Submarines in The Desert
By Jim Silva
If you’ve ever played whiffle ball – real whiffle ball, with the ball that has holes on only one hemisphere – against someone who was actually trying to beat you, then you have probably faced someone who throws similarly to how the Diamondbacks closer, Brad Ziegler, throws. Ziegler isn’t the first major league pitcher to drop down below his waist to throw, but he is one of the most successful submariners currently pitching in the majors. It’s hard to imagine what a slider looks like coming from Ziegler, but he throws one, along with a sinker and a change. Most closers step to the mound and try to blow you away, not entice you to beat the ball into the dirt, but Ziegler got batters to ground out 74% of the time last year and only struck out 4.8 batters per nine. It is hard to know how to look at peripherals from a pitcher like Ziegler since his game plan is to get the batter to hit the ball, but hit it weakly and at someone’s ankles. Do we care how many guys he fans? Not really. His 2.2 walks per nine is awfully pretty though – that we care about – and his 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio is acceptable as well. So when we talk about peripherals from submarine pitchers, perhaps we should look at ground ball rates, walk rates, and home run rates to make predictions. Ziegler allowed 3 home runs in his 68 innings of work which perfectly matches his career rate of 0.4 home runs per nine innings of work. So is it of concern that in Ziegler’s best year in the majors his strikeout rate per nine fell well below his career rate of 5.9 per nine? When a pitcher has a year like Ziegler did it is important to look at how he did it, but his numbers, aside from an absurdly low .220 BABIP (batting on balls in play), were in line with his career numbers. The super low BABIP is of some concern, but if it rebounds to his career rate of .277, and he continues to limit balls leaving the park, then his filthy, grounder-inducing junk will continue to be effective and he could once again post a wicked DRA (a different measure of ERA that attempts to measure how many runs the pitcher really was responsible for) in the range of 2.27 like he did in 2015.
Ziegler has most often been a setup guy because a pitcher who induces ground balls is exactly what you want when you have runners on base in double play position. Closers in today’s model usually enter the game with nobody on. It is likely that he will be the closer again after his excellent 2015 in the role. So who will be the setup man in 2016? Last year it was Daniel Hudson after Ziegler moved to the closer role. The late signing of Tyler Clippard gives Arizona some versatility and bullpen depth that will help them during the playoffs if they can manage to get there. It seems that every team is trying to shorten the game – employing multiple shutdown relievers so that if they have a lead going into the 6th the other team is doomed. The Diamondbacks aren’t being like all the other kids because Clippard and Ziegler aren’t flame throwing monsters. Clippard can turn it up to 92 or 93 and Ziegler tops out in the mid-80’s.
To look at the rest of the Diamondbacks pen, let’s look at a fairly new statistic developed by the fine folks at Baseball Prospectus (BP). DRA (Deserved Runs Allowed) is a stat that would take the place of ERA in evaluating how effective a pitcher was. Whereas ERA is pretty simple (earned runs divided by innings pitched over nine), DRA is more fair and complicated as hell! It takes everything into account when deciding how many runs the pitcher is truly responsible for including unearned runs, the park, the situation he inherited when he entered the game, and more. BP also uses DRA to calculate WARP – the number of wins a pitcher is responsible for above what a replacement level pitcher would have given up – so we will use that when we look at the pitching staff in Arizona.
If we look at Tyler Clippard, he had a DRA of 3.45 for 2015 in his two stops. His walks were up a bit over his career average – 3.9 walks per nine last season, with a career average of 3.7 walks per nine. He kept his hit rate per nine down at 6.2, just a tick over his career rate of 6.1 per nine. Basically, most of his numbers were consistent with what he had done in recent years except his strikeout rate. Historically Clippard had whiffed at least 10 batters per nine innings. In 2015 he only fanned 8.1 per nine. Last season dragged his career rate down to 9.8 strikeouts per nine. It is possible that the substantial drop in k’s portends a decline from the goggled reliever as his ground ball rate also dropped, but we will see what this season brings, pitching in the desert. He is only 31 and 2015 wasn’t a bad season, so if he bounces back he will likely get a chance to pitch the 8th and maybe even the 9th for Arizona.
Andrew Chafin allowed a sterling 2.72 DRA in 2015. “Big Country” threw 75 innings in his 66 appearances with righties doing a bit better than lefties – a slash line of .225/.306/.325 versus righties and .182/.260/.264 versus lefties. With splits like that, it is no wonder the Diamondbacks used him for more than an inning at a time. Chafin is a fastball/slider two pitch guy who was mostly a starter in the minors. Since he can go more than an inning, he will likely be used that way. Why pull him when he can get lefties and righties out and save your bullpen? That probably makes him more valuable as the guy who can come in with a man on in the 6th, invite the hitter to ground into a double play – he had a 60% ground ball rate – and stay to pitch the 7th, handing the ball to the setup guy. Chafin doesn’t have the scary strikeout rates of the prototypical closer, but he is a valuable piece of the bullpen with his versatility and his effectiveness.
