MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Relievers, Part 1

Today we move on to relievers, and like the rotation, these are not necessarily ordered by importance, lest I end up with a day that is only about Lance Cormier and Mike MacDougal. Today, we start with an unexpected closer, a resurgent lefty, and a crazy old man.

Javy Guerra (A+)
2.31 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9

To say that Javy Guerra was an afterthought headed into the season is actually somewhat of an insult to afterthoughts. The only real mention Guerra got around here before the year started was when I looked at the 40-man roster crunch the Dodgers might be looking at, since they were breaking camp with so many non-roster invites, and figured that he along with John Lindsey might actually be a prime candidate for being DFA’d:

Lindsey’s the obvious choice, but if more than one spot is needed, you might also look at 25-year-old Javy Guerra, a veteran of seven minor league seasons with the Dodgers. His 2.33 ERA in 28 AA games last year may look shiny, but the 7.3 BB/9 (and 5.3 career) don’t really back it up, nor does the 1.603 career WHIP. He suffered shoulder soreness last year and then had to deal with an infection caused by a cut while washing dishes this winter. Guerra reportedly has a plus fastball, and I’m sure the Dodgers would prefer to hold onto him, but at 25, he’s no longer a kid, and his struggles at AA could make him vulnerable if a spot is needed.

That doesn’t look great for me in retrospect, though it’s hard to act as though anyone at all saw Guerra as much of an option this year. With the bullpen destroyed by injury, he got the call on May 15 as Blake Hawksworth hit the disabled list, and picked up his first big-league save just over a week later with Kenley Jansen unavailable and on his way to own disabled list trip.

Though it probably seems now that he came up and immediately took over the 9th inning, it didn’t really work out that way; he had one save in May and one in June, partially because the Dodger offense was at their low point at the time and rarely were there late leads to protect. He really took over the job in July, collecting six saves without blowing any (despite doing his best a few times), but as you can see from our midseason review, I wasn’t exactly sold on him yet:

Guerra, like MacDougal all those years ago, is a perfect example of why we shouldn’t overrate saves. For a guy who walked 6.8/9 in the minors last year and was forced to the bigs simply because of injuries, he’s been fine. He’s keeping the ball in the yard, he’s cut down on the control issues, and he’s even managed to steal a few saves while serving as the last-ditch closer. As far as debuts go, his has been a successful one. Let’s just not go overboard in anointing him as the man in the 9th inning, because he hasn’t been that good – 13 K in 19.1 IP doesn’t thrill me – and in each of his last two saves, he loaded the bases before getting out of the jam. That’s not the kind of tightrope you can walk for very long.

And had he kept up his rate of production at that point, I do believe it would have fallen apart for him. But Guerra found a way to improve. After striking out 6.1/9 before the break, he improved to 8.2/9 afterwards, lowering his OPS against from .704 to .533. In August, I had to acknowledge his success:

I also want to take the time to praise Javy Guerra, who struck out three in 1.1 scoreless innings to get his 10th save, coming in with two outs in the eighth after Mike MacDougal walked two and made a throwing error. I’ve been lukewarm on Guerra for some time, feeling that simply getting “saves” doesn’t make a pitcher any good, especially since his peripherals were iffy and his minor-league track record showed little indication of success. At the end of play of July 6, Guerra had struck out just 10 in 17.1 innings, while allowing 19 hits and five walks, good for a line of .284/.342/.343 against. In the month since, he’s appeared in 10 games with a 12/2 K/BB, allowing just five hits without an earned run. I’m still not sure that Guerra can keep this up over the long-term, but for the moment, he’s outdoing all our expectations.

Guerra, to his credit, was able to keep it up for the rest of the season, saving 21 games while blowing just two. (One of which was the ugly walkoff grand slam in Arizona in the final days of the season, after Hawksworth couldn’t hold on to a large lead or remember to cover first base.) Considering how little we thought of him entering the year, Guerra’s debut was a massive debut, one that likely cements him as the 2012 closer. Of course, since we know that saves are generally a useless stat, that does probably mean he’s a little overrated, since he’s in no way as dominant as Kenley Jansen, and he’s someone who’s near the top of my list of “possible regression dangers”. Still, as Jon Weisman rightly notes, it’s probably more effective to reserve Guerra for the 9th and have Jansen available to crush batters as needed. For Guerra, on absolutely no one’s prospect radar entering the season, it’s a role he’s earned. A+, Javy.

Scott Elbert (A+)
2.73 ERA, 2.43 FIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.8 BB/9

Believe it or not, this was Elbert’s fourth (partial) season as a Dodger, though he pitched just 26.1 innings over his first three; his debut in 2008 came just weeks after Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake joined the club.

