If the Padres did as well with the rest of their team as they have historically done with their pen…

One Trick Pony
by Hugh Rothman
The San Diego Padres have not done many things very well over the years, which is one reason why they have a grand total of zero championships. They don’t have a long history of great starting pitchers, like the Dodgers, or historic outfielders, like the Yankees. They don’t even have a legacy of futility, like the Chicago Cubs. Instead, the Padres have been generally just plain bad, but not historically bad. They’ve just been bad and forgettable.
However, there is one particular aspect of the game that the Padres have been surprisingly adept at throughout their history: The bullpen. In their history, The Padres have had two players who fully represented the Padres during their careers and either are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, or will be shortly. One of those players of course is Tony Gwynn; he is the greatest Padre player ever and second place isn’t close. The other player was one of the greatest closers of all time: Trevor Hoffman.
Hoffman accumulated over 600 saves, most of them for the Padres and only one other reliever has more saves than him (Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time). Hoffman had many fine years and was incredibly consistent but, he wasn’t the only notable reliever in the Padres history. Hall-of-Famers Rollie Fingers and Rich Gossage both were closers for the Padres at some point during their careers. Mark Davis won a Cy Young award while closing for the team in 1989. Other notable relievers include Lance McCullers, Mike Adams, Cla Meredith, Heath Bell, Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit, and Scott Linebrink, all of whom enjoyed their very best years toeing the rubber in the late innings for the Friar Faithful.
Again, the Padres have not done many things well over the years, but… historically, they have enjoyed consistent success from their bullpen. At this time, the bullpen remains the ONLY piece of the game that the team has managed to excel at. Over the last 15 years or so, much of this credit must go to their pitching coach Darren Balsley, but the Padre managers over that time, Bruce Bochy and Bud Black, may also share in the credit too. Both of those managers, with Balsley’s help, showed great acumen in developing a bullpen and retooling that bullpen year after year.
And even with new manager Andy Green, 2016 has been more of the same on this front. The year began with the venerable Fernando Rodney as their closer. Rodney, who is now 39 years old, was signed as a one year free agent stopgap and future trading piece. The previous years of 2014 and 2015 were hardly banner years for Rodney, but Balsley did his usual tinkering and voila! Rodney was a perfect 17 for 17 in save opportunities with a 0.87 WHIP (walks plus hits over innings pitched) and a ridiculously microscopic ERA of 0.31. The result was a third All-Star Team appearance for Rodney, as well as a long line of suitors for his services. The Miami Marlins were the ones who offered the most, a pretty good minor league pitcher that the Padres coveted, and poof, Rodney was gone, and so was the magic bullpen fairy dust: Rodney has a 6.30 ERA in Miami. Probably not a coincidence: The Padres are just really good at this bullpen thing!
With Rodney summarily jettisoned, the closer role fell to youngster Brandon Maurer, who had been acquired from the Seattle Mariners a year earlier. Maurer had been a starter for Seattle, with poor results mostly due to his inability to control his pitches effectively. The Padres put an end to that experiment and dispatched him to the bullpen, where he has had far greater success. This year, Maurer has looked dynamite at times, but his wobbly moments have put a crimp in his overall numbers. Currently, Maurer has a 4.50 ERA, which is subpar for a reliever, but he does have more strikeouts than innings pitched, and his WHIP is a steady 1.25. The bugaboo for Maurer has been the 7 homers he has given up. If he can get that down to a reasonable level, Maurer will add mightily to his career total of 10 saves. There is tremendous potential here, since Maurer is only 25 years old, has a 95+ mph fastball, and has good ol’ Darren Balsley to help him through any struggles. Expect Maurer to be the Padres closer for the next few years.
Unless  that closer is Ryan Buchter, of course. Huh? Who is that? Don’t worry… no one could have been expected to know who this guy was. Before 2016, Ryan Buchter’s major league career consisted of one inning pitched for the Atlanta Braves in 2014. His most notable achievement is that he could throw with his left hand. However, as of today, Buchter now has 60 innings to his credit and with 74 strikeouts, only 4 homers allowed, and a 1.03 WHIP to go along with his 3.00 ERA, Buchter is at this moment the Padres best reliever (now that Rodney has departed). Credit the Padres for spinning straw into gold with Buchter, and this guy ain’t no Rumplestiltskin (he’s 6’4’’ 250 lbs). He’s also 29 years old so credit is due to Buchter for not giving up on his dreams, and the Padres are grateful. He will be an important piece of the bullpen puzzle for several years to come.
Bullpen graybeard Kevin Quackenbush is now the senior member of the Padres relief corp (in time served with the big club). “Quack” was once considered possibly, sort of, the closer of the future for the Padres, but he never had the big time stuff needed to fill the role. Now 27 years old, Quackenbush comfortably fills a low leverage relief role. Someone has to pitch in that role and Quackenbush fits the bill (ugh, sorry). His numbers won’t move dramatically one way or the other from this point on. Expect an ERA in the high 3.00s, with too many homers allowed to ever make the team comfortable, but generally solid and unassuming stats for several more years, until he gets too expensive. At which point, the team will move on to the next Quackenbush, whoever that may be.
Yet another shrewd bullpen move made by the Padres was to acquire lefty reliever Brad Hand for pretty much nothing. Hand was, like many successful relievers, an unsuccessful starter – in Hand’s case, for the Miami Marlins. However, as a reliever, Hand has turned in a career year for the Friars. In his 74 innings for the club, Hand has 98 strikeouts, which is terrific, as is his 2.99 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. If Hand, like most of the relief corp for the team, can limit his homers allowed rate, he could go from very good to dominant in a big hurry. Hand is only 26 years old and has just as much promise as Buchter and Maurer. If the Padres decided to make Hand the closer, the team wouldn’t miss a beat.
