MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Relievers, Part 4

We’re back! Two more relief pitcher reviews to go.

Ramon Troncoso (D)
4.33 ERA, 4.67 FIP, 5.7 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, -0.2 WAR

It’s funny to think about it now, but Troncoso was the absolute savior of the bullpen back in April. With Hong-Chih Kuo on the DL, Ronald Belisario MIA, and George Sherrill falling apart, Troncoso quickly became Joe Torre’s go-to guy to get games to Jonathan Broxton.

Troncoso appeared in 15 of the team’s 22 April games, and was quite effective in holding opponents to a .208/.296/.292 line in the first month. As April bled into May and the appearances mounted, that led to a never-ending line of jokes and concerns that Torre would run him directly into the ground.

April 28 (doubleheader):

In each game, 4 relievers entered after the starting pitcher. In Game 1, following Hiroki Kuroda were Jon Link, Ramon Troncoso, George Sherrill, and Ramon Ortiz. After Charlie Haeger left in Game 2, you saw… Troncoso, Link, Sherrill, and Carlos Monasterios. I’ll forgive the usage of Link, who we all knew was getting sent back down to make room for John Ely today anyway, but Torre’s abuse of Troncoso is bordering on the ridiculous. He’s on pace to get into about 115 games this year, and Dylan Hernandez’ constant usage of the ‘paging Dr. El Attrache’ hashtag on Twitter has gone from “humorous” to “terrifying”.

May 11:

Jonathan Broxton began warming in the 8th inning, with the Dodgers up 4-2. Fine. Yet the Dodgers put up 3 in the top of the 9th after RBI hits by Loney, Blake, and DeWitt, so Broxton sat down. Also fine. Yet with a five-run lead, who comes in? Not George Sherrill, who’s been horrible. Not Carlos Monasterios, who for all his success is still a Rule 5 pick. No, Torre inserts Ramon Troncoso, now on pace for over 90 games this year. I can’t even begin to explain how boned this team is if Troncoso, the most vital non-Broxton reliever, breaks down, so you’d think you’d want to save him for important situations. But wait! This gets better. Troncoso walked Chris Young, and then gave up an RBI single to Rusty Ryal… which gets Torre to warm Broxton up again.

Troncoso, of course, got the final three outs in the next two batters thanks to a strikeout and a game-ending double play. So Torre managed to work out both of his best relievers… in a five-run game. All this, while guys who practically have middle names of “put me in only in five-run games” sat and watched.

May 20:

And then on top of it all, with Jeff Weaver warming and Carlos Monasterios wondering what he’s done to offend Joe Torre to make sure he hasn’t pitched in a week, who comes in? That’s right, Ramon Troncoso, who’s still on pace for 90+ games. The silver lining in Troncoso getting hit hard was that Ortiz got charged with the men he’d left on, but this was Troncoso’s third night in a row, and fourth in five nights. Am I really going to kill him for letting Adrian Gonzalez take him deep? Of course not. I’ll never understand Torre’s bullpen usage, ever.

May 25:

Hey, Joe. Why are you bringing Ramon Troncoso in A) when the team is losing, B) in a tight game when he’s coming off three homers in his last two outings, and C) when he’s on pace for approximately 180 games this season? Sure, Troncoso is claiming that he’s found “a flaw in his delivery”, but is absolutely anyone going to be surprised when he ends up on the disabled list by the end of the week? Anyone?

Troncoso didn’t end up on the DL, but he may as well have. After his nice April, he allowed an OPS of .899 in May and .830 in June. He was so bad that he ended up getting sent down to AAA in early July, and he bounced back and forth several times before returning for good when rosters expanded in September – and he wasn’t much better in ABQ either, with a 5.73 ERA and a 1.545 WHIP.

That said, it’s easy to blame Joe Torre for this. (Fun, too.) But there’s more to it than just Torre’s overuse. I’m actually going to toot my own horn a bit and say that I was worried about Troncoso as far back as last November, in the Maple Street Press Dodgers Annual:

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?

I went on to explain that it was in large part because Troncoso had been extremely lucky with his flyball rates in 2009, and those peripherals didn’t really support an ERA like that. So when the inevitable regression occurred, I wasn’t all that surprised and took a deeper look into why. It’s kind of a long read, so I won’t copy the entire thing here (though I encourage you to read it), and instead I’ll just show conclusions without the accompanying explanations:

1) His 2.72 ERA in 2009 was wildly misleading.

2) He’s actually been regressing each year, not just this year.

3) His home run luck from last year is evening out.

4) His hot start to 2010 was just a decent start magnified by the disaster around him.

