Booms and Busts: Relief pitchers
Late last month, I kicked off my second go-round of Booms and Busts, in which I highlighted a small handful of players at a given position whom I expect to take significant steps forward or backward. I have no hard-and-fast criteria for those players, no promises of fantasy league dominance or skyrocketing statistics for the Booms or slides below the Mendoza Line for the Busts.
But between poring over projections, identifying players in changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury, or entries into the prime age range of 26-29 years old, there are players I’d like to earmark before the season begins, for better or worse.
Note that I won’t be including rookies among these picks — those will be saved for another cycle — and I’ve mostly avoided choosing anyone from among last year’s picks. In the spirit of accountability, I’ve revisited last year’s picks at each position, to see what I’ve learned (or haven’t); they’ve been judged on a PASS/FAIL basis as to whether I was right or wrong. After being humbled by my results in starting pitching, I ran the table with my reliever choices.
David Robertson, Yankees: The unenviable task of taking over closer duties after Mariano Rivera's retirement falls to Robertson, who has served as the team's top righty setup man for the past four seasons. Though he has just eight major league saves to his name, Robertson has been the American League's most valuable reliever in terms of Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement over the 2011-13 timeframe; his 8.1 WAR trails only Craig Kimbrel's 9.0. His other marks during that span aren't too shabby either; among those with at least 150 innings, his 1.91 ERA trails only Kimbrel and Koji Uehara, while his 12.0 strikeouts per nine ranks sixth. By taking Robertson out of his setup role, the Yankees may be sacrificing some of his Houdini-like ability to wriggle out of jams, but since mid-2011, manager Joe Girardi has brought him in in mid-inning with less frequency anyway. For the Yankees' bullpen, the big question isn't whether Robertson can handle the job of closing. It's whether the likes of Shawn Kelley, Preston Claiborne, Matt Thornton or anyone else on staff can fill Robertson's shoes in the setup role.
Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals: After dazzling at the major league level during the second half of 2012, Rosenthal not only emerged as the team's top setup man in 2013, but also took over closer duties in late September and converted all seven of his save opportunities down the stretch, including four in the postseason. His 12.9 strikeouts per nine and 5.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio were impressive for a pitcher who traffics in triple-digit heat, and he was even tougher in the postseason, whiffing 18 of the 40 hitters he faced and not allowing a single run. Even with 2012 closer Jason Motte returning from May 2013 Tommy John surgery at some point, manager Mike Matheny has already made clear that the 24-year-old Rosenthal enters the season as the team's closer. Given what he's shown in two Octobers — 33 strikeouts and 11 baserunners in 20 1/3 innings — there's little reason to think he'll crack under the pressure.
Huston Street, Padres: Street's 33 saves and 2.70 ERA scan as perfectly acceptable numbers from a closer, but zoom in and you can find no shortage of causes for concern. Not only did he turn in a career-low 7.3 strikeouts per nine (down from his career-to-date mark of 9.2), but he served up nine homers in 38 innings at Petco Park and 1.8 per nine overall, his second year out of three with at least 1.5 per nine. It all added up to a 4.89 FIP, and if that wasn't enough, he hit the DL for the fourth straight year. Those issues would be less ominous if Street weren't dealing with a mild groin strain this spring as well as the arrival of a better closer option in free agent Joaquin Benoit. At the very least, Street doesn't seem likely to hold down the ninth-inning job for the full season.
Ernesto Frieri, Angels: Acquired from the Padres in May 2012, Frieri didn't allow a hit to any of the first 52 batters he faced as an Angel; moved into the closer role by the end of the month, he converted 23 out of 26 save opportunities in about three-quarters of a season thanks to a strong post-trade strikeout rate (13.3 per nine) offsetting beefy walk and homer rates (4.3 and 1.2 per nine). While he trimmed his walk rate to 3.9 per nine in 2013, he had even more trouble keeping the ball in the park, yielding 1.4 homers per nine, and his BABIP regressed from a microscopic .210 up to .297. Though he saved 37 games in 41 attempts, his 3.80 ERA was the league's third worst among closers (20 save minimum), his 3.75 FIP the second-worst. The Angels' roster doesn't have an obvious alternative for the ninth-inning job, but manager Mike Scioscia isn't one to sit on his hands when his bullpen goes bad.
Last Year's Booms (graded Pass/Fail)
• Sean Doolittle, A’s: A first baseman-turned-pitcher who reached the majors in 2012 after just 26 innings in the minors, Doolittle had shown his ability to miss bats and to get righties out as well as lefties in his 47 1/3 inning stint with the big club to move into a setup role. He proved up to the task, delivering 69 innings worth of 3.13 ERA ball and allowing less than a baserunner per frame, and although his strikeout rate dropped from 11.4 to 7.8, his 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio was again stellar. Righties hit .227/.272/.331 against him, lefties just .183/.233/.282. PASS
• Jason Grilli, Pirates: A former No. 4 overall pick (1997) who didn't shed the journeyman tag until after missing all of 2010 due to knee surgery, Grilli had whiffed 12.5 per nine across 91 1/3 innings in 2011-12. Despite his having just five career saves to his name, the Pirates made the 36-year-old righty their closer after trading Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox, and he proved up to the task. Although he missed six weeks due to a forearm strain, Grilli notched 33 saves and whiffed 13.3 per nine with a 2.70 ERA in 50 innings, making the All-Star team for the first time in his career and helping the Pirates to their first playoff appearance since 1992. PASS
• Greg Holland, Royals: In addition to striking out 12.2 per nine and allowing just two homers in 67 innings in 2012, Holland converted 16 of his 18 save opportunities after the deadline trade of Jonathan Broxton, so he looked good to go as a full-time closer for 2013. He took his performance to the next level, saving 47 games, striking out 13.8 per nine, yielding a 1.21 ERA, making the AL All-Star team and receiving down-ballot support in both the Cy Young and MVP voting. Not too shabby. PASS
Last Year's Busts
• Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox: On the heels of back-to-back All-Star honors and 76 saves in 2011-12, Hanrahan's rising salary led the Pirates to trade him to the Red Sox. I didn't like his high home run or unintentional walk rates (1.2 and 5.4 per nine, respectively), the apparent result of his pitching through an ankle injury. Whether or not that had anything to do with his elbow woes, he was limited to 7 1/3 dreadful innings for the Red Sox due to a hamstring strain and then Tommy John surgery, with the latter accompanied by removal of bone chips. Ouch. PASS
• Carlos Marmol, Cubs: Even if Marmol did save 20 games in 2012 after a dreadful start to his season, I didn't like his chances of keeping the job between the convergence of his strikeout and walk rates and the team's signing of Japanese closer Kyuji Fujikawa. Fujikawa wound up needing Tommy John surgery, but Marmol fell out of favor even before then; he saved just two games for the Cubs, was dumped on the Dodgers in late June, and spent most of his time with both teams on mop-and-bucket duty thanks to his 7.3 walks and 1.3 homers per nine. PASS
• Chris Perez, Indians: Rising home run and ERA rates, as well as an early spring shoulder strain, led me to pick against the two-time All-Star, and he didn't disappoint me while disappointing the Indians. Though he saved 25 games, his 4.33 ERA and 1.8 homers per nine were both dreadful. To be fair, his final two outings inflated both marks, but −0.3 WAR is a bust by just about any definition. PASS.
Scorecard: 6 PASS, 0 FAIL Running total (all positions thus far): 36 PASS, 16 FAIL, 1 PUSH