Sunday, January 30, 2011

Bullpen Thoughts

In honour of the Blue Jays signing Frank Francisco and Jason Frasor yesterday, I thought it would be worth taking a look at exactly what the re-vamped bullpen means for the 2011 Jays.

Last season, the Blue Jays ranked 20th in terms of WAR from relivers (Via Fangraphs) with 2.2 WAR. for perspective, no playoff team in either league finished the regular season with lower than 2.7 WAR (Phillies). For further reference, here are the RP WARs from all playoff teams: Twins (3.0), Yankees (3.6), Reds (3.7), Rays (4.0), Rangers (4.5), Giants (6.2) and the Braves (6.7).

Clearly, the Jays required a significant upgrade to compete with these clubs. The Bullpen WAR leaders were the Padres, who amassed a whopping 7.8 WAR from their relievers. That's 5.6 Wins more over the course of a season. If the Jays added 5 wins to their 2010 total, they would have sat at 89 wins, and would have been knocking on the door for the playoffs right up to the final weeks.

Here's where it gets even more complicated: Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg accounted for exactly 2.0 WAR, and both of those pitchers are now with other clubs. Clearly, the Jays needed to add quality and quantity in order to be more competitive. (Aside from their desire to protect their young pitchers, a side benefit that can not be discounted.)

Keeping in mind that WAR overvalues saves for relievers, let's look at what can be expected of the 2011 Jays Relievers:

First, the returnees:

Jason Frasor: Had his best season in terms of WAR in 2009 (when he had 11 saves) and posted a 1.4, his final 2010 number was 0.9, which is in-line with his career average of 0.8 WAR/season. The 0.8 is dragged down by some injury seasons, so expecting at least 1 WAR from Frasor is not at all unreasonable.

Shawn Camp: A man who is loved by fans and broadcasters, yet his SABR numbers are terrible. After what many considered a good season, he only managed to add 0.3 WAR. His FIP was 4.16, and he pitched 72.1 innings. In '08 and '09 he added 0.7 WAR per season, so it's not unreasonable to expect similar numbers going forward.

David Purcey: Only logged 34 innings last season, so unsurprisingly he only amassed 0.2 WAR. His numbers are additionally repressed by his high walk totals. Hard to know what to expect, but pro-rated over a fuller workload (almost double?) he could be up to 0.5

New additions:

Octavio Dotel: Dotel only managed to accumulate 0.1 WAR in 2010, but his 0.8 in Chicago in 2009 was respectable for a set-up man. Dotel hasn't been the same pitcher he was prior to 2004, when he regularly posted WARs above 1.5. If he is limited to use as a ROOGY, he should post somewhere between 0.5 and 0.8 WAR.

Jon Rauch: Rauch was actually quite impressive for the 2010 Twins. He accumulated 1.1 WAR, and an FIP of 2.94. He spent most of the year closing games due to the Joe Nathan injury, and then was a set-up man for Matt Capps. Rauch has consistently been a 0.7-1.0 WAR contributor, and will again provide good value at the back of the Bullpen.

Carlos Villanueva: He has options, and I could see him spending some time on a plane, along with Casey Janssen. He could also be a useful swingman if he makes the team. Never posted higher than 0.4 WAR as a reliever. I'm less excited about him now than when the trade was made. Still, a good depth guy.

Frank Francisco: Likely the favourite to emerge as closer. 1.5, 1.1 and 1.0 are his last three season's WAR totals. If he can stay healthy (a not insignificant IF) and remain at closer, he should easily post similar, if not better numbers.

Those are the 7 players I expect to break camp in the 'pen. They should be worth 4.5-5.5 WAR over a season, assuming health. If Purcey and/or Villanueva can take a step forward, this group would be fearsome. Even assuming that some players don't match career norms, this is a group that will still be useful, deep and a good fall-back for a young and inexperienced starting group.

Further to that, I believe that relief pitching was 2010's market inefficiency, and some of the saavyer GMs are moving quickly to correct their prior stance. The Padres used their 'pen to almost get into the post-season, despite pre-season projections having them in the basement of the entire NL. Aside from the Padres, Boston, Florida, Arizona and LAA have all made moves to shore up their relief corps.

Clearly Anthopoulos realized both a team weakness, and a market inefficiency. I look forward to the improved depth in the 'Pen. In fact, after this exercise, I have a newfound respect for the effects that a bullpen can have on a team. I used to be of the belief that the only important pitchers were the 5 starters and the closer. As it turns out, it takes a lot more than that to make any kind of run at the playoffs.

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