Archive for February, 2013

The Blue Jays Track Team

When the Blue Jays pulled off their blockbuster trade with the Marlins, the focus immediately went to the two pitchers in the deal, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. Toronto’s rotation was terrible in 2012, and their starters were one of the main reasons the team allowed 784 runs last season, more than all but five other MLB clubs. Johnson brings the ability to dominate when healthy, while Buehrle is the safest bet in MLB for 200 average or better innings. With one fell swoop, the Marlins rebuilt a battered rotation.

However, there’s a secondary storyline hiding under the Blue Jays off-season, and the foundation for their 2013 offensive identity was laid in that same transaction. With that move — and a few more additions later in the off-season — the Blue Jays have given themselves the opportunity to run more than any team has in recent years.

Everyone knows that Jose Reyes is one of the fastest players in baseball, and uses his speed to greatly enhance his overall value. In fact, over the last 10 years, Reyes has accumulated the sixth most runs from baserunning of any player in MLB, despite missing large chunks of time due to various injuries. However, on the Blue Jays roster of sprinters, Reyes might be the third most dangerous baserunning weapon.

In order to get a better idea of seasonal baserunning value, we can take the amount of runs a player has created on the bases and prorate it to 600 plate appearances, which is approximately one full season worth of playing time for a regular position player. Over the last 10 years, the most valuable runner per 600 plate appearances (with a 1,500 PA minimum to keep the sample size reasonably large) has been Brett Gardner, who checks in at +10.3 runs per season. Three spots behind Gardner is Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis, who has averaged +8.3 runs per season on the bases. Two spots behind Davis? Newly acquired utility infielder Emilio Bonifacio, who came from Miami with Reyes in the mega-deal.

That’s right – the 2013 Blue Jays are going to feature two of the six most effective baserunners in baseball over the last decade, and neither one is named Jose Reyes. Reyes, if you’re wondering, checks in at +5.8 runs per 600 plate appearances, coming in 16th overall during the last 10 years. It doesn’t stop with Reyes, either, as the Blue Jays also imported infielder Maicer Izturis (+3.9 runs per 600 PA, #40) over the winter, and are retaining center fielder Colby Rasmus (+3.2 runs per 600 PA, #60) as well. And, if Rasmus either struggles or gets injured, the team would likely call up 22-year-old speedster Anthony Gose, who put up a staggering +5.1 runs of baserunning value in just 189 plate appearances as a rookie last year.

Even assuming a reduced role for Davis with Melky Cabrera — an above average but unspectacular baserunner — taking over as the regular left fielder, we can still project him as a force on the bases. After all, even on days when Davis isn’t starting, he’ll likely be used as a late inning pinch-runner, and Davis is absolutely fearless as a base stealer. Last year, Davis was in position to steal a base 118 times, and he ran on 59 of those, or exactly half of his opportunities. No other player in baseball ran even close to that frequency. Only five other players attempted a steal in at least 1/3 of their opportunities last season, and two of them — Gose (35%) and Bonifacio (33%) are now Davis’ teammates.

Aggressive baserunning has largely gone out of vogue in baseball over the last 20 years, as the increased offensive environment that began in 1994 led to a change in the calculus of how often a player should run. When hits and especially home runs are plentiful, the value of advancing into scoring position is reduced — the runner is more likely to score from first base, after all — and the cost of making an out is higher, as it prevents more batters from coming to bat. With the reduction in offense throughout the sport, runs are now more scarce, and the tide has shifted back towards increasing aggressiveness on the bases.

During the offensive heyday at the turn of the century, the break-even rate for base stealing was around 70%, with runners succeeding less often than that not adding any real value to their teams through base stealing, no matter how many bases they stole. Last year, it was down to about 66%, as outs simply aren’t as harmful as they used to be, and the potential run gained by getting into scoring position is more critical to winning than it was when every game ended 10-9.

The Blue Jays appear to be extremely aware of the rising importance of baserunning, and have built a roster to take advantage of a more aggressive style of play than we’ve seen in some time. Over the last 10 years, no team has created more value on the bases than the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays, who checked in at +34 runs overall, led by Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, and Evan Longoria, and also featured quality running role players like Jason Bartlett and Sean Rodriguez. That team won 96 games and finished at the top of the American League East.

