No Bigger Beneficiary of Hot Start Than Javy Guerra

Through seven games, Dodger closer Javy Guerra has five saves, the most in baseball. Though Guerra has indeed been very good – more on that in a second – that’s mostly a function of this team’s style of play, which is to rely on good starting pitching, improved defense, and just enough offense to eke out tight victories. Saves, as we should know by now, are more of a team-based and situation-based stat than any indicator of a reliever’s skill. It wouldn’t surprise me if this team ranks in the top five for save opportunities at the end of the year just because of how they’re put together, similar to how Francisco Rodriguez‘ record-setting 62-save 2008 was in no small part due to the fact that he was handed a record 69 chances to save games.

Still, Guerra’s performance ranks as one of the bigger surprises for me in this young season, since his mediocre minor-league track record and good-but-not great 2011 peripheral stats made him seem like a great candidate for regression and someone who would be more likely to be setting up Kenley Jansen than vice-versa by June. And who knows, that might still happen. But in the early going, at least, Guerra has been fantastic, striking out five in his five innings against just one walk and one hit.

A far better stat to measure relievers than the flawed “saves” and “blown saves” is without question “shutdowns” and “meltdowns”, a Fangraphs creation which gives (or takes) credit based on whether a reliever’s performance made his team more or less likely to win by at least 6%. (Full explanation here.) The main benefit there is that all relievers can make that kind of impact, not just the one who is lucky enough to be handed a three-run lead coming into a clean inning in the ninth. It also means that middle relievers don’t get penalized by the fact that they can only blow saves before the ninth, not collect them, which is what infuriated me when anyone complained about Jonathan Broxton‘s “career saves percentage” without realizing that he spent nearly three years setting up Takashi Saito, rarely being given the chance to finish the ninth.

Guerra tops that list as well with four shutdowns, tied with Matt Guerrier, of all people, among others, so there’s nothing cheap about what he’s been able to accomplish so far. Guerra’s fastball is usually his money pitch, and he’s been throwing it more (75.9%) than he did last year (61.5%) despite his velocity on it being down by about a mile per hour in the early going. But like the rest of the pitching staff, he’s been benefiting from improved defense behind him – I don’t think a .100 BABIP is going to last, but there’s no question that Mark Ellis & a healthy Juan Uribe are a fielding improvement over Jamey Carroll & Aaron Miles – and the avoidance of walks, as the staff nearly made it the entire series without walking a Pirate before Mike MacDougal issued a free pass in relief of Chris Capuano last night.

There’s still a part of me that wonders about trading Guerra while his value is high, assuming he’s still looking good in a few months. I realize that there’s almost no chance that will actually happen, because the team’s quick start makes it unlikely they’ll be completely out of the race in a world that now has two wild cards, but if there’s anything we should know by now, it’s A) non-elite relievers are rarely good long-term investments and B) young right-handed pitching is the one thing this organization has in spades.

Guerra’s impressive start helps the Dodgers in some hidden ways, as well. I don’t think anyone would argue that Guerra is a more imposing reliever than Jansen, but by proving he’s able to lock down the ninth, that frees Jansen up to be available in the 7th and 8th as needed – often at more crucial points in the game than the 9th – and that has a ripple effect on the usage of the entire bullpen. (Jon Weisman looked at this late last season, in a piece I completely agreed with.)

Regardless of our expectations for him or what the future may hold – just by definition, there’s regression coming, because again, .100 BABIP – Guerra has been fantastic in the early going and a huge part of the team’s initial success. Somewhat lost in the 6-1 start, I think, is that the Dodgers haven’t exactly been crushing opponents; other than the 6-0 win over San Diego in Chad Billingley‘s first start, every other victory has been by three runs or less. With even just a little less effective work from the back end of the bullpen, the 6-1 start and all the good feelings around it could easily be more of a 4-3. Guerra deserves much of the credit for that. Keep on proving me wrong, Javy.