There are other relievers toiling for this team: Carlos Villanueva for one, but the less said of him, the better. He won’t be around in 2017 to worry about anyway. Jose Dominguez is 25 years old but his stuff is not very scintillating, as shown by his pitiful strikeout rate. Perhaps the only other pitcher in the bullpen worth mentioning is star-crossed Brandon Morrow, whose nickname could simply be “ouch”. Tiffany lamps have more durability than Morrow as a starter. The Padres finally (and wisely) decided to convert Morrow to a reliever, which should help him with his durability issues. If Morrow can hold up, he could become a dynamite reliever. His stuff is off-the-charts dominating. He’s always been a really good pitcher, when he can pitch, which hasn’t been very often. Sticking him in the pen might be the best way for a team to get value from this guy, and as long as you don’t put any undue stress on his arm, or any part of his body, or breathe on him too heavily, Morrow could really deliver. He is still only 31 years old, so there is plenty of time for him to contribute.
So what do the Padres have in the bullpen for the future? Maurer is nominally the closer and shouldn’t embarrass himself in the role, but Buchter and Hand are quite possibly better relievers than Maurer. Morrow could be the best of all of them, if nothing goes “sproing”, and Quackenbush is solid, dependable, mediocre, but cheap. In fact, all of these guys are really cheap and will be for a few more years. If any of them break down or lose their effectiveness, the Padres have shown the ability to find good or even excellent relievers from the trash heaps of discarded players from other teams. The Padres immediate future isn’t particularly rosy at the moment, but their bullpen looks as solid as ever. It’s the one thing they do really, really well.

The Astros releivers – are they the problem or the solution?

The Nucleus of A Pen Moving Forward
by Jim Silva

    It wasn’t that long ago that closers were thought to be magical creatures who had special abilities not possessed by mere mortals. It wasn’t just that they had a big fastball or some other swing-and-miss pitch, it was more about a certain look or perceived mental toughness. What this means was that once a pitcher was labeled a closer once, he would forever wear the label much like your tattoo of Daphne from Scooby Do – once marked, always marked. I’m not saying that this perception has completely left us, but there is more change in the role these days and managers don’t seem to be as afraid to swap out a guy part way through the season as they used to be. That said, the Red Sox are considering re-signing Jonathan Papelbon which leads one to head scratching. But the Astros have now changed course a couple of times with their pen in an effort to find the magic. Their new/old closer is Ken Giles. To be fair, he was never the anointed closer, although that is clearly why the Astros gave up a lot (five prospects) to get him. Do you think Houston wouldn’t like to have Vince Velasquez back right about now? Let’s take a look at what the Astros are dealing with currently to see why there has been some shuffling in their relief corps this season.
    Ken Giles is the classic two pitch closer with a hard fastball – and by hard I mean it averages 96 MPH and touches triple digits – and a slider. He strikes out everyone, and yes, even their brother. In the 11 innings since Mr. Giles was anointed as the team’s closer he has allowed four earned runs, two home runs, eight hits, and two walks while striking out 16. That is essentially what the Astros thought they were getting when they traded so much to get him – a guy who will blow you away with his heat and finish out the game without too much excitement. The home run rate is way up from his usual numbers and if I were the Astros I would be a little worried. One of the benefits of the current closer model where you only see the closer at the start of the 9th with the bases empty is that if the closer gives up the occasional home run, it shouldn’t hurt you too much as long as he doesn’t walk many guys or give up a lot of hits. A solo homer won’t usually lose you the game. So Giles should be fine as long as his control stays sharp – it doesn’t hurt that he fans almost 14 batters per nine either!
    When Giles arrived, it was initially assumed that he would displace the incumbent closer, Luke Gregerson. Gregerson is not your typical fire-balling closer. His fastball came in at just over 89 MPH on average last season and he throws it more often than his slider. The reason the 6’3” former 28th round pick is so effective is that he has excellent control and sinks the ball, inducing grounders (over 60% of the time last season). This season has been an odd one for Gregerson. He made it clear after the Giles trade that he still wanted to be the closer and he got his wish at least to start the season. The righty from St. Xavier University has seen his strikeout rate skyrocket to 10.4 per nine, up from his career rate of 9.0, while walking more than a batter an inning more than last season. At 2.6 walks over nine innings, Gregerson is just 0.1 over his career walk rate and he still keeps the ball in the park (0.7 home runs per nine) and batters off the bases (a WHIP of 0.89 so far). So why is he no longer the closer? Gregerson lost his role partly because of an ill-timed ankle injury, partly because of a streak of blown saves, partly because of a prejudice against closers who don’t throw super hard, and partly because of the effectiveness of Giles. When your team trades valuable parts for a guy to pitch in relief and that guy throws five MPH faster than you on average, the writing is on the wall. There is no way the Astros were going to leave Giles in the setup role after trading away good players to get him. You could certainly make the argument that Giles is more valuable pitching with men on base in arguably higher leverage spots than coming in to pitch the 9th with nobody on and a lead, but closers have a magical aura to them, and finishing out games when you have a lead in the 9th is psychologically important to a team, or so they say. Either way, Gregerson will now pitch the 7th or 8th, making him arguably more valuable than Giles although his agent will have a hard time selling that to a general manager.
    The other guy in the Astros pen who has garnered a goodly number of save opportunities this season is Will Harris. Harris was unbelievably difficult to hit last season allowing only 5.3 hits per nine innings. With a career strikeouts- per-nine-innings average of 9.4, it wasn’t too surprising that he became the main closer for most of June and July. Most teams would be thrilled to have a guy like Harris, who throws pretty hard – a fastball averaging around 92 MPH, and who mixes in a curve about 20% of the time with good swing and miss rates. Ok, so maybe Harris has had a wee home run problem in the past. By wee, I mean he averaged one homer per nine innings pitched last season, although this season he has kept the ball mostly in the park allowing only 0.5 long balls per nine innings. Harris appeared in the All Star game this season, has managed a career best strikeout to walk ratio of 6.00 and could close, but lost the job likely due to a stretch of three blown saves in five appearances in July. Those were his only three blown saves of the season so Giles mostly just supplanted him and will be given more chances to fail than the 32 year old journeyman reliever. Harris is now the 7th inning guy who hands the ball to Gregerson, the 8th inning guy, who hands the ball to Giles, the closer. Those three make for a nice end game strategy for the Astros.