This Blue Jays team could very well challenge that Rays team for the best baserunning club we’ve seen, depending on how much playing time Davis, Bonifacio, and Gose end up getting this season. Even with Davis and Bonifacio serving as part-time players to begin the season and Gose likely ticketed for Triple-A, this is still easily the fastest team in baseball, and the Blue Jays speed is likely to be a factor in every game they play this season.

Big Weaknesses on Contenders

Every year during spring training, teams are doing more than more than soaking up sun and trying to cut out early to get in 18 holes. They’re actually working on their games, and often that means working on areas in which they were deficient a year ago. In that vein, let’s take a look at five would-be contenders and the areas in which they should be focusing this spring. At a certain point, teams and players are who they are, but hope springs eternal, and hard work does pay dividends.

Detroit’s defense: It’s no secret that Detroit’s defense left something to be desired last season. It didn’t stop them from reaching the World Series, but that doesn’t mean that Detroit should rest on its laurels. While the Tigers had a middling .983 fielding percentage, advanced metrics — be it UZR, DRS or Defensive Efficiency — all painted the Tigers as a bottom feeder with the leather. The transactions they have made should make them a bit better this season. Omar Infante is a slight upgrade over Ramon Santiago, but mostly in the sense that manager Jim Leyland may be more comfortable playing Infante every day, while Santiago never achieved that status. Assuming that father time didn’t catch up with Torii Hunter this offseason, he should be a big upgrade over Brennan Boesch in right field. But it’s not all wine and roses. Likely starting left fielder Andy Dirks may have good range, but his arm leaves a lot to be desired. And then there is still Miguel Cabrera at third base. Among the 13 qualified third basemen last season, no one posted a worse UZR than did Cabrera. In fact, of the 124 qualified players last season, Cabrera’s -10 UZR ranked 115th. To be fair, his defense could have been a lot worse than it was, and he has worked hard to transition from first base back to third base. But he needs to keep working.

Boston’s walk rate: When Red Sox fans used to complain that the team’s games were too long, the main culprit was the team’s great walk rate. Last season, it was a different story. After nine years with one of the top walk rates in the game — from 2003 to 2011, no team had a better walk rate than Boston — the Sawx’s walk rate fell all the way to 29th-best in the game. There are two reasons to think that won’t continue in 2013. First, new recruits Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli and David Ross are exceedingly patient. Second, while Boston’s non-pitcher walk rate fell from nine percent in 2011 to seven percent in ’12, they still saw about the same number of pitches — their 3.89 pitches seen per plate appearance ranked third in the majors, which was in line with the recent past. The team did lose patient hitters in Kevin Youkilis and Cody Ross, but they are poised to once again claim a top-notch walk rate.

Atlanta’s hitting against breaking balls: In looking at the Pitchf/x breakdowns of how teams fared against each pitch last season, one thing sticks out — on a per 100 pitches basis, the Braves were the only National League team in the bottom five against both curveballs and sliders last season. Atlanta had a middling offense — seventh in the National League in runs scored, and 17th overall — and this inefficiency was a likely culprit. Looking to 2013, the situation may not improve all that much. The only Braves’ regulars who posted positive rates against both curves and sliders last season were Chipper Jones and Martin Prado, and neither of them will suit up for Atlanta in 2013.  On the positive side of the ledger is that Michael Bourn was well below average against both pitches, and he is also history. Andrelton Simmons may help, as he was leaps and bounds better against breaking balls than were Tyler Pastornicky and Paul Janish. Then again, Simmons doesn’t even have 1,500 professional plate appearances yet, and less than 200 at the major league level, so let’s hold off on crowing on him just yet. The Upton brothers may help, as for their careers both have posted positive numbers against curveballs, and Justin Upton has fared well against sliders as well, but neither has been impeccably good against the pitches. B.J. Upton had been a monster against curveballs until last year. Another negative may be at third base, where neither Chris Johnson nor Juan Francisco are downright Pedro Cerrano-esque. The Braves would do well to set the pitching machine to deliver a bevy of breaking balls this spring.