5) A regression in 2010 wasn’t hard to see coming.

6) You can’t completely absolve Joe Torre.

Believe it or not, Troncoso’s 2010 WHIP was lower than his 2009, which should be reason 1,023,876 why ERA for relievers is unreliable. Troncoso is in no way guaranteed a job in 2011, but his history as a Dodger ought to at least get him a long look in spring training next year. 

George Sherrill (F)
6.69 ERA, 5.20 FIP, 6.2 K/9, 5.9 BB/9, -1.0 WAR

I think a lot of people are expecting me to rationalize Sherrill’s terrible year, and claim that it wasn’t that bad at all. I’m not, and it was. It’s just important to realize that there’s a bit more to it than just “holy crap, this guy suddenly became awful.”

Before we even get into how his 2010 unfolded, do remember that expectations for Sherrill were unfairly inflated headed into the season. His shiny 0.65 ERA as a Dodger in 2009 had people thinking he was a stud, and while he was very good, he actually struck out fewer and walked more in LA than he’d done with Baltimore in the tough AL East. (Just another example of why ERA, particularly for relievers, isn’t the best tool to judge a pitcher, friends. Did we really expect that 621 OPS+ from last year was going to stick?) 

So I certainly expected some regression. But this? No, not even I saw this coming. We first started hearing about trouble with Sherrill in the first days of spring training, as he’d reported with sore knees and then took a line drive off his right ankle, though it was reportedly not serious. Sherrill made it through the spring, and made his season debut in the 8th inning of Opening Day in Pittsburgh. How’d that go?

Even more concerning than that mess was the self-immolation of George Sherrill, who was so brilliant for the Dodgers last season. After an entire spring of hearing him claim that his mechanical issues were “no big deal” and that he’d be fine when the season started, he came in and after getting two quick outs, allowed a walk, a double, and a three-run homer to Ryan Doumit. With Hong-Chih Kuo on the DL and Scott Elbert trying to be a starter in ABQ, the Dodgers may be have a serious lefty problem in the pen if Sherrill can’t get straightened out, and quick.

But it didn’t get better. He allowed runs in three of his first five games, including blowing his first save opportunity on April 10 in Florida, and didn’t manage to get through an outing without issuing a walk until his sixth time out. He perked up a bit at the end of April, going eight straight games without allowing a run, but it was still troubling that he’d managed to strike out just two in that time. By the end of the month, he’d walked ten and struck out only five.

May started with back-to-back disasters, and ended when he was placed on the DL with “mid-back tightness”, as the club needed a roster spot for the returning Rafael Furcal. He missed barely the minimum, and returned to allow a run against the Angels on June 11. Few remember it now, since it was Jonathan Broxton who blew up in the 9th and Ramon Troncoso who got the loss in the books, but it was actually Sherrill who gave up the two-run homer to Robinson Cano in the tied 10th inning of the infamous June 27th disaster against the Yankees on Sunday Night Baseball.

Two days later, on June 29, I looked into what had happened to Sherrill, and started off with a shocking realization:

in looking at Sherrill’s game log, one thing jumped out at me so clearly that I can’t possibly bury it any further: George Sherrill hasn’t had a strikeout since May 17. That’s more than six weeks ago, ever since he struck out Houston’s Michael Bourn (who struck out 140 times last year) in the 8th inning of a 6-2 Dodger win in Los Angeles. By (a completely unfair) comparison, Clayton Kershaw has 56 strikeouts since Sherrill’s seen his last one. He’s clearly fooling no one. How can you succeed like that?

Obviously, you can’t. Here’s why:

It’s not that hard to see what’s causing this, either. He’s not throwing as hard (88.3 MPH average on his fastball, lowest of his career). He’s not getting anyone to chase junk out of the zone (swings on just 21.1% of his pitches outside the strike zone, tied for his lowest ever). He’s not avoiding bats on any pitches (85.1% of his pitches are met with contact, and he’s getting just 5.5% swinging strikes, each worst of his career).

So is he hurt? He claims no, despite missing time this season with a bad back. There’s been questions all year about his mechanics, theories that his offseason was too short, and stories about being “cured” by watching Billy Wagner on TV. Obviously, none of it has worked. Maybe it’s all of the above. Or none.

Sherrill then went out and gave up runs in two of his next three outings, and the other shoe dropped over the All-Star Break, as he was put on waivers. That fooled a lot of people into thinking that he was off the roster immediately – since he clearly wasn’t claimed, he never left the team – but the timing made the team’s distaste clear.

