a revised zone rating of .899 (.900 being league average) and this was much improved once Span assumed right field.   At the trade deadline, the Twins bypassed groundball machine Chad Bradford and missed out on LaTroy Hawkins, who has been groundball-oriented in recent years, in favor of Eddie Guardado (over 50% of Guardado's batted balls were flyballs).  On paper the theory had merit.  Where the Guardado experiment failed was that the Twins expected a 37-year-old pitcher with history of arm troubles who had just finished throwing his highest total of innings (49.1) since 2005 to continue to pitch effectively deep into the season.  It is with this logic that makes adding Russ Springer perfect sense.  Springer and his flyball tendencies will have a fresh arm after the offseason and a reasonably priced contract that is predicated upon a plan rather than a project.