    At the end of a nearly un-hittable 2014 season where Tony Sipp only allowed 5.0 hits every nine innings he pitched, the then 30 year old reliever found himself relied upon to pitch the 8th and to sometimes close the game for the Astros. It was the peak of his career to date. Sipp was looking like a possible closer and the Astros were about to get good. It isn’t that Sipp began a wicked steep decline or anything but he no longer has a clearly defined role. Sometimes he pitches the 7th, sometimes the 5th, and sometimes he comes in to get one guy. This has been a rough year for the unpredictable lefty as his ERA has jumped to 5.65 while he has allowed almost 12 hits per nine innings and 2.9 home runs per nine. The Astros are losing faith in Tony Sipp and he is going to have a hard time regaining it as younger harder throwing cheaper pitchers move up from the minors. If the Astros sneak into the post-season it is unclear whether Sipp will even make the playoff roster as he has allowed five home runs in his last 10 appearances.
    One of the most valuable arms out of the Astros pen this season has been rookie Chris Devenski. The 2011 25th round pick has started five games and relieved in 10 posting a WHIP of 0.918, and ERA of 2.13, while striking out 4.53 hitters for each man he has walked. Devenski vaulted over triple-A from Corpus Christi of the double-A Texas league after putting together a good season in 2015 but his stats did not portend what he has done in 2016. Since 2014 the 6’3” righty from Cal State Fullerton has demonstrated excellent control, and that is when his overall numbers started to make him look like a viable prospect. So how to use him? In four of his five starts in the bigs, “The Dragon” pitched well. His control was excellent in his starts as it was in his relief appearances. Interestingly, in his starts he appeared to get tougher to hit as the game went on. When batters faced him a third time their batting average dropped to .059 and they slugged .059. Yes, these are small sample size warped stats, but if I am the Astros and my rotation is a mess I want to stretch Devinski out and see if he can maintain those numbers with more starts. When you cherry pick stats it is easy to make almost any point you want and there are certainly numbers that support Devinski coming out of the pen, but his OPS allowed as a starter is .672 versus his OPS allowed as a reliever – .517. Most pitchers will see a statistical benefit from getting to go max effort for a short stretch, but not that many pitchers can succeed as starters. The Astros should consider moving Chris Devinski to the rotation.
    Pat Neshek has found himself at 36. I don’t mean that in the breathy, spiritual way, although I’m sure the Neshek family is quite lovely and enlightened. Neshek has found his control and a team that values him. This is Neshek’s 5th team, which isn’t surprising considering his funky delivery. (See the clip below.)
Teams are reluctant to risk taking on players with unorthodox approaches like Neshek’s. At the first sign of trouble they tend to cut and run, which in baseball means trade the guy or let him sign elsewhere. What Neshek currently (and apparently every other season – only the evens – since 2012) offers to a team is low hit totals, currently 5.9 hits per nine innings, low walk totals – he has allowed 1.7 per nine so far, and an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio which is currently at 4.88 to 1. Neshek does get touched by the long ball from time to time, but this season he has kept that at a reasonable 1.0 home runs per nine innings pitched. With an ERA of 2.51 and a WHIP of 0.837 he looks, from his numbers at least, like a closer but has had zero save opportunities with the 2016 Astros. I’m not suggesting that the Astros need to unseat Giles or Gregerson and install Neshek and his whip weirdness, but sometimes oddness blinds teams to results and that has mostly been true with Neshek who has never really had a shot to be the closer for a team beyond 10 save opportunities he experienced with St. Louis in 2014. That is not likely to change for the 36 year old and that’s too bad because it would certainly be entertaining to watch someone like Neshek come in to close out a big game in the playoffs or World Series.
    Michael Feliz is an intriguing arm who was mostly a big, hard-throwing starter with decent control as a minor leaguer. What’s not to like there? A mid-90’s fastball and a strikeout to walk ratio in the majors of 4.18 this year working out of the pen to go with his 13.3 strikeouts per nine makes for a compelling package. He is only 23 and only has two games pitched at triple-A so working from the pen is probably a solid plan at least for now, but if you are struggling to find viable options for your rotation why not give Feliz a shot? It is spilt milk now, but why didn’t the Astros stretch him out and try him in the rotation? They have mostly used him for an inning or two at a time (20 of his 44 appearances have been for more than an inning) and, especially in the second half, low-leverage situations. It appears that the Astros don’t really trust him and that may have come from a rocky start to the season where he got lit up in his first two appearances. Felix then went 19 and a third and only gave up one earned run in a stretch that took him to early June. His ERA got as low as 3.23 but is now sitting at 4.62. It will be interesting to see what Houston does with Feliz next season. They aren’t lacking young, hard-throwing pitchers coming through the system, but their view of Feliz will determine whether or not they give him a shot at their rotation going forward.
    Putting together a viable pen to get you to and through the post-season is complicated and the Astros pen has been in the middle of the pack. With Giles under team control through 2021, Harris until 2020, Devenski still a rookie, and Gregerson around at least through next season, the Astros don’t have to panic about their pen in the off-season. There is a fair amount  of talent in the Houston pen, and if they can figure out a way to get to the pen with a lead – and that is mostly on the rotation, the Astros will be contenders to unseat the Rangers as soon as next year.

What it looks like when your firemen actually put out fires instead of starting them.