Oakland’s starting pitcher strikeout rate: Last season, only one team’s starters struck out less than 17 percent of the hitters they faced and still posted a winning record. That’s right, it was the A’s. The mainly no-name crew of castoffs, rookies and Brandon McCarthy didn’t pump strike three with enough regularity. Often unable to generate swinging strikes — their swinging strike percentage ranked a dismal 10th in the American League and 24th overall — Oakland had to rely on its defense more than most. Since they imported Chris Young, they will have even more defensive depth this season, but it would be nice if they could give their fielders a break more frequently. The team’s K% should come up a little naturally. The four starters at the bottom of their K% list from a year ago — McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey — are all either history or will miss a significant chunk of the season. The three departed pitchers — Godfrey, McCarthy and Ross — combined for more than 20 percent of their starter’s innings, and all posted a K% south of 16 percent. On the other hand, their removal in and of itself isn’t going to make the A’s elite. For them to make real progress in this regard, the team needs their youngsters to take steps forward, particularly Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily. Both struck out at least 20 percent in every one of their minor league stops, but did not reach that threshold last season in the majors. It’s reasonable to expect improvement from both — both posted swinging strike percentages that were above league average — but they’ve got to go out and show it.

Yankees’ starting pitcher HR/FB rate: Last season, only the Orioles and Yankees posted a HR/FB (fly ball) rate in the bottom 10 and posted winning records, but while the O’s should get a different mix of pitchers (more Chris Tillman and Jason Hammel, less Tommy Hunter) the Yankees’ mix figures to be fairly similar — CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, with David Phelps first off the bench as spot starter. These six started 88% of the team’s games last season, and all six posted a HR/FB above the AL average of 12.3%. This deficiency is understandable when the team is in the Bronx, as the corners of Yankee Stadium are fairly bandbox-ish. But only three teams allowed homers at a higher rate on the road than did the Yankees, and among starting pitchers, only Hughes’ HR/FB dipped under league average. The tendency to allow big flies certainly didn’t hurt New York’s chances of reaching the postseason, but any Yankees fan who hasn’t yet repressed the memories of Game 4 of last year’s American League Championship Series will remember that part of the reason New York was broomed was that they allowed four homers to Detroit in the decisive fourth game. This may prove to be a blip on the radar — the dismal 2012 HR/FB rates for Hughes, Kurosa, Nova and Sabathia were all career worsts — but just in case, the Yanks may want to make keeping the ball in the yard a priority this spring.

Top Five Pitching Duos

When the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke this offseason, he gave them — along with lefty Clayton Kershaw — one of the top front-ends of a rotation in baseball. Together, the duo may have one of the best one-two punches in the game, a duo truly capable of winning four games in a seven-game series. Are they the best in the game? Let’s take a look.

First, a couple of parameters. I selected the top two of each rotation based on the player’s projected WAR totals, courtesy of Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS system, which has just finished running over at FanGraphs. I also took the combined WAR of each duo for the past three seasons. I use three seasons, because any one season can be subject to small sample size or statistical flukes, so when possible — as it is here — three years makes for a better sample. However, WAR isn’t the end-all be-all, so we want a couple of other metrics as well. A pitcher’s peripheral statistics, such as strikeouts and walks, often hold a great deal of predictive value, but rather than dividing them by each other, as K/BB does, it’s better to subtract the two percentages from each other. This not only gives it more predictive value (which you can read more about here) but it also makes more sense intuitively, as you are using the same sample in your denominator – total batters faced. Finally, we want to have a projected rate stat to account for the fact that not all pitchers are projected to have the same workload (for instance, ZiPS projects Gio Gonzalez to toss 200 innings this year, but projects Clayton Kershaw to toss 221.2, a large difference), so we’ll use the ZiPS projected ERA for each duo. By using all four of these metrics, we can get a more complete picture of how the duos have performed, and how they may be expected to perform. In doing so, five duos emerged.

5. Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Weaver and Wilson have been very productive over the past three years, and likely will be again this season. Both rank in the top 10 in WAR over the past three seasons, placing them in the top five as a duo. But where they fail to reach the top is in their strikeout and walk ability. Collectively, their strikeout and walk rates are middling, though the walk rate can be laid at the feet of Wilson much more so than Weaver. Though Weaver doesn’t walk many, he does a poor job of keeping the ball on the ground, but thanks to his ballpark and outfield defense, this isn’t the issue for him that it would be on a different team.

4. Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg – Washington Nationals

Strasburg is at once the reason to be wary and optimistic for the Nationals. There isn’t a starter in baseball who has a better FIP- projection than Strasburg’s 58 FIP- heading into this season. But Strasburg also has the thinnest track record, thanks to his Tommy John surgery. As a result, he has a fairly thin track record — just 251.1 innings pitched in the majors, and not one season with 30 starts. On the other side is Gonzalez, who made a lot of strides last season but still walked batters at a rate above that of league average. The two may top this chart a year from now, but at the moment it is prudent to exercise a little caution.

3. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer – Detroit Tigers

Last season was Scherzer’s coming out party, as the young righty — who was part of the famed three-way trade that also involved Curtis Granderson, Austin Jackson and Ian Kennedy — saw his strikeout rate skyrocket. Instead of making contact on more than 78 percent of the pitches they swung at, opposing hitters were only able to connect on 74 percent of Scherzer’s pitches in 2012, a number that was good for fourth in the game among qualified starters. As for Verlander, he essentially duplicated his Cy Young Award-winning season, though the instinct of writers who wanted to want to craft a different narrative led them to select David Price for the honor instead. Still, few are going to do it better than Verlander, who ZiPS projects to have the most WAR among starting pitchers this season.

2. Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels – Philadelphia Phillies

You could make the argument that Halladay deserves to be placed here rather than Hamels, but coming off a down year, Hamels has a higher projected WAR than does Halladay. And certainly Hamels is no slouch, as among the number-two starters as defined by this exercise, only Mat Latos has a higher projected WAR for 2013. Lee and Hamels form the most efficient pairing. Both few waste bullets, particularly Lee, whose 3.9 % walk rate is easily the game’s lowest over the past three years. Over those past three years, they have been the most valuable duo, and there is little reason to expect much of a drop-off this season. Lee received attention for his drop in wins last season, but if there’s any reason for worry among Phillies fans, it’s that both his K rate and swinging strike percentage fell last season. But he also was able to limit his walks more, which dampened most of the negative effect.

1. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke – Los Angeles Dodgers

Indeed the Dodgers’ new duo is the last team on the list. No pair of pitchers that a team can put together can match the 10.4 WAR that ZiPS projects Kershaw and Greinke to achieve this season. The Nats might come close if Strasburg were pegged for more innings pitched, but it remains to be seen if the nanny state Washington placed him in will lead to the 200-inning season they expect from him. Like the Phillies, Los Angeles has a pair of very efficient pitchers. It’s become de rigeur to doubt Greinke, but he has been worth at least four wins in each of the past five seasons, giving him an exemplary track record. It’s that track record that makes him more bankable than Scherzer or Strasburg, who have just a single season of domination under their belts. And while Kershaw didn’t match his brilliant 2011 season in the same fashion that Verlander did, he joins Verlander as one of two pitchers to notch a WAR projection north of six wins.

We can probably eliminate the Angels from the discussion, as well as teams like the Giants, Yankees and Rays from the best one-two punch discussion, but Washington, Detroit, Philly and the Dodgers are all so talented that picking one team as definitively the best is akin to splitting hairs. Having said that, the Dodgers may have the best balance of past track record and future projection, and that puts them in position to tip the scales in their favor. LA may not have the best overall rotation, but with Kershaw and Greinke, they are going to be tough to beat.

