MSTI’s 2009 in Review: Relievers, Part 1

We’ve got 14 pitchers who fit in the ‘relievers’ group, so we’re splitting them up into three groups. Today, you get the best of the best, and then the next two rounds, you get to wonder why I devoted entire posts to talking about Brent Leach and Travis Schlichting. Hooray!

85toppsjonathanbroxtonJonathan Broxton (A-)
(7-2, 2.61, 0.961 WHIP, 36 sv)

Rather than focus on how Broxton’s season ended, let’s not forget how it started. Remember, many people (not me, though!) had doubts about how Broxton would do in his first season as a full-time closer, based partly on the ridiculous notion that the fact that he’d blown 8 saves in just 22 chances in 2008 mattered. If it’s not obvious why that’s irrelevant, it should be: as Takashi Saito’s setup man for much of the year, Broxton rarely had the opportunity to get a save; he could either get a hold or blow it. The Dodgers actually tried to hedge their bets on this by offering Trevor Hoffmann a contract to come in and be the closer.

Of course, Broxton was more than just fine as closer; he quickly jumped into the ranks of the elite. No qualifying pitcher in baseball struck out more batters per nine than his 13.5, and no National League reliever topped his 5.032 WXRL(Huston Street, his closest competitor, was nearly 20% behind at just 4.112). He was, by one measure, the toughest pitcher in the entire NL to hit – no other qualifying pitcher topped his .479 OPS against. The scary part is that his numbers could have been even better, because there’s evidence that the defense behind him let him down. His 2.61 ERA is fine enough, but his defense-independent ERA (i.e., what his ERA should have been based on his peripherals) was just 2.08.

Not to completely overwhelm with the stats, but here’s one more that’s just too absurd to ignore: hitters trying to attack Broxton at Dodger Stadium in 2009 had absolutely no chance. Their line against him in LA this year was a horrific .095/.146/.101. That’s, uh… pretty good.

We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, of course – another playoff failure against the Phillies. He had a job to do in that crucial Game 4 of the NLCS, and he failed. No question about it. Still, the reactions to that inning were completely out of control, ranging from “he’s scared of Matt Stairs” to “he doesn’t know how to win”, which are all of course ludicrous. You’re talking about the best closer in the NL (and top-5 in MLB) who breezed through 90% of the playoffs (1 ER and 0 BB allowed in his first 5 outings), with a great playoff history (.591 OPS allowed and a 12/4 K/BB ratio in 11 postseason games the last two seasons) who gave up a poorly-timed walk, hit a batter, and finally allowed a single to a former NL MVP. That sucked, no doubt, but that’s enough to want to get people to give up on guy who’s as good as Broxton? It’s pure insanity. No closer is perfect – none of them – and you hope to get a guy who’s as close to it as you can. Broxton’s one of the best in the business, and I guarantee you that anyone you think about replacing him with would not be as good. It’s a fact.

So yes, Broxton gets his A- because he deserves it. The blown NLCS game is a blemish on an otherwise fantastic season, but one lousy inning does not undo six months of excellence.

85toppsramontroncosoRamon Troncoso (B)
(5-4, 2.72, 1.415 WHIP)

Hmm, what was my expectation of Ramon Troncoso going into the season? Well, when I predicted the Opening Day roster on April 1, I let Troncoso sneak in as the last man, saying…

#25. The 12th pitcher, AKA, “why are we taking 12 pitchers?” You know, I’m looking at this list of names, and not one of them seem more enticing to me than including Xavier Paul in the outfield for an extra kick of defense. But, since we all know that’s not happening, who are the options here? Estes and Milton? Hell, no. Josh Lindblom’s been great, but all reports have him starting back in the minors. Dodgers.com seems to think that Tanyon Sturtze and Ronald Belisario still have a prayer, but A) no. B) it’d require another 40-man spot and C) NO. So let’s not overthink things. We have a guy on the 40-man roster, who was decent in MLB last year, had a good winter, and an okay spring. Ramon Troncoso, you can come on back to LA – but make sure you don’t sign a long-term lease.

