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.

Bryce Who? Matt Kemp Does It Again

For seven innings, the much-hyped Washington duo of Stephen Strasburg & Bryce Harper held up their end of the deal. In front of a sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium, Strasburg whiffed nine without allowing a walk, while Harper made his debut a memorable one by doubling off the wall and throwing an absolute laser from left field to the plate that would have nailed Jerry Hairston at the plate had catcher Wilson Ramos only been able to hang on to the perfect throw. Ramos’ inability to complete the play meant that Strasburg would leave after 101 pitches with a 1-1 tie, and that’s not to be taken lightly: Chad Billingsley may not have been as outright dominating as his Nationals counterpart, but when you can stay in the game for seven innings and leave standing tall against the great Strasburg, that’s an achievement not to be overlooked – although with the way the ninth inning unfolded, it almost certainly will.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the 2012 Dodgers if the game didn’t stay close into the late innings and… well, look. Sooner or later we’re going to have to acknowledge that Javy Guerra is just a mess right now, right? You can argue that he got spooked by taking a Brian McCann liner off the face the other night, but that was hardly the start of his troubles; he’s blown something like 37 games over the last two weeks. Entering in the 9th after Scott Elbert allowed a LaRoche single and induced Rick Ankiel to eliminate LaRoche via sacrifice bunt – and for the record, I have absolutely no idea why Don Mattingly yanked Elbert after just five pitches – Guerra allowed a single, a sacrifice fly, and another single, pushing two runs across and putting the Dodgers down 3-1. You can argue that Guerra is getting BABIP’d to death with all the singles if you want, but if you plan on being a late innings reliever in the bigs, you need to miss some bats, and Guerra simply has not been doing that lately. (Is that… Shawn Tolleson‘s music I hear? No, of course not.)

But that was far from the end of it. Surprisingly, the bottom of the order showed some life in the 9th, with Mark Ellis & James Loney leading off with two singles, followed by a Juan Uribe ground rule double which plated Ellis. Henry Rodriguez, touching triple digits, blew away A.J. Ellis and got the utterly useless Adam Kennedy to ground into a fielder’s choice… and then things got weird.

With two out, Rodriguez uncorked a 102 MPH wild pitch, scoring Uribe to knot the game at 3 and pushing Kennedy to second. Dee Gordon followed, feebly striking out against Rodriguez’ overwhelming heat to end the game… except that the third strike also went to the backstop, allowing Gordon to reach first and the game to continue. Tony Gwynn attemped to walk off against reliever Tom Gorzelanny, but lined out to LaRoche to end the frame.

Jamey Wright set the Nats down without trouble in the top of the tenth, and that brought Matt Kemp to the plate. Kemp crushed a Gorzelanny pitch into center for the walkoff win, and what else can you really say about Kemp? (Other than, “why in the hell would the Nationals even pitch to him there?”) Harper’s debut brought the spotlight to this game, but Kemp reminded everyone that for all of the potential about what Harper might yet be in the future, the present belongs to Beast Mode.

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.

News From the First Day of Dodger Spring Training

Plenty of news coming in on this first official day of camp, and isn’t that a lovely feeling? Pitchers & catchers have reported, with position players joining them by Monday, and that means we’ll finally have real news & updates to talk about, not just hypotheticals and what-ifs. Don Mattingly held court this morning with a few of our famililar media names, and here’s what we know so far…

* Clayton Kershaw will be your Opening Day starter. (Ken Gurnick) Well, of course. This is news in the sense that “hey, Frank McCourt might not be such a great guy” is news. You know how I feel that the Opening Day assignment is wildly overrated, and so this doesn’t mean a great deal to me. Still, it’s a nice honor for Kershaw, and one that he’ll hopefully be able to carry for at least the next ten years. With three lefties likely to be in the rotation, I imagine that Kershaw will be followed by Chad Billingsley & Ted Lilly, then Aaron Harang & Chris Capuano. That will mean two lefties back-to-back as the rotation turns around, but that’s unavoidable.

