With the Sox bullpen letting another late lead slip away Sunday, there is little question that the collapse of the relief corps has been one team’s bigger issues this season.
Compounding issues is the news that the Sox may not be making any significant adds at the deadline. While not a white flag by any means, the team is firmly stuck in limbo — not close enough to Tampa to make a deadline splash, but not far enough away to plan for 2011.
A quality seventh inning reliever would do wonders for the bullpen, giving the team a much stronger bridge through the late innings. In particular, a quality non-LOOGY left-hander would be optimal, but that move doesn’t seem to be in the works.
Nevertheless, it’s time we took stock of what we have. The following is a rundown of the top five hurlers in the pen, what they can do, and how they fit in with the pen’s structure..
RHP Ramon Ramirez
40 IP, 6.08 K/9, 3.38 BB/9, 4.73 ERA, 4.83 FIP, 4.86 xFIP
Since the club acquired the righty prior to the ’09 season, Ramirez has taken a step back in nearly every phase of his game.
At this point, ’08 looks to be the outlier. While it’s possible he could regain some of his past form, don’t bet on it. His groundball percentage has declined over ten percent from ’08 while his contact percentage has climbed nearly ten points. While the walks are down on a per-inning basis, it has more to do with the rise in contact percentage as opposed to improved command.
What you see is what you get with Ramirez — he’s a middle innings reliever who is stretched as a contending team’s third best option. The club could use an upgrade here, as Ramirez would be much better suited for a low-leverage role.
Expected ERA: 4.43
Expected K/9: 6.56
Expected BB/9: 3.86
RHP Manny Delcarmen
36.0 IP, 5.75 K/9, 5.50 BB/9, 5.00 ERA, 5.55 FIP, 5.34 xFIP
Delcarmen’s decline over the last two seasons has been one of the more damaging developments the club has had to endure. While in 2007 and 2008 it appeared that Delcarmen would be the club’s cheap, homegrown seventh or eighth inning option, he has lost his feel over the last couple seasons, now struggling as a near replacement-level pitcher. Delcarmen is still one of the more talented relievers the Sox have, but 2010 doesn’t seem to be his year.
At this point, he can’t be relied upon outside of low leverage situations.
Hopefully his arm can get the rest it needs in the offseason, as fatigue has hurt his production the last two seasons. With a fastball velocity that has declined 2.1 mph over the last two seasons and a first strike percentage that has dropped nearly 9 percent from 2008 (’10: 45.9 percent; ’08: 54.7 percent), it is certainly plausible that he is the unfortunate victim of an overtaxed arm.
A steep jump in contact percentage (’10: 85.2 percent; ’08: 78.6 percent) isn’t helping, while Delcarmen has struggled to get swing-and-misses outside the zone (’10: 74.4 O-Contact percentage; ’08: 56.8 percent). The near 20 percent jump in Delcarmen’s O-Contact rate is perhaps the most concerning development as it means his breaking stuff has lacked bite. A guy who has lived on whiffs outside the zone, he’ll have to find that form again if he wants to up the K’s.
His problems won’t be solved this year, but he could regain his form next season with a good amount of rest. For now, the team can throw him out there in low leverage situations, but should avoid him in the late innings -– particularly in situations where they need strikeouts.
Delcarmen is still tremendously talented, but this year doesn’t seem to be his.The search for a seventh inning reliever continues.
Expected ERA: 4.73
Expected K/9: 5.16
Expected BB/9: 4.85
RHP Jonathan Papelbon
41.0 IP, 7.90 K/9, 3.29 BB/9, 3.07 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 4.42 xFIP
Jonathan Papelbon just hasn’t been JONATHAN PAPELBON this year. While a 3.07 ERA is nothing to scoff at, the Fenway Faithful may have just gotten a little too comfortable with the sub-2.00 ERA expectations.
The hard part is isolating the source of Pap’s struggles. To put a long story short, he is virtually unchanged from the pitcher he was last year, or two seasons ago. He still throws strikes, he still gets ahead in the count, and he stills misses bats.
Perhaps the “problem” is that he’s no longer the pitcher he used to be in 2006 and 2007, where he posted ERAs of 0.92 and 1.85, respectively, while registering K/9 rates of 9.88 and 12.96.
In those days, he was just a little better in just about every phase of the game — a collection of small differences that added up to an otherworldly pitcher. T
Take 2007 for example — arguably the most impressive of his career: throwing an impeccable 55.9 percent of pitches in the zone to control the free passes (55.9 Zone Percentage, 67.4 F-Strike Percentage), batters were helpless whenever it came time to swing as well. A deadly combination resulted, as Pap struck out an unbelievable 12.96 batters per nine innings, while surrendering just 2.31 walks per nine.
That season, Pap was just about in line with his peripherals, which expected an 11.94 K/9 and a 2.13 BB/9 — and with good reason. With an unbelievable 42.4 O-Contact percentage and 75.5 Z-Contact percentage, everything was clicking for Papelbon — and it showed.
But that would be the last time his indicators pointed to a pitcher who could strike out nine batters per nine while maintaining a sub-3.00 ERA.
His contact percentages — though still very good — dropped precipitously across the board. His O-Contact rose by over twenty points to 64.4 while his Z-Contact upped by almost seven percent. All told, he was still an excellent pitcher, but not the Papelbon of old. Though he still struck out 10.00 batters per nine with a 2.34 ERA, his peripherals suggested he was more of an 8-9 K/9 guy with a 3.00+ ERA.