Woof. My predictions on Troncoso and Belisario? Not so great. Still, there’s a reason why everyone knows that bullpen performances are incredibly volatile from year to year. So be prepared for them to suck next year! Troncoso became a valuable member of the ‘pen, of course, getting into 73 games with a 2.72 ERA, finishing 8th in the NL in WXRL. All good, right? Great year. So let’s move on to the next guy…

…except that’s not all there is to the Troncoso story this year. He’s actually a great example of why ERA isn’t a great indicator for a pitcher (especially relievers), because his peripherals just do not support his tidy ERA. Troncoso got into 32 games as a rookie in 2008, but was basically an afterthought with a 4.26 ERA. Still, in many ways it was a better season than in 2009, because his K rate dropped (9.0 to 6.0), his BB rate rose (2.8 to 3.7), his hit rate rose (8.8 to 9.0), and of course his WHIP rose (1.289 to 1.415). In addition, his vaunted reputation as an extreme groundballer took a hit, with his GB/FB rate dropping from 3.44 to 2.10.

Striking out fewer, giving up more flyballs, and allowing more men to reach via walk and hit sounds like a sure recipe for epic disaster, yet Troncoso’s ERA dropped by about a run and a half. How’d that happen? Well, though he did a much worse job of keeping men off the bases, Troncoso did do a very good job at two other important aspects. First, he stayed away from the home run ball, despite allowing more flyballs. After allowing 2 homers in 38 IP last year, he allowed only 3 in 82.2 IP in 2009 – a huge improvement.

Second, he improved his below-average strand rate (67.1% in 2008) to become above-average in 2009 (77.7%, with the league average being about 71%). While Troncoso didn’t do a great job at actually setting down batters (a 1.415 WHIP isn’t much to write home about), he did keep the ball in the yard and keep inherited runners from scoring, leading to his nice ERA. Well, his nice ERA through July, because he fell off a cliff in the second half. On July 20, he pitched a scoreless inning against the Reds, giving him a 1.67 ERA through his 44th game. After that? 29 games worth of ineptitude, highlighted by a 5.40 ERA and a horrible line of .330/.416/.433.

So while Troncoso’s 2009 may not have been all it was cracked up to be, it was still much more than we’d expected from him. That said, he has much to prove in 2010 due to his rising peripherals and lousy second half.

85toppsronaldbelisarioRonald Belisario (A+++)
(4-3, 2.04, 1.146 WHIP)

Hi! I’m Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness, host of “Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness“. If you don’t know, that makes me a Dodger blogger and all around huge baseball dork. So when the Dodgers sign a player with a chance of making the big league squad, I usually know at least a little about them off the top of my head. At the very least, I’ve heard of them before.

And then there’s Ronald Belisario, who was such a no-name that when he made the Opening Day roster, I responded with a post entitled “Who Exactly is Ronald Belisario” – because I had no idea who he was. Of course, once I did a little research, this whole endeavor didn’t look promising:

Upon noting the signing, Pirates blog Bucs Dugout stated:

Ronald Belisario, the pitcher formerly known as “No, nobody knows why he’s on the Pirates’ 40-man,” has signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers, Baseball America reports.

And… we’re off to a good start here. If even Pirates fans don’t think this guy is worthy of a 40-man roster spot, I’m not going into this with high hopes.

For the record, in the comments of that same post, I was hardly the only Dodger blogger who had no idea who this guy was:

I had to make a list of 50 Dodger prospects, and I had no idea who he is either. :o  Comment by kensai — April 4, 2009

That being the case, you’d have to have considered any outcome in which he kept his ERA under 10 and stayed on the big league roster all season a huge success, and that’s why he gets so many pluses after that A. Despite missing nearly a month with elbow stiffness, Belisario became a vital piece of the Dodger bullpen, relying almost entirely on his fastball. That’s no exaggeration; averaging 94.8 MPH on the heater, he threw it 85.3% of the time.

