Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Countdown to spring training: Relief pitching

Next on the agenda: The bullpen.

Nowhere was the bullpen more of a weapon last season than the American League East, where four teams ranked among the top 11 in the major leagues in earned-run average by its relief pitchers: Toronto (first, 2.94), Tampa Bay (fifth, 3.55), New York (3.79) and Boston (4.00).

Neither the Rays nor the Yankees have done much overhauling. The Yankees could add top prospect Andrew Brackman to the mix this season, and the Rays brought lefty specialist Brian Shouse on board, but neither will open the season with a bullpen looking much different than it did at the end of last season. The Blue Jays have taken some severe hits to their starting rotation but return B.J. Ryan and all of his sidekicks.

The Red Sox, for their part, have added under-the-radar flamethrower Ramon Ramirez and reclamation project Takashi Saito as well as spring training invitee Wes Littleton. At the same time, they've jettisoned David Aardsma (5.55 ERA last season) and Mike Timlin (5.66 ERA). And with so much uncertainty swirling around the starting rotation, that bullpen will need to pitch the way it pitched last season -- or, maybe, even better.

Jonathan Papelbon (just turned 28 years old)
2008: 2.34 ERA, 77 K, 8 BB
2007: 1.85 ERA, 84 K, 15 BB
2006: 0.92 ERA, 75 K, 13 BB
Gone are those ridiculous days when Papelbon could pitch 38 innings over the span of two and a half months and allow just a single earned run. Five times last season, in fact, Papelbon allowed two or more earned runs in one of his appearances. But he remains one of the dominant closers in baseball -- he didn't allow an earned run from the All-Star Break until Sept. 8, a span of 20 1/3 innings in 18 appearances. The Red Sox know what they'll get from Papelbon, and they're willing to pay him $6.25 million -- an 800 percent bump on his salary from last season -- for it.

Manny Delcarmen (will turn 27 in February)
2008: 3.27 ERA, 72 K, 28 BB
2007: 2.05 ERA, 41 K, 17 BB
2006: 5.06 ERA, 45 K, 17 BB
No one on the Red Sox staff made more appearances than Delcarmen made last season (73). He was murder against right-handed hitters (.218 batting average), and he was even better against lefties (.190). The only slight red flag on his numbers was the fact that his ERA went up more than a full run (2.77 to 3.82) when he was pitching on the road as opposed to at Fenway Park. But that doesn't matter much. After a rough first full season two years ago, he's found a niche as one of Terry Francona's go-to arms in the late innings.

Hideki Okajima (just turned 33)
2008: 2.61 ERA, 60 K, 23 BB
2007: 2.22 ERA, 63 K, 17 BB
Okajima had a problem with inherited runners early last season -- even while he was putting together a 0.72 ERA through May, he was allowing inherited runners to score at an alarming rate. Eleven of the first 14 runners he inherited out of the bullpen, in fact, came around to score. In one disastrous example, he entered the game with the bases loaded on April 24 against the Angels and allowed all three of those runners to score in a game the Red Sox eventually lost.

By the end of May, the Red Sox stopped giving him the ball in situations in which he inherited runners. He entered the game with the bases empty in 15 straight appearances starting May 20, and he came on with a runner in scoring position just four times the rest of the season. His numbers improved -- just two of his final 11 inherited runners scored, and he even wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam against Cleveland in late September, inducing a pop fly from Victor Martinez with two outs to end the threat.

For the season, opponents hit .174 off Okajima when the bases were empty and .269 when there were men on base -- a number that jumped to .300 when there were runners in scoring position.
With the numbers he's put up, Okajima really ought to be one of Terry Francona's go-to guys when a starting pitcher (or a fellow reliever) runs into trouble. But the way Francona used him last season shows he's not necessarily that guy.