* Dee Gordon will lead off and Matt Kemp will hit third. (Eric Stephen) No surprise here, either, especially with how well Kemp finished the year in the #3 spot. I think there’s a good enough argument to be made that Gordon is best served hitting lower in the order, where his inexperience and questionable on-base skills may not be exposed as much, but with his speed there was never any real chance Mattingly would have done that, and to be honest it’s not like there’s an obviously better choice anyway. (No, not even A.J. Ellis.) The official Dodger Twitter notes that Gordon reported early to camp and was in the cage taking BP today, which is a great sign. Dylan Hernandez adds that Mattingly likes the idea of Andre Ethier & Juan Rivera behind Kemp for protection, so while it’s not like we didn’t already know what the batting order was going to be, it seems pretty clear that the regular 8 will work out like so: 1) Gordon 2) Mark Ellis 3) Kemp 4) Ethier 5) Rivera 6) James Loney 7) Juan Uribe 8) A.J. Ellis, with some chance of Loney & Uribe being swapped. You know what’s going to be fun, though? When Gordon is inevitably banged-up, or even just gets a regular day off, and Jerry Hairston or Adam Kennedy gets to lead off instead.

* Blake Hawksworth is not going to be ready for Opening Day. (Dylan Hernandez). This initially came as something of a surprise, because Hawksworth’s January elbow surgery was originally not expected to keep him out so long, but Hernandez reveals that Hawksworth had to have a second procedure to deal with an infection that resulted from the first, so he’s “a few weeks behind schedule.” If there were any justice in the world, this would mean that the final bullpen spot would go to Josh Lindblom, who clearly proved he was big-league ready in his debut last season. Of course, Lindblom has options remaining, and the Dodgers have plenty of washed-up veteran non-roster types in camp. Remember yesterday when I said that I had a feeling that I couldn’t back up that Jamey Wright was going to make this team? Yeah, this is how. Depending on Hawksworth’s timetable, his recovery could force the Dodgers to make some interesting roster choices to make near the end of April when Ronald Belisario is eligible to return from suspension. (I know, it sounds crazy to even suggest it, but Stephen actually saw him in person today.)

* Javy Guerra starts camp as the closer. (Hernandez) Again, no surprise here, because Guerra took hold of the job last year after no one else could and did little to force the team to make a move. If he can be effective again this year, then fantastic, because Kenley Jansen is arguably more valuable as a “fireman” type who can come in and dominate when the situation dictates, rather than tether him to the 9th inning. Still, I see Jansen moving into the 9th inning at some point this year.

* Steve Yeager rejoins the Dodgers. Yeager, who originally joined the organization when he was drafted in 1967 and was a Dodger catcher for all but one of his 15 major league seasons before becoming an occasional Dodger hitting coach for four minor-league affiliates, has been hired to work with the backstops in camp. Yeager hit .228/.298/.355 over his career, which makes him basically the perfect person to work the current group of catchers… or lead an interstellar battleship.

* A spring training primer from Jon Weisman. In a long piece at ESPN/LA, Jon breaks down the players in camp, all the way from Kemp to Lance Zawadzki. Rabid followers over the winter will likely have seen all of these names already, but this is a good resource to keep bookmarked for three weeks from now when you’re trying to remember just who in the hell Matt Chico is.

More to come, no doubt.

This Might Be The Best Thing Javy Guerra and James Loney Do All Year

Very few people believe that Javy Guerra is really going to hold off Kenley Jansen and hang on to the closer’s job all season long, and as we discussed earlier today, expectations for James Loney are all over the map. By July, he could either be in the All-Star Game or in the minors, and neither one would surprise me in the least.

Yet absolutely none of that matters today, because we’ve been lucky enough to receive this gift from the lords of high comedy: Guerra & Loney photobombing celebrities and randoms at the Eastbound & Down premiere party. What’s that, you say? Loney popping up behind random girls doesn’t do anything for you? How about Guerra photobombing Marilyn Manson, of all people – twice?

Frankly, if the shot of Guerra leaning around the pole (#2 in the set) hasn’t become a widely-known Photoshopped meme by morning, we’ve all failed.

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