Daniel Hudson finally made it back to the majors and survived a full season – his first full season since 2011. He is one of those rare animals with the fortitude to work back from two Tommy John surgeries. The former starter’s fastball played up in relief as he managed an average velocity of just over 96 mph. Hudson was the set-up man, but the last two innings of the game are a little more crowded this year with Tyler Clippard on the squad. Hudson’s DRA was 3.99 and he kept the ball in the park allowing 0.9 homers per nine innings. He gave up 1.32 runners per nine innings mostly based on giving up almost a hit per inning. His control was not as good as it was in his last full season. His walk rate jumped from 2.0 walks per nine innings when he started 33 games in 2011, to 3.3 per nine last season when he pitched in relief 64 times and started once. As a fly ball pitcher in Arizona, he needs to get his WHIP down to get his DRA down and remain stingy with the longballs. With another year away from surgery he could see enough improvement to end up in the closer’s role if either of the two guys ahead of him falters.
At 25, many of us had no clue what we were doing with our lives. Randall Delgado however was having his second solid season in a row out of the Arizona pen. Here is an example of where ERA and DRA diverge sometimes. Delgado’s ERA in 2014 was 4.87, while his DRA was 3.66. In 2015 his ERA was more in line with his DRA – 3.25 versus 3.69. So if you look at the two seasons next to each other and remove ERA, it looks like the seasons were almost identical. His ERA may have been dramatically influenced by the pitchers around him or just bad luck in 2014. There are a lot of events that are out of the pitcher’s control that can negatively impact his ERA, but DRA takes a more steely-eyed look at everything that goes into runs scoring. In both 2014 and 2015 Delgado fanned at least 9 men per game. He also kept his home run rate under 1.0 in both seasons, and fashioned hit rates per nine of 8.2 and 7.9 in 2014 and 2015. The knock on Delgado – and remember he is only 25 so there is room for growth – is that he has issued 4.1 free passes per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. If his hit rate goes up, with that walk rate, then he will have a hard time being effective.
Poor Josh Collmenter. The guy was bounced from the rotation to the pen, back to the rotation and then back to the pen last season. But you can understand the Diamondbacks thinking. Collmenter has been better in relief, at least last season, but he can start and not get completely axe murdered in the role. As a starter, his slash line was .310/.329/.555 with a WHIP of 1.383. When he came out of the pen he allowed a slash line of .229/.284/.365 with a WHIP of 1.108. Guys like Collmenter are really valuable, especially in places like Coors Field or Chase Field where pitchers just don’t fare as well. You need that guy who can be useful out of the pen or jump in when a starter needs a rest or an injury occurs. There were a couple red lights that flashed for Collmenter last season. His strikeouts per nine dropped from 8.3 in 2013, to 5.8 in 2014, and dropped again to 4.7 last season while his home run rate spiked to 1.3 per nine innings last season. Collmenter is unlikely to get many chances to regain a spot in the rotation if his numbers continue those alarming trends.
Enrique Burgos throws a fastball and a slider, each about half the time last season, and he used that combo to strike out 13.0 batters per nine innings last season in his rookie year. Life was exciting last year when Enrique jogged from the pen. When he wasn’t striking guys out he was allowing 9.0 hits per nine innings, and walking 5.0 per nine. He was perpetually walking the tightrope. The guy throws hard – an average fastball just a hair below 96 MPH, but his control is not major league ready. He sprinted through AA and AAA last season in spite of walk rates above 7.0 per nine, so another year in the minors trying to figure out where the ball is going would do him good. He has been groomed as a future closer and he helped a tiny bit last season in the bigs – DRA of 4.18 and a WARP of 0.2. If the Diamondbacks want him to be a big league closer someday they need to let him finish cooking in Reno.
The Diamondbacks are the hip pick to unseat the Dodgers in the West after a big off-season where they rebuilt their rotation and picked up some help for their bullpen. But they play in a pretty harsh park on pitchers (and a great one for hitters!), which means that they might consider handling their pitching staff a little differently than clubs in more neutral or pitcher-friendly parks do. The Diamondbacks finished in the bottom third of the National League in quality starts which means there was a lot of pressure on their pen to pull games out of the fire or even just finish games. They have a much better starting rotation this year, so that should help. But they also have a unique opportunity with two guys who have closed successfully before in Clippard and Ziegler, the incumbent. The Diamondbacks could try a dual closer model where Ziegler pitches more than an inning when he closes or sets up, and Tyler Clippard pitches a more traditional closer’s role but also functions as a traditional one-inning setup man when Ziegler closes. The idea would be to use Ziegler in double play situations, but to use Clippard when there is no one on first. Ziegler isn’t your stereotypical closer so why use him like one? Whether they try it or not, having two closers (and maybe even a third in Daniel Hudson) is a good idea on a team that struggles to get pitchers through the 5th, or just teams that play in a tough park on pitchers.