“Precision Tayloring” The Bullpen Theory: A Look at Leverage Index, Free Will, & Reliever Usage.

“You can only be held responsible, you can only be found guilty, or you can only be admired or respected, for the things you did of your own free will. The question keeps coming back, and we don’t really have a solution to it. It starts to look like all your decisions are really just a charade.” Waking Life
 

The question “Do we truly have free will?” was recently brought up and discussed in my Philosophy & Critical Thinking class. The professor wanted to discover if any of the students could provide him with some ultimate truth on the subject to give him a definitive answer, and many attempted, but alas not a one answer satisfied the professor’s criteria for a definitive solution to the question. When trying to come to an answer myself, I am only reminded of a particular scene from the movie Waking Life. From what has already been discovered in the field of particle physics, I’m in the camp to think that we are all just a random swerving in a chaotic, but stable, universe. So then what are we supposed to take away from sitting here and pondering if we have free will or not? Well, much like anything in philosophy, it helps you reach deeper in other subjects that you may want to think about. Philosophy is the study of thinking and different ways to think and approach different subjects, including the topic featured today: Reliever usage. Lets look at where we may be able to find some saves if you left your fantasy drafts lacking in that category.

Closer lists
A quick observation of top 10 closer lists provided from year to year quickly emphasizes just how volatile and unpredictable the closer role can be. It should be a testament to how hard it is to be an elite level closer once you realize that only 2 names appear on all 4 lists (Papelbon & Rivera).
A quick introduction to Leverage Index.

cubsbullpen

The graph above (click to enlarge) displays the Leverage Index from the top 3 relievers of the Chicago Cubs, from the 2012 season.
 

In a nutshell, Leverage Index is a sabermetric stat that attempts to sum-up how “crucial” every given situation is in any given ball game. It depends on things like inning, score, outs, and number of runners on base. It is also a good predictor of how an organization feels about a said reliever on their team (do they trust him or not?), because it only makes logical sense to put your best relievers in the highest leverage situations; a 1 run game in the 9th inning (For more on Leverage Index, refer to this guide). However, we see organizations screw this up all the time. There are several ways a closer could lose his job to a set-up reliever who is performing better, or just to a better pitcher overall than the previous closer. We shall now explore some shaky bullpen situations beginning with your…

1. Chicago Cubs

Current Closer: Carlos Marmol

Watch for:  One thing you don’t want your best reliever to do is to walk people in the 9th with the game on the line. In 55.1 innings pitched Carlos Marmol issued 45 walks. Carlos Marmol is the exact opposite of what you want out of a closer, yet miraculously he holds on to the job from year to year. However, with the recent changes in the organization, it looks like this could be the year that either Kyuji Fujikawa or James Russell unseats him in the closer role.

  • Fujikawa sits mainly at 89-92mph with his fastball, but will work a devastating splitter off of it as his out-pitch to both righties and lefties. He shows steady and consistent arm speed and mechanics, and could easily pick up 25+ saves if given the opportunity to run with job. He should sneak into the top 10 in saves in the National League, and is signed through for the next year as well, so those of you in deeper mixed leagues (especially keeper leagues), look to target Fujikawa if he isn’t already owned.
  • Russell could also sneak his way into 10 or so saves. Normally just the lefty specialist out of the pen for the Cubs, Russell is a fastball/slider guy, with his fastball sitting a tick below average around 88-91, but as you notice from the Leverage Chart provided above, the Cubs had no trouble sending him into the game in high pressure situations. He will be at the mercy of the defense behind him, and he can’t get righties out (righties have a .344OBP against him over the past 3 years), but if Carlos Marmol has taught us anything it’s that you don’t necessarily have to be a good pitcher to pick up saves. Watch for Russell to pick up a handful on days they give Fujikawa some rest, or whenever they are facing a lefty-heavy lineup in the 9th.
2. LA Dodgers

Dodgerspen

Current Closer: Brandon League

Watch For: Brandon League is not the same pitcher he was during his one good year as Seattle Mariners closer in 2011 (average fastball velocity is down from nearly 97mph in 2011 to 95mph so far in 2013). He has somehow built up the reputation as if he was still that same pitcher from 2011, based on the 3 year/22.5M$ contract the dodgers were willing to dish out to him last off-season. That is a lot of money to go to someone who SHOULD be primarily used as a set-up reliever behind Kenley Jansen.

  • Jansen quickly took over the closer role from an ineffective Javy Guerra last season and ran away with the job, converting 25 of 31 save opportunities before being shelved with a heart condition on August 28th. He came back at the end of September to pitch 8.1 innings of relief for the Dodgers, surrendering only one run, while striking out 13 and only walking 3. Jansen is far and away the best pitcher in the Dodgers bullpen, and gives them the best chance to win close games in the 9th inning. Jansen uses a fierce cutter/slider combo with both pitches grading at a 7. This allows him to rack up a crazy amount of strikeouts, as indicated by his 14.56K/9, and is supported by his improving command in 2012. Jansen should be drafted before Brandon League in any fantasy format out there. Period.
3. San Diego Padres

padrespen

Current Closer: Huston Street

Watch For: This has more to do with Huston Street’s annual trip to the DL, than him under-performing. Street has made at least one appearance on the DL each of the last three years, including a 41 day stint last year after suffering a calf strain. This opens up save opportunities for Padres set-up men Luke Gregerson and Dale Thayer.

  • Gregerson is a premier set-up man by trade, but has been given several opportunities to close in previous Street DL stints, and has found success. He has a major league out-pitch, a hard breaking slider that he throws over 55% of the time, and 79% in 2 strike counts. Even when not in the closer role, Gregerson can add value to your fantasy bullpen by holding respectable K/BB ratios, and providing a ton of holds for those of you in leagues that count holds.
  • Thayer was also a recipient of some closing opportunities when Street went down with the calf injury, and could be another candidate to pick up saves if anything major were to happen to Street again. Thayer is another fastball/slider guy, but his fastball velocity sits a couple ticks above average in the mid 90’s, and he can even reach back and get more when he needs too. Another guy who is set-up to earn holds and won’t kill your ERA or WHIP doing so.
3 more names to know.
  1. David Hernandez (Arizona) – Major strikeout pitcher (12.91 K/9 last season), & J.J. Putz hasn’t been the healthiest of pitchers the last couple of seasons. Will end up getting beaucoup holds, and will lower your ERA and WHIP even if Putz stays healthy the whole season.
  2. Trevor Rosenthal (St. Louis) – Throws triple digit gas and backs it up with a vicious slider. Has started the season off strong with a 6-1 K to BB ratio in his first 4 innings. If Mitchell Boggs were to ever slip up, Rosenthal should be the first pitcher the Cardinals turn to, as long as Jason Motte continues his stay on the DL.
  3. Jared Burton (Minnesota) – Another strong starter right out of the gate (3 IP 4K’s), Burton could replace Glen Perkins if the Twins look to shop their closer near the deadline. He features closer worthy stuff and just turned in a solid 2012 campaign.


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