My Kingdom (Farm System) For A Pen
by Jim Silva

    Not a lot went right for the Red Sox in 2015. They finished 5th in the AL East, which is a nice way of saying “last”. Their rotation was awful, but their pen was – oh, the worst pen in baseball according to xFIP – a version of ERA that takes fielding out of the equation and just looks at events the pitcher has more control over like walks, strikeouts, hit by pitch, and fly balls allowed (which indicates home run frequency). Their pen as a group had a WAR of -1.4 so they were firemen in the Fahrenheit 451 sense of the word, lighting things on fire. Only one reliever finished the season with a FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) below 3.00 and that was their closer, 41 year old Koji Uehara. Logically what would you do if you were the GM and your closer was the most consistent member of your bullpen? Why, you would go out and trade four prospects for a new closer, right? Well that’s what the Red Sox did in trading for Craig Kimbrel. Look, trading for a closer to push other relievers back to the 8th and 7th is the new, hip way to revamp bullpens – just ask the Yankees, Dodgers (who tried), Astros, and A’s. But giving up the farm (literally) to get 60 innings a year from a guy who will be facing hitters with the bases empty is a mistake the Red Sox will be ruing for years to come. They gave up two prospects in the top 50 in baseball plus two other players of value for three seasons, or about 180 innings (if he stays healthy  and effective the whole time) – of Kimbrel.
    Kimbrel posted his worst full season in the majors last year and still managed eye-popping numbers in some categories. His ERA, hits per nine innings, WHIP, home runs allowed per nine innings, and strikeouts per nine innings were all career worsts. But would you be happy with your closer amassing 13.2 strikeouts per nine, allowing 6.1 hits per nine innings, with an ERA of 2.68 and a WHIP of 1.045? Of course you would! Unless of course you were paying that closer $9 million to be what he had been in the past. Aside from the numbers above, his season was in line with his career numbers as he succeeded in 90.7 of his save opportunities, which happens to be his career mark. It also happens to be higher than the career save rate of Mariano Rivera (89.1), who was pretty good (for a Yankee). As for the first two-thirds of this season, it hasn’t been a joy ride for Kimbrel. He spent time on the DL and has watched his ERA yo-yo up and down all season (currently sitting at 3.41 as compared to a career ERA of 1.80 ). That said, it has mostly been an effective year, even though Kimbrel’s walk rate is at 4.9 walks per nine as compared to a career rate of 3.5. The strikeout rate is at 14.1 and his hits per nine innings rate is at 5.1, so it’s not like Kimbrel needs to nibble to get guys to fan. He is also on track to match his career saves rate – a tick over 90%, and if he can close out the year dominating the AL then maybe the Sox will forget what they gave up to get him, at least for a little while longer.
    The Kimbrel trade wasn’t all the Sox did to fortify the pen in the off-season. Carson Smith is only 26 and last season was his first full season in the majors. In spite of his inexperience, Smith spent the season dominating lesser mortals with his nasty offerings. Carson Smith is 6’6” of hard throwing Texan. He is mainly a two pitch pitcher throwing his fastball (averaging 92.9 mph) and slider with about the same frequency. He is very hard to hit (6.3 hits per nine innings), misses a lot of bats (11.8 k’s per nine), manages to control his nasty stuff (2.8 walks per nine), and keeps the ball in the yard like Sister Mary Constance at recess (0.3 home runs per nine). He can’t be a free agent until 2021 so the Red Sox picked up not only their new closer in Kimbrel, but also their closer of the future in Carson Smith.
    The Mariners rode him hard using him in 70 games and he started this season on the DL. He came back for three scoreless appearances in May before his elbow gave out, and he recently went under the knife – Tommy John surgery. TJ surgery takes at least a year to come back from, but the Sox should stick with Smith for the long run. As for the cost to get Smith, Miley’s innings, while important, were not pretty so it is much easier to justify trading almost 200 innings of Miley for 70 innings of Smith if Smith looks as beastly as he did last year.
    So, two moves to bolster the pen to support new ace, David Price – and they didn’t give up anything irreplaceable for this season, even though they single-handedly rebuilt the Padres farm system, and then gave up a lot of innings when they sent Miley to Seattle. The plan was for the pen to back up to the 6th inning with Kimbrel closing, Uehara as the primary setup man, Carson Smith pitching in Uehara’s spot or in the 7th which is now the domain of Junichi Tazawa. That’s some nice depth and some excellent quality. There is a catch though. There is a non-zero chance that the Red Sox pen will collapse entirely due to injury and overuse.
    Tazawa has made over 200 appearances in the last three seasons and during the second half of 2015 he looked cooked. Opposing hitters turned into Lou Gehrig in Tazawa’s last 22 appearances before he was shut down, posting a slash line of .386/.421/.636. The relief pitcher from Yokohama saw his ERA balloon from 2.58 in the first half to 7.08 in the second half. His strikeout to walk ratio dropped from 5.71 to 2.67. When Junichi is right he pumps 94 mph fastballs, splitters, as well as the occasional slider and changeup with solid control and enough swing and miss stuff to be used as a closer on many teams. He looked excellent to start 2016 but since May started has had an ERA over 4.00 and has given up seven of his 8 home runs to bump his home runs per nine rate to 1.8. Interestingly his strikeout rate is up – now above 10.0 per nine – even while he struggles to keep the ball in the park, so are we seeing the effects of overuse or are the home runs just a fluke? The Red Sox will be paying attention to Tazawa down the stretch as they try to make it to the post-season.