Though things were good on the surface again in 2009 with another 10+ K/9 and 1.85 ERA, he had taken another step back. His expected K/9 rate sat at just 8.0 while his expected ERA sat at 3.7.
2010 has been quite the interesting season. While Papelbon is turning in the worst season of his career, his indicators are perhaps his best since 2008. Unfortunately, the results haven’t been there.
Still, Papelbon is quite the interesting case study. There has long been a perception in the league that some guys, even when faced with diminishing stuff, can continue to get batters out based on reputation. Some suspected it of Koufax in his twilight years when his arthritic elbow started tearing his career apart. Others thought the same of Pedro during his various comeback attempts.
It’s possible that Papelbon may have benefited from a similar phenomenon — that batters were so used to him dominating that he was able to take advantage of a psychological advantage.
The rabbit hole only gets deeper when you consider that, in my studies, pitchers have shown a very inconsistent ability to outperform their expected strikeout and walk rates. Since Papelbon was significantly outperforming strikeout rates for a number of years, it was a near certainty that he would fall back to Earth at some point.
There are a couple caveats, however — the first being that I only completed research on starting pitchers, so there is room for error on relievers. The second is the fact that, while it is an inconsistent ability, starting pitchers can outperform their expected rates on a year-to-year basis. However, their ability to do so seems to be about as strong as their ability to control BABIP: though it exists to a certain extent, it difficult to establish without hundreds — possibly thousands — of innings of data.
I won’t go any further than that, since applying these principles to relievers requires a bit of speculation. Still, it is worth pointing out.
But the questions must still be asked: has the league caught up to Papelbon? Was he simply outperforming himself in 2008 and 2009? Do relievers have significant control of their ability to outperform their expected strikeout rates?
Perhaps those are better questions for Theo Epstein to ponder.
Whatever the case, there is no mistaking this fact: Jonathan Papelbon is a tremendous reliever and a prime asset for a championship caliber team. Boston should be — and is — very happy to have him.
Expected ERA: 3.37
Expected K/9: 7.79
Expected BB/9: 1.82
LHP Hideki Okajima
31.0 IP, 6.97 K/9, 4.06 BB/9, 5.81 ERA, 5.01 FIP, 5.16 xFIP
With all the disappointments the bullpen has endured in 2010, the demise of Hideki Okajima is perhaps the hardest to swallow. With no reliever having stepped up to cover the seventh inning and no other experienced lefty in the ‘pen, Okie has been a difficult man to replace.
There have been numerous theories presented as to the root of Okajima’s struggles — from fatigue to loss of deception and everything in between — the problem seems to lie with lost command. Aside from difficulties locating the plate, Okajima’s peripherals haven’t changed much from years past. He’s still missing bats, his velocity is consistent from last season, and he’s even giving up fewer fly balls from years past.
However, his zone percentage has fallen over seven percent from 2009 to 44.0 percent in 2010. A drop that steep will, without a doubt, result in plenty of added walks. However, the story is a bit more complicated than that. In particular, batters are chasing Okie’s offerings at over 30 percent this season — a career high — which accounts for at least some of the drop in zone percentage. In addition, the approach doesn’t seem to have affected his expected values a whole lot. A return to his 2009 levels of O-Swing and Zone percentage would yield only a 4.33 ERA — not so different from the 4.39 of 2010.
The other major issue affecting Okajima’s performance is his skyrocketing .398 BABIP. While this is surely an aberration, a loss of command could certainly be accompanied by an increase in BABIP. If Okajima were leaving balls out over the plate, especially if he were failing to locate his breaking balls, a rise in BABIP could be expected — just not to this level.
Going forward, Okajima will have to reign in his command — locating more pitches in the zone while avoiding the sweet spot of the bat. While it’s hard to say that a pitcher performing this poorly will rebound, it’s also difficult to say that he won’t be able to. All signs point to him recovering to a productive level — just don’t expect a pristine sub-3.00 ERA.
Expected ERA: 4.39
Expected K/9: 6.62
Expected BB/9: 3.70
RHP Daniel Bard
48.1 IP, 9.31 K/9, 2.79 BB/9, 1.86 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 3.33 xFIP
Where would the bullpen be without Daniel Bard? With every other reliever in the relief corps suffering through down years, Bard has been the relief ace the club has needed. Unfortunately, one player can’t save a bullpen — even with how good Bard has been.
But he is not without flaw.
While he has been truly remarkable against righties (24.1 IP, 34 K, 5 BB), he will have to improve against lefties (24.0 IP, 16 K, 10 BB) if he ever wants to confidently claim Boston’s closer role.
In addition, much of his shiny 1.86 ERA is supported by an impossibly low .203 BABIP. Don’t expect that to continue.
Nevertheless, he’s an incredibly talented reliever who induces ground balls (48.7 GB percentage), throws gas (Average Fastball: 97.9 mph), and can locate the zone (48.8 Zone percentage, 60.5 F-Strike percentage).
All in all, he’s the man of the future — and the present. All year, he’s been the bridge and lynchpin from the middle relief to Papelbon in the ninth. He’ll continue to be one of the most important pitchers on the Sox’ staff, just don’t be surprised when the ERA starts to rise a bit.
Expected ERA: 3.26
Expected K/9: 9.60
Expected BB/9: 3.19