Ramon Ramirez (will turn 28 in August)
2008 (with Kansas City): 2.64 ERA, 61 K, 27 BB
2007 (with Colorado): 8.31 ERA, 15 K, 6 BB (in 22 appearances)
2006 (with Colorado): 3.46 ERA, 70 K, 31 BB
Red Sox fans don't know much at all about Ramirez, acquired from the Royals this winter for outfielder Coco Crisp. But here's one stat that'll make fans happy: Ramirez held opposing hitters to a .220 batting average with runners on base last season and a .192 batting average with runners in scoring position -- including .143 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

He pitched mostly in the eighth inning for the Royals, and while Delcarmen appears to have first crack at that role for the Red Sox, the audition of Ramirez this spring is going to be interesting to watch.

In the mix
Wes Littleton (will turn 27 in September)
2008: 6.00 ERA, 14 K, 8 BB
2007: 4.31 ERA, 24 K, 16 BB
2006: 1.73 ERA, 17 K, 13 BB
Littleton, should he make the Red Sox roster as the team's 12th pitcher, is likely to be the guy who sees the garbage-time innings. Good thing. Littleton is an expert on garbage-time innings. It was Littleton, after all, who pitched the final three innings in the Rangers' 30-3 win over the Orioles two years ago -- an outing for which he earned the cheapest save in the history of the game.

Littleton had a great 2006 season (his ERA was 1.23 in 30 minor league appearances) before taking a step back in 2007. He had a 4.01 ERA with six saves in 44 appearances for Triple-A Oklahoma City a year ago, and he was traded to the Red Sox mostly because he's out of options. He's expected to head north with the Red Sox barring a disastrous spring training -- if he doesn't show his new team anything, though, he'll be back on the waiver wire.

Javier Lopez (will turn 32 in July)
2008: 2.43 ERA, 38 K, 27 BB
2007: 3.10 ERA, 26 K, 18 BB
2006: 2.70 ERA, 11 K, 10 BB (in 27 big-league appearances)
Red Sox fans love to hate Lopez -- every fan base needs a bullpen target for its wrath, and Lopez appears to be that target. But the fact remains that if your worst relief pitcher is a lefty specialist who saw lefties hit .182 against him last season, you're in pretty good shape. Sure, right-handed hitters hit .311 (33 hits in 106 at-bats) against Lopez last season -- but that's not his job. It would be nice if his home-road splits weren't so dramatic -- 1.23 ERA at Fenway Park versus 4.37 ERA elsewhere -- but he'll certainly pitch useful innings as the fifth or sixth arm in the bullpen.

Justin Masterson (will turn 24 in March)
2008 (as a starter): 4-3, 3.67 ERA, 39 K, 28 BB (.206 batting average against)
2008 (as a reliever): 2-2, 2.36 ERA, 29 K, 12 BB (.231 batting average against)
The acquisitions of Brad Penny and John Smoltz appear to have shelved the Masterson-as-starter experiment. Masterson's performance in last year's postseason -- he had a 1.86 ERA in 9 2/3 innings, including a win in the dramatic Game 5 -- makes that look like a good decision. Masterson held right-handed hitters to a .196 average last season (though lefties didn't fare much better at .238). He looks like he has a chance to develop into a seventh-inning weapon, particularly against righty-heavy lineups.

Takashi Saito (will turn 39 in February)
2008: 2.49 ERA, 60 K, 16 BB
2007: 1.40 ERA, 78 K, 13 BB
2006: 2.07 ERA, 107 K, 23 BB
Those numbers look great, don't they? They'd look even better, of course, if Saito wasn't coming off an elbow sprain that cost him most of last season. And after he returned in mid-September, he allowed an earned run in three of his six appearances, compiling a 4.76 ERA in the process. In his one appearance in the National League Division Series against the Cubs, he allowed a double, a single and a double before Joe Torre had to yank him.

That certainly doesn't look good. But be careful putting too much stock in any three-week stretch. For one thing, Saito now has had an entire winter to rehabilitate his elbow and get back into the rhythm of pitching. (He said he was pitching at his old velocity in September but that his control still was shaky.) For another thing, check out his top comparables on Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain and Huston Street.

1 comment:

floydiansea said...

and if push comes to shove, there's the old familiar standby ...

Rolaids spells relief. ;)