The Continuing Heartburn Over Javy Guerra

Javy Guerra has a 1.60 FIP and 16 strikeouts against 5 walks in 12.1 innings so far in 2012, all excellent numbers. He’s been unscored upon in 9 of his 14 games, and even then it’s hard to kill him on one of those five poor outings because that includes the time he got right back up after taking a Brian McCann line drive off the face, staying in when Don Mattingly probably should have removed him immediately. If we can find some compassion in our cold, dark hearts and give him a pass on that game, then we’re left with a closer who has allowed more than one run in a game exactly one time in 2012, back on April 17 in Milwaukee when he allowed a George Kottaras double that let Mat Gamel beat the throw home to A.J. Ellis by an eyelash. He’s currently in a six-way tie for fourth place on the “Shutdowns” leaderboards with five, and in many ways he’s actually having a superior season than he did during his breakout 2011.

Got all that? Good, because I just wanted to get it out there before we launch into our regularly-scheduled bashing of the embattled Dodgers closer and demanding that he be burned at the stake or shipped off to Kalamazoo or some such outpost. Now that we’ve got that out of the way… if Don Mattingly hasn’t announced that Guerra is no longer the go-to guy in the ninth inning within the next few days, I’m not quite sure exactly what he’s waiting for. Just look at this rundown of Guerra’s eight most recent outings:

Rk Date Opp Rslt Dec IP H R ER BB SO 2B 3B
7 Apr 17 MIL L,4-5 BL(1-1) 0.1 2 2 2 1 1 1 0
8 Apr 19 MIL W,4-3 S(6) 1.0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0
9 Apr 20 HOU W,3-1 S(7) 1.0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0
10 Apr 24 ATL L,3-4 L(1-2) 1.0 2 1 1 0 1 0 1
11 Apr 25 ATL L,2-4 BL(1-3) 0.1 5 3 3 0 0 0 0
12 Apr 28 WSN W,4-3 0.2 2 1 1 1 1 0 0
13 May 1 COL W,7-6 S(8) 1.0 1 0 0 0 2 0 0
14 May 6 CHC L,3-4 BS(3) 1.0 2 1 1 1 2 1 0

After a dominant run to start the season, Guerra’s had an ugly two weeks, and that doesn’t even count the poorly-called triple play that allowed him to escape a tough situation in San Diego. It’s bad, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Sunday’s debacle in Chicago was Guerra’s fifth “meltdown” of the season; that’s tied with Heath Bell for the third most in the majors, and it’s already one more than the four he had in all of 2011. For whatever reason, the Guerra we’re seeing in early May is not the same one that we saw in early April, and he absolutely doesn’t have enough of a track record to be allowed to keep on doing this for too much longer.

Yet while I said all winter that Guerra wasn’t as good as casual fans thought and that he was almost certainly going to suffer regression this year, I have to admit that this isn’t exactly the way I envisioned it. I saw a guy who was never that impressive in the minors and was only in the bigs due to a string of injuries to other pitchers, and while he was good-but-not-great in 2011, his reputation was grossly inflated by the always-overrated “save” statistic and the simple comparison to the ineffective closers who had been used before him. While he’s certainly thrown away a large part of that goodwill with fans, it’s rare that you strike out more & walk fewer than you did the year before but see less success, and it’s hard not to see the big, ugly .485 BABIP on his card.

BABIP is useful in the right situations, and a high or low mark can often be used to predict that a pitcher is suffering from (or benefiting from) poor luck which should rectify itself over time. But like any stat, context is needed, and in this case it seems that the problem is a whole lot less about Guerra being unlucky and a whole lot more about him simply allowing a lot of hard contact. I’m not enough of a pitching expert to tell you why that is – Chad Moriyama argues that he’s been using his fastball too often – though it seems to me that while he’s not walking an inordinate amount of batters, he’s catching too much of the plate and not getting enough swings that result in softly hit balls. (I’ll note here that I find it somewhat entertaining that I’ve seen little complaining that Guerra doesn’t have the “heart” or “guts” for the ninth – even though it would seem that the one conceivable situation where you could try to make that argument is with a pitcher who is otherwise healthy and effective. Not that I ever buy that argument in any way, but Guerra sure is getting a different reaction than we saw with Jonathan Broxton or even the one time Kenley Jansen blew a save earlier this year, aren’t we?)

Regardless what the reason is, something must be done, and the immediate first step is to strip Guerra of his title of “closer”. There’s a large part of me that hates even having this discussion, because I generally despise that the closer role even exists and by moving a superior reliever into the ninth, you’re just creating a hole in earlier (and potentially more important) innings. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make the ninth completely unimportant, and Guerra simply isn’t getting the job done right now. So out he goes, with Kenley Jansen the obvious choice to replace him – though I wouldn’t be totally against seeing Josh Lindblom get some chances either. That doesn’t mean Guerra should be farmed out or anything, but merely given the chance to work his way back into success in situations that don’t have the game immediately on the line. If he finds some mechanical flaw that can be resolved and he works his way back to his old job, great; if not, then perhaps we can just all agree that he’s a good-but-not-great major league reliever who probably doesn’t deserve the amount of thought being expended upon him in the first place.

But let’s not stop there, because that does create a hole, and that alone won’t do enough to strengthen the bullpen. 24-year-old Shawn Tolleson has no business being in Double-A any longer, and it’s time to get him to the bigs. Older than both Clayton Kershaw & Dee Gordon, Tolleson (famous for being a high school teammate of Kershaw before he hurt his arm) has just destroyed the competition in parts of three seasons in the minors, racking up an absurd 162/26 K/BB ratio in 108.1 innings. That’s 18/3 this year with just seven hits allowed, and the Dodgers have made it clear in recent years that Triple-A is not a necessary stop, quite often skipping pitching prospects from Chattanooga to the bigs.

While it’s nice that the numbers are absurd, the scouting reports back it up. Prior to the season, Baseball Prospectus‘ Kevin Goldstein had this to say:

The Good: With a career ERA of 1.01 in 83 games and 144 strikeouts in 97.2 innings, it’s hard to argue with what Tolleson has done. His best pitch is a nasty upper-80s cutter with plenty of movement, but his straight fastball is also a plus pitch at 92-95 mph. His off-speed pitch is a mid-80s slider that is at least average.
The Bad: Tolleson has dominated in the minors, but scouts wonder if he can close in the big leagues without elite velocity and a plus breaker. He throws across his body, but as a reliever, there is less concern about the amount of stress it produces.

Basically, the worst thing that Goldstein was able to say was, “he may not be a closer in the bigs”. Maybe that’s true & maybe it’s not, but this team doesn’t need a rookie to jump from Double-A and close; they need their bullpen stocked with as many talented arms as they can find. As for how to find room for him on the roster, well, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it. There’s already an open spot on the 40-man, and you could easily DFA Jamey Wright, even though he’s been better than expected and he was victimized, in part, by more poor Adam Kennedy defense yesterday. Or find a way to put Todd Coffey back on the DL or DFA him as well; even though I don’t really want to lose either in the same way that I did Mike MacDougal, I also don’t see the point in letting two disposable veteran types like that stand in the way of getting exciting young talent on the team to help, right now.

Things are never as bad as they seem in the volatile world of the bullpen, especially in one which has generally been pretty good this year. That doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement, though, and the Dodgers have some easily available options to make it happen.