Thursday, January 24, 2008

One Special LOOGY, Coming Up.

As the modern baseball roster keeps evolving, we find a greater role for specialists. Managers frequently deploy left-handed pitchers for as little as one pitch to (hopefully) dispatch some of the game's more fearsome left-handed batters. These LOOGYs, once a rarity among the bullpen staff whose origins date back to the Kansas City A's, are now commonplace. While most do not adhere to the strict definition - 1) More than 20 appearances, 2) less than 1.20 innings per appearance and 3)fewer than 20% saves per appearance - all bullpens have a player that flirts with this measurement. And now, much like the "Closer Boom" of the turn-of-the-century, LOOGYs are cashing in on the free agent market. Does this seem reasonable economically? After all, these players are typically throwing in 40 to 60 games per year and are asked to obtain one out - which is usually a very favorable match-up (lefty on lefty). Yet general managers are throwing more cash at these guys as if they are vital to winning when obviously the limited usage makes these players appear to be better.

Consider J.C. Romero.

As the Twins began to embark on a new tradition of winning, the franchise found themselves with a solid nucleus of talent in the bullpen. In 2002, as a 26-year-old, Romero finished the season that brought the Twins back to the playoffs for the first time since 1991 with a 9-2 record and a extremely low 1.89 era (era+ 236). He averaged just 1 inning per appearance. In the next seasons Romero averaged 1.15, 0.99 and finally 1.15 innings per appearance between 2003 and 2005. Before 2005 started the Twins signed him to an ambitious 2-year/$3.7 million dollar contract (with a $2.75 option year). Pointing to both his erratic tendencies on the mound and thought to provide general clubhouse malaise, the Twins unloaded him to the Los Angeles Angels for Alexi Casilla. Once in the AL West, the Angels called upon him to throw more innings. His average went from 1.15 in 2005 to 1.31 in 2006 - a small change yet large enough to expose various susceptibility on the mound. His era rose from 3.47 to 6.70. The Angels declined his option year.

Theo Epstein and his cauldron of stat nerds in Boston recognized the value in having a LOOGY on staff and that using him in a certain capacity (say, averaging under 1.2 innings an appearance) they projected he could thrive. He was signed to a 1-year/$1.6 million dollar contract. Whether it was playing at Fenway with the looming Monster (7% hr/fb) or simply not finding his control (16.0% bb%), Romero compiled a 3.15 era (much better than his California stint) in 1.15 innings and still received his walking papers.

In the thick of a NL East pennant race, Pat Gillick and the Philadelphia Phillies took a flyer out on Romero and picked him up for a minor league contract. In the second half of the season, Romero dominated the left-handed batters and finished with a 1.24 era...while averaging 1.4 (!) innings per appearance. In the everlasting, infinite wisdom of the Phillies front office, they signed him to a large 3-year, $12-million dollar contract. As I had stated before, luck played a significant part in his second-half performance (.173 babip) and in no way did he "earn" a $12-million dollar contract. In total, Romero averaged 1.3 innings per appearance in 2007.

Cleveland touts a 25-year-old lefty Rafael Perez who has been deemed one of the better relief pitchers in the game after finishing 2007 with a 1.78 era while tossing less than an inning an appearance (0.78). Are these accolades thrown around due to his performance in what is essentially a bubble? In the next several seasons, if he is managed the same on the field and facing a diet of left-handed batters, his value will undoubtedly rise. Which is what happens when in your first full season Peter Gammons says that you "arguably the best left-handed reliever on the planet." After two more seasons, Mark Shapiro should trade him while his stock is high. Admittedly, Perez displays better stuff and could find himself working in different parameters but will not likely have the same success. There are plenty of gullible GMs looking to part with some prospects for a good LOOGY.

Another Twins example is Dennys Reyes. He's not a prototypical LOOGY, since over the course of the previous two seasons, Reyes made 121 appearances and accumulated 80 innings and, on average, the Twins used Reyes for approximately 1.5 innings per deployment. So he doesn't conform to the definition however, if Hafner, Thome or Ortiz were expected to have an at-bat in the 6th, 7th or 8th, you knew Dennys Reyes would be down in the bullpen. And the majority of the time you would want him in the game against those guys.

(Aside: I often wonder why he isn't on the DL more for neck problems because his jowls must weigh 80 lbs. Seriously. It looks like he is taking the mound with two medicine balls stuffed on either side of his cheeks. I don't know what gets closer to the ground: Neshek's knuckles or Reyes's face...)

In 2006 he made 66 appearances, finishing with a 0.89 era, and even though he proved effective enough to withstand both sides of the plate as he rendered bats useless with a .197/.259/.275 Gardenhire still only allowed him to average 1.3 innings per appearance slightly outside of the LOOGY definition. He contributed 9 win shares to the team for a bargain one-year/$550,000. The Twins resigned him to a 2-year/$2-million dollar contact.

My initial reaction what that the Twins had lightning strike with Reyes, it wouldn't likely strike twice or three times more, then again a million a season is practically chump-change in the relief market. 2007 may have had been more like 2006 for Reyes had our starting pitching been able to go deeper into games (Ponson and Ortiz struggled mightily early) and the bullpen hda key breakdowns such as injuries to Jesse Crain and finally Reyes himself who couldn't avoid the DL. That, in addition to his 2006 success, probably caused his usage to increase to 1.7 innings per appearance. Being exposed more to unfavorable match-ups led to Reyes being knocked around some. His era went up (mostly because at 0.89 up is about all it can go) and his location began to suffer (his walk rate climbed from 7.7% to 15.1%).

As pitchers and catcher prepare to report for camp, Reyes's role has not be defined. Rumors from the East Side Fishwrap indicated that the Twins had made an offer to Jeremy Affeldt for $1.5 million. One particular reason was that the lack of left-handed depth was noticable when Reyes was on the DL. Affeldt himself found success in that same role for the Colorado Rockies in 2007 as he finished with 3.51 era, no saves in 75 games and average 1.21 innings per appearance. Instead of signing with the Twins for a $250,000 raise, Affeldt took $3 million for one season with the Cinncinati Reds. As was the case with Reyes, I believe Affeldt will also be inflicted by the Reds with the burden on additional work based upon his successful 2007 campaign. Which is why if Reyes has a successful first half in 2008, Bill Smith should consider trading him to a team willing to relinquish a prospect or two. It is a seller's market for LOOGYs.

What can be determined out of this? Naturally, throwing less innings supplies a better chance of a serious implosion if you have one bad inning, however, if the match-ups are skewed towards the pitcher (lefty-on-lefty), the advantage goes to the hurler. One thing is for sure is that cheap retreads (Reyes, Affeldt) and minor league prospects (Perez) can thrive in this role if managed carefully.