Ramon Troncoso’s Got More Problems Than Just Joe Torre

Any casual fan can see that Ramon Troncoso‘s been a disaster lately, and it’s pretty easy to toss the blame on Joe Torre, who ran him into the ground early in the season thanks in part to the unreliability of the other relievers, and in part because he’s Joe Torre.

But blaming this on Torre is the easy way out, and instead I’m going to make what’s probably an unpopular statement here: Ramon Troncoso was never as good as the public perception of him would make it seem.

A cursory glance at the bottom line would make that seem crazy. “But MSTI,” you complain. “His ERA was a sparkling 2.72 in 2009. This year, it’s up to 5.54! He’s clearly not the same pitcher!” But the thing is, while he’s certainly regressed some since last season, the fall isn’t as large as the ERA would make it seem.

Consider these factors:

1) His 2.72 ERA in 2009 was wildly misleading. It’s not a secret that ERA isn’t always the best indicator of pitching performance, ignorant as it is of defense and ballpark factors, among others. It’s even more unreliable for relievers, since you have to deal with the issues of small sample sizes and inherited runners. There’s a few stats which try to deal with this, but let’s check out xFIP (definition here; basically it says what a pitcher’s ERA “should” be once those other factors are all accounted for). Using xFIP, that fancy 2.72 ERA last season really should have been 4.22. That doesn’t seem quite as nice, does it?

2) He’s actually been regressing each year, not just this year. Check it out, from 2008-10:

xFIP: 2.96, 4.22, 4.90

K/9: 9.00, 5.90, 5.19

BB/9: 2.84, 3.70, 3.46 (okay, this one’s not as bad)

Plus, for someone who’s never had real strikeout stuff and relies on generating grounders…

GB%: 60.8%, 55.1%, 49.4%

FB%: 17.6%, 26.2%, 35.3%

That’s an enormously troubling trend, and the reason that we didn’t see these issues popping up so much last season was mostly because…

3) His home run luck from last year is evening out. Troncoso allowed just 3 homers in 82.2 innings last year, which is outstanding, but somewhat unsustainable. His 0.33 HR/9 rate was far below the major league average of 1.05, and he’s paying for it this year, allowing taters at a 1.73/9 rate.

4) His hot start to 2010 was just a decent start magnified by the disaster around him. At the end of April, Troncoso had allowed 5 earned runs in 13 innings, and struck out 7, about one every other inning. That’s nice enough, but nothing truly outstanding. Yet when you remember that the Dodger bullpen in April was missing Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo, featured not one but two Ortizes plus the self-destructing George Sherrill, all following a pre-Ely, Haeger-fueled struggling rotation, that kind of performance looks like Dennis Eckersley, circa 1990.

5) A regression in 2010 wasn’t hard to see coming. While it may seem that 2010 is a suddenly epic disaster, it’s not as huge of a surprise as it may seem. In fact, last November when I sat down to write Troncoso’s player capsule in the Maple Street Press Dodgers Annual, I may have used DERA rather than xFIP, but I basically said that this could very well happen:

Explain this: Ramon Troncoso’s strikeout rate per nine innings dropped from 9.0 in 2008 to just 6.0 in 2009, and he combined that with a rising walk rate – up from 2.8 to 3.7. Even his reputation for being a groundball machine suffered, with his GB/FB rate dropping from 3.44 to 2.10. One might say that’s a recipe for utter disaster, yet Troncoso’s ERA dropped nearly a run and a half from 4.26 to 2.72. How was that possible? Troncoso may not have done a great job of keeping runners off the bases, allowing his WHIP to rise by ten percent, but he did do a better job of not allowing them to score. He improved his strand rate from 67.1% to 77.7%, and almost as important did a great job of keeping the ball in the park, despite the higher flyball rate. Troncoso pitched 42.2 more innings in 2009 than 2008, yet allowed just one more home run. In addition, he also owes a large debt to the Dodger fielders behind him; unlike bullpen colleague Jonathan Broxton, whose DERA (Defense Independent ERA) was more than half a run lower than his actual mark, Troncoso’s DERA of 3.46 is more in line with his other numbers than his 2.72 ERA would have you believe. That’s not to say that Troncoso wasn’t a valuable pitcher in 2009, just to not be surprised by a regression to the mean in 2010.

I’m surprised that the home run rate has jumped as high as it has, but more or less this is exactly what we’ve seen. Now, you may be asking “why has the home run rate jumped that much?”, and while there could be a few reasons, it’s hard to ignore the fact that…

6) You can’t completely absolve Joe Torre. Troncoso’s average fastball velocity has dropped from 92.8 MPH to 92.5 to 90.7 in his three seasons under Torre, and if the overuse hasn’t led to a full-fledged blowout, it seems clear the wear-and-tear has had some effect.

******

So what’s next? Hopefully the homer luck gets back to normal sooner rather than later, which ought to help, or that there is some sort of injury found which would explain the drop in velocity and groundball rates. But until either of those things happen, you’re looking at an overworked arm with declining velocity who’s allowing more flyballs than he ever has, without the stuff to get hitters to swing and miss at them. And that may just be the pitcher that Ramon Troncoso is now, because as much as we all respect him for going out there every day his name was called, he was probably never the top-flight relief arm many of us thought he might be.

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