If you subscribe to the theory that his one awful outing of the year (3 ER in 0.1 IP) was caused by his arm soreness, coming as it did two days before hitting the DL, his line could have been even better. Ignoring that one game, his ERA would have been a sparkling 1.67.

Look, there’s a few minor negatives I could bring up about Belisario’s season, a few imperfections which, if rectified, could make him a star. But why bother? This was a guy no one ever heard of who was cut loose by the Pirates in Double-A, who became a huge part of a playoff bullpen. What more is there to say? 

85toppsgeorgesherrillGeorge Sherrill (A-)
(1-0, 0.65, 1.084 WHIP)

Just like we did with Jon Garland, it’s important to just look at George Sherrill’s contribution rather than the price paid when assessing his season. Giving up Josh Bell was a steep price for Sherrill, especially since Bell got even better after joining Baltimore and might be their 3B for years to come. But that’s not Sherrill’s fault – he had nothing to do with that.

No, all that’s important for George Sherrill is how he did in a Dodger uniform, and it’s hard to argue with that. You can’t ask for much better than allowing just two earned runs in 30 innings, especially when one was a solo homer to a supremely talented young player (Justin Upton), and one was not even really his fault, as I recapped after a Nationals game in September:

ERA can be as stupid as wins sometimes!

One earned run here or there doesn’t usually make for a big deal, but when you’re George Sherrill and you enter the game with a 0.40 ERA, it sure does. Sherrill’s ERA nearly doubled to 0.77 because of some awful Dodger defense – none of which went down as errors, so the run was earned.

With the scored tied in the 8th, Sherrill entered and gave up one hit, one easy flyout to left-center that Matt Kemp and Manny Ramirez let drop in between them, and then, with one out, a perfect double play ball up the middle… that Orlando Hudson threw wide of first, allowing the run to score.

In the books, that’s one run on two hits and a fielder’s choice. Funny how that doesn’t reflect two lousy defensive plays that victimized Sherrill.

Clearly, Sherrill was all but perfect in the regular season. Interestingly enough, though, the way he went about it was a complete turnaround from the way he’d pitched in Baltimore and Seattle. You hear plenty about how guys come from the AL to the NL and dominate, and Sherrill’s pretty ERA sure fits that narrative. Once Sherrill left the AL East for the NL West, his K rate actually dropped while his walk rate rose. He compensated for this by nearly doubling his GB/FB rate, changing from being a flyball pitcher, (0.65 GB/FB rate as an Oriole in 2009) to a more groundball-oriented pitcher (1.23 GB/FB rate as a Dodger). This also helped cut his home run rate by more than half, from 0.7 to 0.3.

Of course, it’s the second home run he did allow as a Dodger that will remain in the minds of Dodger fans. Thanks in large part to Joe Torre leaving Clayton Kershaw out to dry in Game 1 of the NLCS, the Dodgers were already losing when Sherrill came in for the 8th inning, so his failure didn’t get as much play as Jonathan Broxton’s Game 4 disaster. Still, the Dodgers had been mounting a comeback to cut a 5-1 deficit to 5-4, until Sherrill allowed two walks and a three-run homer to put the game all but out of reach. Like Broxton, it was a failure at the worst possible time. Also like Broxton, it shouldn’t override the fact that the rest of his Dodger tenure was outstanding.

Sherrill made $2.75m in 2009, and is arbitration-eligible. He’s likely to get a nice raise to between $4-$5m, and despite how you feel about him after the NLCS, would make a crushing 1-2 combination with Broxton next season. That said, $5m is a lot for a setup man, and the Dodgers may not be able to afford it. I, for one, hope he returns.

Next! Hong-Chih Kuo’s magic arm! Guillermo Mota’s bipolar season! Jeff Weaver’s return from the dead! And whichever other relievers I throw into part 2! It’s Relievers, Part 2!