Of course, at this time last year, we weren’t sure if we’d ever see Elbert in the big leagues again. After getting into just one game in 2010, Elbert walked away from the organization and baseball entirely, returning home for personal reasons which still haven’t been completely made public. He didn’t appear in a game after June, though he did rejoin the Dodgers and his new manager Don Mattingly in the Arizona Fall League, where he officially transitioned from starting to relieving.

Despite a nice AFL performance, we still weren’t sure what to make of him, and his initial wildness in camp seemed to indicate that he could use more seasoning, particularly after missing half of 2010:

You’ll probably hear people say that Scott Elbert punched his ticket back to the minors this afternoon in Arizona, as he walked four of the six batters he faced and managed to get just six of his 21 pitches across for strikes. That comes after a spring debut in which he walked two in one inning, meaning that he’s walked six of the ten spring batters he’s seen.

Now maybe his slow start to the spring is what’s going to get him knocked down to AAA, and maybe it’s not, but my feeling has always been that it shouldn’t matter. Unless he was able to come to camp and dominate, that always should have been the plan. And why not? He’s always had control issues, walking 5.0/9 in the minors, and last year that went up to an untenable 7.1/9. That’s of course before his well-publicized but little-understood leave of absence that meant he didn’t pitch after June.

Elbert did indeed start the year in the minors, getting recalled in mid-May when Hong-Chih Kuo went on the disabled list with anxiety issues; in his season debut, he struck out all three Diamondbacks he faced in the 8th inning on May 15. He stayed on the team for the rest of the season, though it’s hard to say he’d made much of an impression on us over the first two months, considering what I wrote in the first half review on July 12.

I know there’s been a lot of turnover in the bullpen this year, but Elbert is one of those guys where I constantly have to check if he’s still on the team or down in ABQ. I suppose that’s partially because he’s pitched just twice in the last two weeks, and partially because he’s rarely in for more than 2-3 batters at a time. As for his performance, he’s a bit of an oddity in that you’d expect a power lefty to be hell on lefty hitters, but he’s actually rocking a reverse split: lefties (.701 OPS) are actually doing more damage than righties (.561 OPS) against him. Overall, I guess you can say he’s been “acceptable”, in that he’s finally gained a foothold in the majors, but hasn’t exactly made us think he’s going to be a difference maker.

Then again, considering his mysterious disappearance at this time last year, even that is a massive step forward.

In the second half, Elbert took an even bigger step forward, contributing a 21/8 K/BB in 21.2 innings, allowing just two earned runs and a .593 OPS against. On the season, he struck out more than a man per inning while keeping his walks to an acceptable rate, important considering his history of wildness, and allowing just a single homer. The L/R split alluded to above was almost certainly the result of small sample size weirdness, since by the end of the year he’d held lefties to just an .191/.267/.250 line.

Still just 26 and despite the limited service time, Elbert is out of options, so he’s all but guaranteed a job in 2012, and could be the team’s only bullpen lefty if Kuo doesn’t return. Considering that no one was even sure if he’d have a career a year ago, that’s a fantastic turnaround.

Vicente Padilla (inc.)
4.15 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 9.3 K/9, 5.2 BB/9,

Padilla faced all of 36 batters over 8.2 innings this year, or what Clayton Kershaw does in just over one start, yet I feel like we talked about him far more than was necessary for that amount of playing time. After starting one of the weirder Dodger careers ever by going from “scrapheap pickup in August 2009″ to “Opening Day starter in 2010″ to “accidentally shooting himself”, Padilla signed a seemingly bizarre one-year deal last winter to serve as some sort of hybrid 5th starter/long man role.

Of course, he didn’t even make it out of camp before going under the knife for arm surgery; when he came back at the end of April, not only was he not a starter, he was suddenly the closer, since Jonathan Broxton was injured and no one knew who Guerra was yet.

That lasted for all of about three weeks before heading back to the disabled list with more arm discomfort. Here’s where it gets really weird, though; in early June, he had rejoined the team in Cincinnati and was expected to be activated that night. He wasn’t, and ten days later we found out that he would miss the rest of the season thanks to neck surgery, of all things. We’ve heard very little about his recovery and if he intends to resume his baseball career; Padilla has been reasonably successful in parts of three seasons as a Dodger, and I’d certainly toss him a non-roster invite for 2012. Besides, doesn’t every team need a little bit of crazy?

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Next! Matt Guerrier is still overpaid! Jonathan Broxton‘s sad farewell! And Blake Hawksworth still isn’t Ryan Theriot! It’s relievers, part 2!

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