Washington Must Sign Kyle Lohse

Fans of the Washington Nationals have much to be excited about, because a team that already won 98 games last year looks like it could be geared to be even better in 2013. This year’s edition won’t have to worry about shutting down Stephen Strasburg, and they surprised many by adding Rafael Soriano to what was already a solid bullpen.

They can expect improved outfield performance given that Bryce Harper has a year of experience under his belt, Jayson Werth has returned from yet another injury — don’t forget, he was excellent (.312/.394/.441) in 52 starts after coming back last year — and they’ve finally filled the leadoff/center field hole they’ve been trying to patch for years by trading for Denard Span.

GM Mike Rizzo capped off his busy offseason by adding Dan Haren to the rotation, retainingAdam LaRoche on the club’s terms and rebuilding some farm depth by trading the somewhat overrated Mike Morse to Seattle.

All in all, it has been a very good winter for the Nationals, and they’re the consensus pick to win the National League East, especially given the teardowns in Miami and New York, and the continued aging of the Phillies. But for a team that’s truly built to win now, there’s one more move they could and should make — they need to be the club that swoops in to signKyle Lohse, the one big-ticket free agent remaining.

How good is he?

In some ways, the fact that Lohse remains unsigned headed into the second half of February seems like proof of the education of an industry. He brings 30 wins, a 3.11 ERA and one championship ring over the past two seasons into free agency, numbers that ordinarily would generate something of a feeding frenzy on an open market that is always desperate for quality starting pitching. Yet here we are, with camps open to pitchers and catchers across Arizona and Florida, and Lohse is still out there.

It’s not hard to see why, of course. Teams have wisely begun to look beyond misleading win-loss records to dig a little deeper, and what you have in Lohse is someone on the wrong side of 30 with a long history of inconsistency who doesn’t miss bats and missed time in both 2009 and 2010 because of arm injuries.

Thirty wins over two years may seem elite, but a 3.58 FIP and a 5.72 K/9 — the latter among the 10 lowest figures of all qualified starters over the past two seasons — indicate someone who is much more of a mid-rotation starter. Throw in the presence of Scott Boras and the anchor of draft pick compensation due to the qualifying offer St. Louis extended, and you can see why Lohse’s stock isn’t as high as he might have thought back in the fall.

Lohse may not be among the elite group of pitchers in baseball, but a veteran mid-rotation guy still brings considerable value. He has seemingly become so overrated that he might actually now be underrated, because he’s still a good, solid picher, and his market may have fallen to where he might be a steal at this point. While he won’t miss bats, he has made himself into a control artist, walking only 1.62 batters per nine innings last season — better than all but four other starters — and finishing in the top 25 in home run rate (0.81 per nine). On the right terms, he would be an improvement for nearly every team in baseball.

Why Washington?

The Nationals make the most sense because two of the issues that may scare off other clubs — Boras and the draft pick — simply don’t apply here. Rizzo famously has a good relationship with the super-agent, counting Boras clients Harper, Soriano, Werth, Strasburg and Danny Espinosa among the current Nationals already. Boras also represents Edwin Jackson, who waited until February to sign with Washington last year before moving on to the Cubs this winter. The Nationals already forfeited their first-round draft pick to sign Soriano, so picking up Lohse would cost them only their next pick, which would be in the high 60s in what is expected to be a shallow draft.

That’s important because Washington is in exactly the right position on the win curve to continue to try to improve. That is, it wouldn’t make sense for a team such as Houston to go after Lohse, because spending millions and a draft pick to simply improve from 60 wins to 63 wins ultimately makes little difference. For the Nationals, who do still have to fight off the reloaded Braves on their way to another division title, every win counts — far more than a late second-round pick would.

Given that Washington already has a solid rotation in Strasburg, Haren, Gio GonzalezJordan Zimmermannand Ross Detwiler, collecting Lohse may seem like an unnecessary addition that would merely lead to an embarrassment of riches. Perhaps so, but there’s ample reason for the Nationals to want to seal some of the cracks that are easily visible here.

Gonzalez may yet have to deal with the repercussions of his alleged involvement in the South Florida PED mess that has caught up Alex Rodriguez and others, while concerns over Haren’s back and hip were serious enough that he managed only a one-year deal, coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. If either one misses time, the team is without an obvious or appealing replacement because safety blanket John Lannan moved on this winter.