His nightmare season continued when he allowed runs in his first two post-break outings, got stuck with the loss when he wasn’t warmed in the bizarre “Mattingly’s two mound visits” game, and finished out July with another blown save in San Diego. Well, okay, that one wasn’t totally his fault, and I apologize for the length on this, but it’s awesome:

First of all, please be sure to note that the two hits Sherrill allowed came on two ground ball singles which found their way through the infield. A few feet in either direction and the plays get made, and no one talks about George Sherrill at all. It’s not like he gave up two liners, hit a guy, and allowed a grand slam, despite what you may read elsewhere.

Here’s the part that makes even less sense: George Sherrill has been atrocious all year. You don’t bring him into the 9th inning of a tie game, but you especially don’t bring him in to face a right handed hitter. I’ve said this so many times in recent weeks that I won’t even bother linking to it, but if there’s one way that Sherrill can help the team, it’s in that he can still be effective against lefties. Cover your eyes before I post these splits:

Sherrill vs RHB, 2010: .436/.515/.745
Sherrill vs LHB, 2010: .190/.314/.333

Yet the first batter in the 9th inning was Scott Hairston, a righty. He got a base hit. Lefty Tony Gwynn Jr. sacrificed him to second, and the Padres – who clearly had read the scouting reports – pinch-hit for Everth Cabrera with righty Oscar Salazar.

Before we go further, I just want to drive this point home:

1) The winning run is on second.
2) George Sherrill cannot get righties out.
3) George Sherrill has already allowed a hit to a righty.
4) A righty is at the plate.

At this point, you’d think – you’d pray – that Torre would have put down his Bigelow green tea and decided to do something to, you know, manage the team to a victory. Like bring in Jonathan Broxton, say.

But no. Sherrill remained in the game. Salazar bounced a grounder up the middle. And the Dodgers are further out of 1st place than they’ve been all season. And you wonder why I don’t want to see them trade for a starter. What we really need to see are losing teams who put their managers on the trade block, because that’s where the Dodgers really need an upgrade.

Sherrill didn’t really perk up much over the remainder of the season (though he did amusingly draw a walk in his first big-league at-bat), but he wasn’t completely useless, as the quote above alludes to. Even in this completely nightmarish season, Sherrill was still pretty effective against lefties, ending the year at .192/.286/.288 against them, which puts his OPS against LHP at almost exactly what Pedro Feliciano of the Mets – well-regarded as a lefty-killer – had. It doesn’t make his unholy lack of success against righties okay, of course, but it’s something.

The Dodgers were almost certainly not going to pick up Sherrill’s 2011 $6.5m option, an absurd amount for a non-elite reliever, even if he’d had a good season. Now? He’s the most obvious non-tender in baseball, and may be looking at minor-league deals at best for next year. 

Travis Schlichting (C+)
3.57 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 5.6 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 0.2 WAR

Mr. Schlichting managed to run his season in reverse. That is, he was more successful in the majors (1.324 WHIP, 7.9 H/9) than in the minors (1.437 WHIP, 10.5 H/9), despite going back and forth four times.

Schlichting’s season debut was also the highlight of his year, since he pitched four scoreless innings to pick up his first career win in a 1-0, 14-inning affair against Arizona in June. I joked at the time that he probably punched his own ticket back to AAA with the effort, and that’s exactly what happened. He came back up for a quick stint later in June before being sent down again, and by the time he’d pitched 2.1 scoreless innings in Arizona on July 3, he’d run his scoreless inning streak to 10 to start the season.

I, of course, jinxed the hell out of that, and his season went pretty downhill from there. In 12.2 IP over his final 10 games, Schlichting allowed 9 ER while walking more than he struck out. I bet you’ll never figure out how that happened!

Man, I never get tired of hearing that players have hidden injuries, only to see said injury get worse. And by “never get tired”, I of course mean, “hiding an injury just never ends well”. In this case, it’s Travis Schlichting

“I was just trying to fight through it, because my mechanics were bad at the beginning of the year, and I think that’s when it started. I was just forcing it, and it kind of never went away. It wasn’t affecting me in games, so I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.”

Conte was unsurprised to hear the pitcher had a problem that he hadn’t talked about.

“That’s sort of part of the game,” he said. “Our job, of course, is not to let it get that far, so we always appreciate it when a player tells us when he has something going on. But we understand when players don’t.”

Figures. Assuming he’s healthy, Schlichting figures to be in the mix for one of the last bullpen spots with guys like Troncoso and Jon Link. Now will someone please fix his Wikipedia picture already?

******

Next! Ronald Belisario‘s mysterious season! Russ Ortiz‘ predictable disaster! And Octavio Dotel‘s unfortunate legacy! It’s relievers, part 5!

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