    So what of the disposed closer? The plan was for Koji Uehara, who has closed games for the Red Sox for the last three seasons, to get his turn in the 8th inning and the Sox stuck with that until Kimbrel went on the DL forcing Koji to resume his closer’s role. Uehara is not your typical late inning reliever. His fastball, which he throws about a third of the time, doesn’t reach 90 miles per hour on average. He relies on a wicked splitter, that he throws the other two-thirds of the time, to get outs. His numbers look like a guy who throws heat because his splitter is such a swing and miss pitch. Well, I’m not sure what’s in the Boston water, but like Tazawa, Uehara is giving up long balls at well above his career rate of which is now at 1.1 home runs per nine. To date, the 6’2” righty has given up 2.0 home runs per nine innings pitched.
    Uehara has a career strikeout rate (in the states) of 10.8 per nine through the middle of August and his control is unbelievable. His career rate is 1.4 walks allowed per nine and he has actually had seasons where he has averaged fewer than one walk per nine innings. Normally you would expect that low of a walk rate to go with a higher hits per nine rate, but Uehara’s career rate is 6.3 hits per nine innings pitched. His career WHIP of .851 is unheard of and amazingly, every season since 2010 he has kept his WHIP below 1.0 for the season. Basically that means you just can’t get on base against Uehara. Uehara’s one weakness is relative. He has allowed a home run per nine innings for his career – most likely a lot of them were solo shots since, again, you can’t get on base against him. Ok, there is another weakness – he lacks a cool nickname. Uehara, but I’m not? Koji Beef? Split Personality – you know – because he throws the splitter and that sounds like a super-villain name? Eh, maybe there’s a reason he doesn’t have a nickname, but even without one he is as unhittable as ever to start 2016 although he has been uncharacteristically wild so far. The former will likely continue as the latter probably will correct with more innings – that is if he can make it back from a strained pectoral muscle before the regular season ends.
    Matt Barnes is one of those guys we all love to see come up, but then are driven crazy by until they get traded. He throws wicked hard, averaging almost 95 mph with his heater while mixing in a change and a curve. Barnes issue, at least at the major league level, has been his inability to control his pitches. This problem manifests in two ways – leaving balls out over the plate where they can be turned into souvenirs, and walking too many batters so the home runs he gives up score multiple runs. In his first 52 major league innings (through the end of 2015), Barnes gave up 10 home runs and walked 17 batters. So far this season, Barnes has given up 3.9 walks per nine – even worse than his career average of 3.4 per nine. The difference being that the 6’4” righty has kept the ball in the park (0.8 home runs per nine – substantially below his career rate of 1.3 per nine) and limited hits to 7.9 per nine innings. This is more in line with his minor league numbers. Well, his walk rate mimics his minor league numbers – also 3.3 walks per nine in just over 398 innings pitched, but Barnes has limited home runs to minor leaguers – 0.6 per nine, and hits – 8.3 per nine. His minor league WHIP of 1.285 doesn’t speak to dominance but it isn’t bad. If he can recreate what he has done in the minors for the parent club, then he would be a serviceable arm in the Red Sox pen, even if he never turns into the dominant closer the Sox thought they were getting when they chose him in the first round of the 2011 draft. So far this season it looks like he just might.
    Of course Robbie Ross throws hard like almost everyone in the Sox pen, and uses his fastball over 60% of the time. The difference between Ross and the aforementioned Mr. Barnes appears to be the effectiveness of their secondary offerings. Ross contributed 0.8 WAR from the pen last year – not a world beater, but certainly a contributor. He has been a solid contributor to Texas and Boston in three of his first four seasons – the exception being 2014 when the Rangers attempted to turn Ross into a starter, which clearly didn’t work. The diminutive lefty is useful because he can throw more than one inning – a chore he carried out 11 times in 2015. Interestingly, the Red Sox used him as a closer in September. That seems like an underuse of Ross, although when your pen is the worst in baseball, what the hell! With 7.9 K’s to 3.0 walks per nine (and 1.0 home runs) and strong peripherals in the second half of last year, Ross comes into 2016 with a flexible role that won’t likely be high leverage. This year has been one of Ross’ best so far with a WHIP of 1.195, a FIP (ERA taking into account only what the pitcher can control) of 2.97, only 7.2 hits allowed per nine, and a minuscule 0.2 home runs allowed per nine. Not sure why all the Red Sox relievers seem to have increased their strikeout rates but Ross has been no exception, fanning 9.7 men per nine – his career rate is now at 7.4 per nine. Also, like many of the Sox relievers Ross has walked more men per nine with a mark of 3.6 per nine so far, up from his career rate of 3.2. Manager John Farrell is still using Ross for more than an inning making him both more valuable and unusual.
    Trade deadline acquisition Fernando Abad has put up really nice numbers from the pen this season, albeit mostly for the Twins. In his six appearances for the Red Sox he has allowed at least a run, although it could be just the adjustment that goes with playing for a new squad, and one that is in a pennant race. With Minnesota, a team woefully far from the pressure of the pennant race, Abad was stingy with hits (7.1 allowed per nine innings) and home runs (0.5 allowed per nine innings), but walked a few too many hitters (3.7 per nine innings) all the while striking out 7.7 batters per nine. The lefty from La Romana in the Dominican throws four pitches with his fastball getting a bit over half the use and the other three (cutter, curve, and change) making up the other half. It will be interesting to see how Boston uses him because he has been death to lefties and a lot less effective against righties. One stat illustrates that fairly well – his strikeout to walk ratio. Against righties Abad strikes out 1.36 batsmen for every one that he walks. Against lefties the number jumps to 6.50 per walk which looks like dominance especially when you pair it with the batting average against him of .179 as compared to .271 which is what righties hit against him. If the Red Sox can afford it, they should use Abad as a LOOGY (a lefty specialist) where he can shine, instead of trying to get a whole inning out of him. Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s fade might press Boston to use Abad in a role less suited to his skill set, which would be a shame.