Adding Lohse probably would bump Detwiler out of the rotation, and that would not only improve the starters, it could solve one of the team’s more glaring holes — the lack of a real lefty option in the bullpen. Washington lost Sean Burnett to free agency and missed on available lefties such as J.P. Howell, which currently leaves them with only the mediocreZach Duke as a southpaw reliever.

Detwiler had a decent season in his first full year in the Washington rotation, contributing 164 1/3 innings of a 3.40 ERA, but advanced statistics are not a huge fan; he misses even fewer bats than Lohse does and brings neither elite velocity nor a great out pitch. Having him pitch in relief might allow his velocity to play up somewhat while also helping the club more than he would in the rotation, given that he has been very effective against lefty hitters over his career (.214/.307/.300 line against). He would not only be a better option than Duke, he would be available to return to the rotation should injuries require it.

The real question is whether the Nationals could find the money for Lohse, because they have spent so much elsewhere. That said, Lohse doesn’t look to be in much of a position to demand a massive deal at this point and Boras has shown a willingness to be creative with Washington, deferring a sizable portion of Soriano’s deal. Assuming Boras is never going to allow Lohse to sign for less than the $13.3 million qualifying offer he declined, a back-loaded two-year deal in the $28 million to $32 million range, perhaps with a third-year vesting option, seems appropriate for both sides.

From a baseball point of view, it almost seems like a no-brainer for everyone. Washington would improve its rotation depth and bullpen while fully gearing up for a World Series run; Lohse would get a chance to win another ring while remaining in the National League and playing in front of a good defense that should also score plenty of runs to support him.

There are other places that might make sense for Lohse — teams such as the Los Angeles Angels or Cleveland Indians, who both already have lost draft picks and could use another starter. After pricey offseasons for each, those clubs could be at their spending limits, and Lohse may not have interest in returning to the more difficult American League for the first time since 2006. Washington is the best fit if the money is there, and Boras and Rizzo always seem to find a way.

Steamer Fantasy Baseball Auction Values Now Up

I’m happy to announce the fantasy values have come to FanGraphs+! Based on Steamer projections, these values are for standard, OBP, and “only” leagues based on the following descriptors: 12 teams, 23 starting lineup slots, $260 budget. They will appear on the projections’ leaderboard for FanGraphs+ subscribers.

The methodology for these values has long floated around the site, but there are a few minor changes that have been made to better the accuracy and efficacy of these values.

The replacement levels have been altered to cover a full league’s worth of players. In the past, we had assumed that the last round of two contained replacement players, but discarding this assumption leads to fuller, more accurate auction values. Now, the top 276 players are worth a combined $3120, which is the full budgeted amount for a 12-team auction draft.

In the past, we’d limited results to players that met a certain at-bat or innings threshold. This is no longer the case. However, there is still need for a baseline uninfluenced by low counting stats, the league averages and standard deviations were calculated using the players with at least 350 ABs or 40 IP.


Detroit Testing The Closer Mystique

The Detroit Tigers are a very good baseball team, and they play in the American League Central, a division that Jayson Stark just graded out as baseball’s worst. While the Royals are attempting to make a run this season, the Tigers have fewer real challengers than any other playoff contender in the sport. And perhaps that cushion is why the Tigers are apparently willing to go into the 2012 season without anything resembling a Major League closer.

The frontrunner for the job is 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski made it clear earlier this week that the job was not going to be handed to Rondon, but was quoted as saying they “hope he wins the job in spring training”, following that up with “in my opinion, he’ll handle it fine.” That’s quite the vote of confidence for a kid who has never thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues.

In some ways, this experiment is a very new-school approach to the closer’s role. The statistical community has long advocated for lower cost bullpen construction, eschewing the notion of a “proven closer” and simply giving the ninth inning job to a quality reliever without the reputation to demand a big salary. For years, Billy Beane has used pump-and-dump closers as a way to create valuable trade chips and then ship them off for more valuable prospects, dating back to the days of Billy Taylor in the mid-1990s. While Dombrowski is not generally seen as an analytical GM, the idea of creating a closer rather than paying for one is a page right out of the Moneyball playbook.

