Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Life Goes On

The Nationals introduced Scherzer today and rumors continue to swirl about what the next move may be, but life goes on. The Scherzer deal means people have kind of moved on, but after the Clippard trade, a lot of fans were worried about the Nationals’ bullpen. Those worries came about due to the depth (or perceived lack thereof) as well as the hesitation some people have in handing over the closer duties to Drew Storen without a “proven closer” behind him in case he struggles.

Compiling a bullpen is a constant challenge given the small sample size that is a reliever season. For example, I pulled every reliever that earned at least 10 saves in 2013. My assumption is that teams put their best reliever in to earn the saves in the 9th (not always true, and not always the right strategy, but we will run with it), so we are looking at essentially the cream of the crop. That gave us 35 pitchers. I then pulled their 2014 ERA and compared to their 2013. We ended up with only 29 comparisons as Mariano Rivera retired, Ernesto Frieri lost his job and bounced around not pitching much in the majors, Heath Bell fell apart (only to be put back together by the Nationals, fingers crossed), and 3 players got hurt and pitched only a handful of innings. 

These examples in themselves can be insightful. Relievers come out and usually throw 2-3 pitches (or even one pitch in the case of Rivera) as hard as possible, relying on velocity and hard breaking pitches to get their outs. This leads to incredible stress on elbows and shoulders, even in short bursts. It also means the loss of a little velocity off the fastball or a little bite off the slider due to age results in a huge drop off in results. That’s why nearly 20% of the top closers in 2013 didn’t even make the cut for our comparison in 2014.

Anyways, back to the numbers. Of the 29 players left, 12 had a 2014 ERA a run or more higher than their 2013 and 4 had an ERA a run or more lower than their 2013 ERA. A full 55% of the sample was over one run off their ERA from the year before. For those more visually inclined, here is a graph with 2013 ERA on one axis and 2014 ERA on the other. If there was a solid relation, you would expect to see some incline, with a slope closer to 1 indicating a more consistent year to year relationship:


As you see, the slope is less than 0.1. Last year’s ERA has almost no impact on what this year’s ERA will be, even for the best relievers in the game. Yes, I acknowledge this isn’t the most scientific way to examine this issue. I’m using it an as example, but when it has been examined more closely, it has been shown that a reliever’s single season performance has little predictive value to the next because the sample sizes are just too small for true talent to shine over all the other variables in play. 

So don’t count out the Nationals’ bullpen just yet. Young guys can get the call and put up great numbers. The Nationals could go after some of the free agents still available (Francisco Rodriguez, Burke Badenhop, John Axford) and get solid contributions out of them. In my opinion, building a good bullpen has more do with scouting than numbers, and I trust Mike Rizzo and his team’s ability to scout. After all, even when the Nationals were terrible, they usually had at least one solid bullpen contributor that Rizzo could turn into prospects at the trade deadline.

Finally, people are worried about Drew Storen after his well documented blown saves in the playoffs the last two trips. His playoff numbers are truly ugly: 8.44 ERA in 6 appearances. If reliever single seasons are tough to judge because of the small sample size, playoff numbers are impossible to judge because of miniscule sample sizes. Storen has only thrown 5.1 innings and given up 5 runs. That’s one bad start for a starting pitcher. Yes, Storen had a bit of a mental collapse during the 2013 season, but I think that had more to do with Soriano’s presence than his failure in the preceding playoffs. Even then, that was only the matter of a few innings and his career ERA of 2.94 is very impressive. If you are still not convinced, then I guess you will have to agree that someone who has posted a 5.12 ERA in 11 games and 51 innings pitched clearly can’t handle the pressure of the playoffs and needs to be benched. Good luck convincing the Dodgers to leave ClaytonKershaw off their playoff roster.

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