    Acquired for two minor leaguers in July, Brad Ziegler has maintained good peripherals including a low home run rate of 0.7 per nine and excellent control issuing only 2.2 walks per nine since moving to Boston. With an ERA of 2.82 (2.92 since joining the Sox), Ziegler is a durable quality arm who can help the Boston club reach the post-season. His two blown saves and three losses for the Sox have something to do with the talk about the Red Sox courting recently released former closer Jonathan Papelbon. Ziegler has been tried at closer and setup man for the Red Sox, but as he is not the typical flame throwing beast usually given the role, he will have a short leash. With Kimbrel back from the DL, it is unlikely that the sidewinder will close again this season unless Kimbrel is unavailable. But Ziegler still induces lots of grounders with his funky delivery and should be trusted in high leverage situations in spite of his early struggles to hold onto leads in Boston. His ERA is still below 2.5 in his stint in Boston and below 2.75 for the season so it isn’t like he is throwing grapefruits out there.
    The Red Sox bullpen will be better than it was last year – that isn’t saying much since they were so bad last season. But they should be a strength in 2016 – both deep and flexible. Of course the rotation has to pull their own weight. Last year the poor rotation work led to Sox relievers being overworked and if that happens again they might very well implode again. Carson Smith should have taken a lot of the heat off of Tazawa but that obviously hasn’t happened because of his injury. With Ziegler aboard and Ross and Barnes contributing, they should be able to weather Uehara’s injury and Tazawa’s stretch of ineffectiveness. But if Kimbrel goes down again the pen is in trouble. David Price and a hopefully quick return of Steven Wright will help take some of the pressure off of the relievers. If not, I bet Red Sox legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield would be willing to come back and eat some innings.

The Giants have a deep pen, but who should close?

Game Over, Man!
by Jim Silva

    If you don’t have guys who can throw 97 to 100 MPH then you don’t have a shut-down bullpen. While that’s not really true, it sure seems like an apt description of the belief system of most general managers in baseball these days. Look at the Dodgers (aborted) attempt to trade for Aroldis Chapman (average fastball velocity 99.5 MPH) and then the Yankees consummated trade for the hard-throwing closer even though he was likely to start the season on suspension. And it wasn’t just Chapman that teams gave up a lot of resources to acquire. The A’s spent lots of money on Ryan Madsen (average fastball velocity 94.2 MPH), the Astros gave up prospects to get Ken Giles (average fastball velocity 96.5 MPH), and the Rockies sent a young starting outfielder to the Rays to acquire Jake McGee (average fastball velocity 94.5 MPH) just to name a few of the off-season moves that happened since the last World Series.
    Hunter Strickland is the Giants requisite bullpen flame thrower humping it up there with an average fastball of 96.9. But Strickland isn’t the closer – yet. Last season, Strickland’s first full season in the majors, saw him mostly used as the setup man and the 7th inning guy (45 of his 55 appearances). The 6’4” righty from Zebulon, Georgia struck out opposing hitters in bunches, showed excellent control (1.8 walks per nine), forced batters to beat the baseball into the ground at a 69% rate, and limited home runs to the tune of 0.7 per nine innings pitched. It was hard to get on base at all against Strickland as he managed a WHIP of 0.78 last season. He is the scariest pitcher the Giants have in relief and is very likely to close games for them someday. Only manager Bruce Bochy knows when that day will come as he is the one who decided that Santiago Casilla will start the season as he ended last season – wearing the closer mantle.
    Casilla’s game changed dramatically last season, or so say his peripherals. Castilla has been closing games somewhat regularly since 2012 when he was 31. That’s pretty old to finally be anointed the closer, but it took him a long time to develop. He mostly sported ERAs in the 4’s and 5’s during his last three seasons with the A’s. He put it all together his first year with the Giants (2010) and has kept his ERA in the 1’s and 2’s since then. While that sounds consistent, Casilla is the scary variety of closer who is all over the place with his control and his home run rate. In 2014, Casilla’s strikeout rate was 6.9 per nine, but his career low walk rate of 2.3 per nine gave him a career best strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.0. He also posted an ERA of 1.70 and a FIP of 3.18 while allowing a career low 5.4 hits per nine and an excellent home run rate of 0.5 per nine. He wasn’t the full-time closer but managed to save 19 games with four blown save chances. He threw in ten holds for good measure, clearly proving his value in high-leverage situations.
    Last season Casilla finished 55 games, appeared in 67, and recorded 38 saves while blowing six saves. His strikeout rate jumped from 6.9 in 2014 to 9.6 in 2015, an unusual jump without small sample size to explain it. The strikeouts are the good news. Unfortunately, and here is one explanation for the blown saves, his walk rate jumped from 2.3 per nine to 3.6 per nine while his home run rate also increased from 0.5 per nine to 0.9 per nine innings pitched. Walking more batters and then giving up almost twice as many long balls is a recipe for an increase in ERA and Casilla’s jumped from 1.70 to 2.79. While ERA is not the best measure for relievers, his FIP (his ERA based on events he controlled) also jumped – from 3.18 to 3.63. At 35 Casilla still throws hard and mixes in a curve and slider 23% and 15% of the time respectively last year, so it’s not like he was lobbing grapefruits up there or surviving on guile. Still, with Strickland behind him he can’t get off to a bad start and assume that the job will still be his. There was even noise that he might lose his closer’s role in spring training but even with a good spring by Strickland that didn’t happen.
    Those lucky Giants – the closer race isn’t a two horse contest. Sergio Romo had a head lock on the closer role for 2013 and parts of the two seasons on either side of that, but lost it to Casilla when he slumped in 2014. Last year Romo put up a monster season in the pen posting his second highest strikeout to walk rate at 7.10 which is quite excellent. He also dropped his home run rate down to 0.5 jacks per nine, showing his normal great control only walking 1.6 batters over nine, and putting up his best strikeout numbers in the last four seasons by fanning 11.1 batters per nine. Romo is 33 and pint-sized for a pitcher at 5’11” and is a soft-tosser averaging 87.5 MPH on his heater last year. He throws his slider 59% of the time and it is a true swing-and-miss pitch.