However, the notion that statistical analysts believe that “anyone can close” is a bit of a myth. This is often the paraphrased argument for the idea of a ninth inning mentality, citing the analytical crowd’s lack of emphasis on things like personality and mindset. While we may not buy into the value of paying market prices for proven closers, it is very clear that not just anyone can successfully hold down a lead in the ninth inning role.

And no, this is not a concession that some pitchers simply aren’t mentally prepared for the pressure of being in the game for the final three outs. It’s the Major Leagues – every pitcher at this level was the local ace for most of their lives, and all of them have pitched critical innings in front of tens of thousands of people. The ones who really didn’t have the personality to handle pressure got weeded out a long time ago. Instead, the real separator for successful ninth inning relief work is a very tangible and measurable skill – the ability to get opposite handed hitters out.

This is the primary difference between a closer and his bullpen mates. A manager has the ability to mix and match setup men based on the handedness of the opposing hitters, and can pick his spots to maximize the amount of right-on-right or left-on-left match-ups in the middle innings. The closer, however, is at the mercy of the draw, and is tasked with facing whichever three batters are due up to begin the ninth inning, no matter what side of the plate they bat from.

This inflexibility means that closers simply face a much larger proportion of opposite handed batters than middle relievers do. Last year, Jose Valverde was the Tigers closer, and due to his ninth inning responsibilities, he only had the platoon advantage against 43% of the batters he faced. Meanwhile, Octavio Dotel (62%), Bryan Villareal (61%), and Phil Coke (53%) all got to face more same-handed hitters than opposite-handed hitters, which is the right role for each since they all struggle mightily against opposite handed hitters.

Unfortunately for Valverde, that kind of same-handed specialist role is the one he’s also best suited for, as he held right-handers to a .191/.270/.246 line last year, while lefties hit .250/.337/.417. Valverde’s 12.6% K% against left-handed batters last season is one of the primary reasons why the Tigers are replacing him as closer to begin with; he simply didn’t have the weapons necessary to get a string of left-handed hitters out on a consistent basis.

Unfortunately for Rondon, his minor league track record suggests that he might not be ready for the ninth inning job either. Over the past two minor league seasons, left-handed batters have posted a .406 on base percentage against Rondon, in large part thanks to a staggeringly high 21.3% BB%. Rondon has dominated right-handed batters, holding them to a dismal .120/.235/.131, but his inability to consistently throw strikes to left-handers should be a big red flag for the Tigers. In many ways, Rondon’s profile is similar to that of both Valverde’s and Villareal’s, and both have rightfully been deemed as unworthy of the closer’s role on a team hoping to contend for the World Series.

The best pitcher in the Tigers bullpen at retiring opposite handed hitters is Joaquin Benoit, but Jim Leyland has noted that he has problems working back-to-back days, so they don’t see him as a legitimate option for the full-time closer’s position. Meanwhile, Phil Coke has bigger problems with right-handed hitters than Valverde did with lefties, and he’s best used in a situational role where he can face as many left-handers as possible.

While the Tigers can hope for Rondon to overcome his problems against left-handers — and it’s certainly possible, given that he’s still just a kid — they don’t appear to have any solid internal candidates to fill the ninth inning role for the upcoming season. I’m not one who believes strongly in proven closers, but I do believe that it takes a minimum amount of skill to pitch in the ninth inning, and that skill is the ability to get opposite handed hitters out. Perhaps Rondon will eventually develop that skill, but he hasn’t yet shown it at in the minor leagues. Phil Coke does not possess that skill. While developing your own closer rather than paying free agent prices for one is a good idea, it’s also helpful to have legitimate closing options to pick from. Right now, Detroit’s bullpen looks like a bunch of guys better suited to the setup role.