    As everyone knows by now, the Giants have the whole “Win the Series in even years” thing going on, and George Kontos has a “get lit up by home runs in odd years” thing, and alternately a “keeps the ball in the park in even years” thing – weird I know. Last season, being an odd year, Kontos allowed 1.1 home runs per nine innings. Based on his other numbers it seems like there was a method to his madness so predicting the same thing this year might not be crazy. Kontos’ peripherals make it look like he consciously pitched to contact more. His career walk rate is 2.4 after a season where he walked a career low 1.5 batters per nine – his first time under 2.5 per nine. Along with that he fanned a career low 5.4 batters per nine, down from a career rate of 7.2 per nine. Interestingly his hit rate was 7.0, under his career number of 7.6 so whatever he changed seemed to work. Kontos throws hard enough (average fastball sitting at 91.2 MPH last season), but he throws it about as often as his cutter and a bit more than his slider, which he throws about a quarter of the time. Kontos had 28 multiple inning outings in his 73 appearances so he is the workhorse of the pen. He is probably the only one of the four pen mainstays who isn’t in the mix for the closer’s job this season, but he still provides a lot of value in relief.
    The other arms in the pen to start the season were Chris Heston and Javier Lopez. Heston, at 27 –  the only member of the pen under 30 – spent last season holding down a rotation spot and doing it admirably, including one memorable game for the whole Heston family – an 11 strikeout, no walk, no-hitter where he drilled three batters. Heston doesn’t throw particularly hard but is still “effectively wild” at times as evidenced by his three hit batters in that no-no. Heston is likely to end up in the rotation at some point this season because the back of the rotation is injury-prone, and if he can reprise his first half of 2014 then the Giants won’t miss a beat. It’s hard to say what Heston will give the Giants as a reliever because he has almost never – even in the minors – pitched out of the pen.
    Lopez is the requisite LOOGY – he is in the pen to get out the lefties. Lopez faced lefties twice as often as he faced righties. That is as it should be because Lopez allowed a .177 on-base percentage and .130 slugging to lefties he faced while righties went strong against him posting an OPS of .734. Interestingly he spins his weird lefty voodoo mostly with his gentle fastball clocked at an average velocity of 84.5 MPH which he throws 74 % of the time and mixes with the occasional cutter (19% of the time) – not the typical menu for short relievers. At 38 years old, Lopez is still great at what he does with the caveat that his exposure to righties be strictly limited.
    When you look at teams like the Royals who survived because their pen was so great in the 7th, 8th, and 9th, and you look at the Giants who have quietly done almost exactly the same things but with a much better (at least this season) starting rotation, you have to have a hard time betting against them in the NL West.

The Rockies bullpen for 2016 – it’s better than you think. No, really!

The Pen is Mightier…Than Last Year’s Pen
by Jim Silva

    Some nails, a fresh coat of paint, et viola – the Rockies have a new and improved bullpen. The new “secret” in baseball that everyone knows, appears to be that you can win by putting together a strong bullpen. The Royals did it, or so it seemed. So this off-season the Rockies stayed out of the starting pitcher free agent market and instead acquired some low cost, old guys who are former closers, then traded a starting left-fielder, Corey Dickerson, for a bona-fide, hard-throwing, young beast-man closer in Jake McGee. Did they do enough, and will it matter? What rebuilding team spends assets on a premier closer? News flash – the Rockies don’t want to be seen as a rebuilding team. Their actions show that they believe they are at the end of a rebuild and ready to start playing with the big boys, hence the trade for a closer.
    Jake McGee is a big lefty who tosses projectiles with celerity – the 95 to 98 mile an hour kind of celerity that scares the crap out of hitters – he nailed Chase Headley in the chin last season – an experience that would have caused most mortals not named Chase Headley to take an online accounting course, and retire from baseball. In spite of that slip, McGee has excellent control walking 2.0 and 1.9 hitters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. Last season was a struggle for McGee from a health standpoint. He started late after recovering from having his elbow scoped, then missed time at the end of the year with a torn meniscus in his knee. He has already had Tommy John surgery (2008) and returned from that throwing hard. He mowed down 11.4 and 11.6 batters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons. McGee instantly becomes the closer for Colorado taking over from John Axford, who is now in the A’s pen. McGee was more commonly used as a setup guy and co-closer with the Rays, but unless he has a chance encounter with Bigfoot or is implanted with alien technology, he won’t suddenly fall apart with the new designation.
    McGee isn’t the only pitcher sporting a flame-thrower in the Rockies’ pen next season. Jairo Diaz can touch 100 with his fastball – and talk about scary – for most of his career he hasn’t been certain of the pitch’s destination once it left his hand. Finally, for a 21 game stretch at the end of last season, something worked. Whatever tweaks the Rockies, and pitching coach Steve Foster talked Diaz into trying, worked and Diaz kept his walks per nine innings to 2.8 while maintaining a strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings. It is reasonable to believe that Diaz would have been tried at closer had the Rockies not acquired McGee. How they use him now will be dictated by his control and manager Walt Weiss’ trust in the rest of Diaz’ pen-pals.
    Adam Ottavino was killing it in April of last season. In 10 appearances (10.33 innings) the tall righty stuck out 11.3 batters per nine innings while only walking 1.7. Both numbers were trending in the right direction for each of the last three seasons. Ottavino was looking like he might steal the closer’s job until his elbow went boom, and he got to experience Tommy John surgery. It is unclear how soon he will return – likely at some point in the first half of 2016 – and how good he will be when he returns. If he comes back close to where he was when he left, then the Rockies have three tough, hard-throwers to finish games. Part of the reason the Rockies had the worst bullpen in all of baseball (and football – you know – if they had bullpens too), was the loss of Ottavino. Getting him back, and adding McGee and a full season of Diaz will change the Rockies fortunes when they have a lead going into the 7th.