Welcome to FanGraphs+


Thank you for your contribution to FanGraphs. You’ll see new content in this blog every week, but to make sure you don’t miss the articles prepared specifically for this product, here’s your table of contents for the ‘annual’ portion of FanGraphs+.


Impact Fantasy Rookies for 2013, by Marc Hulet
Basic Questions: Potentially Useful, If Marginal, Prospects, by Carson Cistulli
Should You Draft a Prospect In Your Re-Draft League? by Chris Cwik
Finding The Next Fernando Rodney, by Jack Moore
Is There An Adjustment Time for Players Changing Leagues? by Jeff Zimmerman
Snake Draft 401, by Michael Barr
Auction Strategy and Strategies, by Eno Sarris
Do Speedy Players Really Put Pressure on a Defense? by Dan Wade
Projecting X: How to Project Players, by Mike Podhorzer
Auction Values For All Three ottoneu Formats, by Chad Young

2013 Batter Profiles: A – C

Bobby Abreu

Debut: 1996 |  BirthDate: 3/11/1974 | Position: OF
’11 585 127 8 21 60 54 .253 .353 .365 .322
’12 257 53 3 6 24 29 .242 .350 .342 .310

Profile: Abreu, 39 this spring, remains useful because he still draws a ton of walks (14.4% in 2012), but otherwise his game has evaporated. His power is gone (.100 isolated slugging percentage), he’s stopped stealing bases (just six in 2012), and his average has sat in the .250-range the last three years. Abreu remains unsigned as of this writing and has worked out for a few teams at first base, but even gaining some extra position eligibility won’t increase his fantasy value. He’s an end-of-the roster guy who won’t kill you in on-base percentage leagues, nothing more. (Mike Axisa)

Quick Opinion: Abreu, soon to be 39, fits best as an end-of-the-roster guy in on-base percentage leagues. He doesn’t hit for power or many bases anymore, plus his average has been middling for years. There’s not much left in the tank for a former elite fantasy player.

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2013 Batter Profiles: D – G

Chase d’Arnaud

Debut: 2011 |  BirthDate: 1/21/1987 | Team: Pirates | Position: 2B/SS
’11 151 31 0 12 6 17 .217 .242 .287 .234
’12 6 0 0 1 1 2 .000 .000 .000 .000

Profile: Chase d’Arnaud has shown the Pirates his speed in the minors, but that’s about it. The Buccos have better young options at shortstop, so d’Arnaud isn’t exactly a lock to take playing time from Clint Barmes should Pittsburgh fall out of the playoff race early. His career trajectory likely labels him as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement from here on out, so he’ll have no real value to fantasy owners. Dare I say it, but d’Arnaud shouldn’t even be bought for a dollar in ottoneu leagues. (Zach Sanders)

Quick Opinion: Chase d’Arnaud has speed on the basepaths, but he can’t get on base nearly enough to stay in the lineup. He’s not even worth stashing for a dollar in ottoneu leagues.

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2013 Batter Profiles: H – L

Travis Hafner

Debut: 2002 |  BirthDate: 6/3/1977 | Team: Yankees | Position: DH
’11 368 91 13 0 57 41 .280 .361 .449 .354
’12 263 50 12 0 34 23 .228 .346 .438 .342

Profile: For the last few years, Hafner has had a guaranteed starting job — when healthy — by virtue of an eight-figure-per-year contract to be the Indians everyday designated hitter. With the end of that ill-fated deal, Hafner is looking for a new home, and the options may be limited. There are only 15 AL teams, and only so many of them are going to be interested in an injury-prone full-time DH on the wrong side of 30 with a heavy platoon split. Fantasy players will have the same issue — do you really have a roster spot for a Util-only player who you should only use against righties? Even if he ends up on the Yankees as is rumored as of the time of this writing? If so, Hafner will mash for you about half the time, but if your roster isn’t deep enough to platoon him (and weather his inevitable trips to the disabled list), don’t waste the spot. (Chad Young)

Quick Opinion: What fantasy team couldn’t benefit from a part-time, injury-prone utility-only player with a heavy platoon split? Oh…right…well, if you can afford the roster spot, Hafner will crush righties for you.

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