    The Rockies started their off-season with two signings that left some in the baseball world scratching their heads. For $3 million, the Rockies got 37 year old Chad Qualls, and for another $4.5 million, they picked up 33 year old Jason Motte. Qualls is as consistent as a reliever gets.  He gets about 60% of the batters he faces to beat the ball into the ground then run cussing toward first base. He strikes out somewhere between 7.5 and 8.5 batters per nine innings and walks about 2.3 per nine innings, although the last two seasons have seen his walk rate drop below two. It is a common refrain that pitchers who induce a lot of ground balls have the most success in Colorado. Qualls gives the Rockies bullpen depth, a groundball machine, and less meaningfully – a guy who used to be a closer back in 2011. Even though Qualls is 37, he remains consistent and should be able to handle the challenge of Coors Field. If he can’t, at least he was relatively inexpensive and might be a piece they can flip for a middling prospect at the trade deadline.
    Jason Motte was also a closer once, and has a formidable, dark beard that makes him look like the dwarf, Gimli. I’m not sure if Motte is a skilled miner or can wield a battle axe, but as a relief pitcher he was fearsome, shooting flames with his speed ball of doom and slider of Nimgar. Sadly, our hero was felled by Lord Thomas of John, and he hasn’t been the same since. Not all pitchers bounce back from Tommy John surgery in a year, but last season ended early for Motte with shoulder pain so it wouldn’t be wise to count on him for any heroics. That said, if he comes back to a touch more than where he was before he was shut down last season, he will give the Rockies a serviceable bullpen arm, and shorten the game for the starting pitchers. In the meantime, it is reasonable to expect the 3 to 1 strikeout to walk rate that he put up last season in Wrigley. His 3.61 FIP (ERA independent of fielding), and his league average park-adjusted ERA from last season would have been quite useful for the Rockies last year. If that’s all they get, then they should be content. It’s not like they are paying him to be the one ring to rule them all.
    At the time the Rockies signed Boone Logan, he was just coming off two seasons with the Yankees where he was a monster, striking out more than 11 batters per nine innings with FIPs in the threes and hits per nine in the sevens. He also did two things that should have given the Rockies the jibblies at his signing. He walked a bunch of guys, 3.67 and 3.82 per nine innings in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and let batters launch the ball toward space at a high rate to become a souvenir on the other side of the fence – 1.0 and 1.6 home runs per nine in the same time span. So when Logan came to Colorado for his first Coors Field experience and compiled a 6.84 ERA, gave up 2.2 home runs per nine innings, and walked 4.0 men per nine innings of work, the Blake Street faithful shouldn’t have been too surprised. Ugly numbers – but he also struck out 11.5 hitters per nine innings, so it looked like the beast was in there, but confused. Last year, the world went back to spinning closer to its normal direction for Boone. Still pumping a mid-90’s fastball, he again struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings but managed to keep the ball in the park, allowing only 0.9 long balls per nine innings. The walks continued to plague him as he allowed 4.3 men to amble to first base unperturbed. Logan looked a lot like the guy the Rockies thought they’d signed, as his FIP plummeted from 5.13 to 3.62, matching his FIPs from his days in the Bronx – 3.67 in 2012 and 3.82 in 2013. So if that’s what the Rockies wanted, then that is exactly what they got. His hits allowed per nine innings were up from his New York days, but that is to be expected in Coors Field. Logan faced almost exactly the same number of righties as he did lefties even though lefties put up an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .602, while righties waxed him at a rate of .909. With the improved bullpen depth, Walt Weiss might consider using Logan as a lefty specialist to maximize his value.
    25 year old Scott Oberg had pitched a total of 107.67 innings professionally coming into 2015. In all of those innings pitching in short relief, he had allowed a total of seven home runs. Last season, pitching at AAA and in the majors, Oberg gave up 10 home runs in 66.33 innings. Until last season he had never allowed more than 7.2 hits per nine innings – last season he allowed 15.8 in a short stay in AAA and 8.9 in the majors. The righty has posted ever-shifting peripherals with a strikeout to walk rate at all of his stops in the following order: 4.83, 2.26, 3.50, 5.50, and in his major league audition that lasted 58.33 innings his rate was 1.42. For many young pitchers there is an extended break-in period as they get used to how their pitches work at altitude and what adjustments they have to make to succeed in Denver. Looking at Oberg’s season by month, his home run rate dropped off in the last two months and his other stats improved as well. He gave up only two home runs to the last 120 batters he faced – none to the last 50. If the decreased home run rate holds then maybe Oberg will turn into a useful piece in a veteran bullpen. If not, he will get a chance to make himself useful while toiling for the Isotopes of Albuquerque.
    Another arm that the Rockies will likely put to use in their pen is Justin Miller. Last season, he was one of the more useful arms to pitch in relief. Like almost everyone in the Rockies pen, Miller throws hard – up to the mid-90’s. Not a ground ball pitcher, Miller still kept the ball in the park allowing only two home runs in 33.3 innings pitched. He put up a spectacular strikeout rate, fanning 10.3 batters per nine innings. His control was solid and he just didn’t allow batters to get hits, with a walk rate of 3.0 per nine innings, and a hits per nine innings mark of 5.7. His FIP was a spectacular 2.65, but the question is can he repeat his 2015 numbers or even come close? Interestingly his numbers look remarkably similar to his 2014 minor league numbers so perhaps this is a sign of things to come. Miller has never started a professional game so the Rockies are unlikely to be able to stretch him out, but in short stints he can contribute to the new, deep Rockies pen.
    There are a lot of ifs for the 2016 season, but the pen will undoubtedly be better. With the improved starting pitching and the improved pen, the Rockies won’t suffer death by horrible pitching again this season.