Eno Sarris

Saves and Steals

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What's Going On?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


It's beginning to look like the end of the line for Bobby Valentine. He's probably alienated about half of his players by attacking veterans like Kevin Youkilis in the media, leaving Jon Lester out to dry on a bad day, and generally just being Bobby Valentine. The book on the mercurial media-loving manager has always been suspicion about his devotion to his players, and that's coming to the fore now.

 

And on the other hand, there are still players in that clubhouse that think that the Red Sox decline this year has nothing to do with their manager. Even this Jeff Passan article that blew the most recent lid off of the controversy admits that there's a faction of players that believe that some stars are shifting blame to the manager when it should be on them. And Dustin Pedroia just said publicly that nobody is gunning for the manager -- it's not a clear-cut mutiny.

 

The public is left wondering what's really going on. And in some ways, so is the Red Sox management. They can evaluate their personal relationships, and they can see what's happening on a daily basis, but can they truly separate out the effect their manager has had from the effect their players have had -- and the effect they had, when they put together the current roster? Who gets the blame for Kevin Youkilis' poor season? Who gets the blame for the pitching staff's poor production? How do you shuffle that blame around?

 

Evaluating managers in a studied, scientific way is one of the most difficult things to do in baseball. But it's not alone. So instead of trying to evaluate managers, let's name the tiers after the remaining frontiers in baseball. What do we know the least about? What are the most difficult aspects of the game to figure out in a reasoned way?

 

Tier 1: Elite (5) (AKA: The "The Value of a Manager" Tier.)

 

Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers
Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

 

While we are on the subject, might as well expound. It's virtually impossible to evaluate a manager. Let's say you figure out how to award a manager credits or demerits for his in-game strategy -- then you've figured how to evaluate about a quarter of his job. Then maybe you can give him credit for the lineup. Separating out lineup protection has been difficult in the past, but maybe you can do it. Are you approaching half of his job yet? There's still all the day-to-day stuff, the psychological stuff, the media handling, the leadership when it comes to team and practice… and how are you going to figure THAT stuff out?

 

Nobody can figure out Aroldis Chapman either. And his team is scoring, his bullpen is strong, and he's likely going to be the best reliever in baseball when all is said and done. Consider Jonathan Papelbon, once a contender for that title. He is suffering from a little reduced velocity, his team is having trouble scoring runs, and he might not get the save opportunities the Cuban will enjoy. He's still great.

 

Tier 2: Rock Steady (7) (AKA: The "How to Evaluate a Scout" Tier.)

 

Joel Hanrahan, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rafael Betancourt, Colorado Rockies
Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees

 

Scouts sign players, so there is usually a name associated with a prospect. Teams probably check who signed the best players, too. But it's still an organizational thing. You send multiple scouts out to see a player, and you get input from everywhere. Scouts talk to each other, too. And then the organization makes a pick after gathering as much information as they can. How do you mete out the responsibility for the pick? All blame or fame goes to the one scout that signed him?

 

Rafael Betancourt gets all the blame for blowing a save in San Francisco -- although Hunter Pence should get some of the fame for hitting the home run. And it was only Betancourt's fifth blown save of the year, so it's not a big deal. In his last ten appearances, the Rockies' closer has given up just that one earned run to Pence, and one walk. He's still excellent.

 

It's very tempting to move Rafael Soriano down and Tom Wilhelmsen up. They might be the closest relievers separated by a tier. Wilhelmsen does have more strikeouts and fewer walks -- his improved control is what has made him a monster -- but his team doesn't score runs, and that's half of what makes a save opportunity. The other half -- overall bullpen strength -- is about equal, considering the fresh arms that the Mariners have put together in Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor. A bump in the road might send Soriano down -- after all, he's ceding almost a strikeout per inning to the average closer these days.

 

Tier 3: OK options (6) (AKA: The "Defense" Tier.)

 

Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners
Tyler Clippard, Washington Nationals
Ernesto Frieri, Los Angeles Angels
Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox
Chris Perez, Cleveland Indians
Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles

 

There have been many advancements when it comes to defense. There are numbers out there, and theories. But most defensive numbers take about three times longer to become reliable than most offensive numbers, there's still a lot of debate about how to correctly evaluate defense, and all of the metrics include a subjective evaluation that can gum up the works. Add to this the difficulty of evaluating a catcher's defense in particular, and you can see that evaluating defense is still difficult.

 

The one amazing thing about Addison Reed to date is this: he's managed about a strikeout per inning, along with an above-average walk rate, and he's only blown three saves this year -- and that production should be considered to be below expectations. He had double-digit strikeout rates at every stop in the minor leagues, and minuscule walk rates. If you look at his first strike, zone percentage, outside-the-zone swing percentage, and contact rates, though, they are all above average. Those are better predictors than current walk rate -- first-strike rate in particular -- so expect better control going forward, especially next year.

 

It's nice to see Ernesto Frieri get the save Tuesday night without a walk. He did get the win on August tenth with a Kimbrel -- three strikeouts and no baserunners -- but he's been a little on-again, off-again recently. The walk rate is a little disconcerting, but look at the strikeouts. He now has 16 in his last ten innings, and that's against four walks. That'll do.

 

Tier 4: Question marks (5) (AKA: The "The Link Between Specific Pitches and Injury" Tier.)

 

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals
Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays
Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox

 

I've done some work on this subject myself, and Jeff Zimmerman has improved on that research, and we're fairly sure that heavy use of either sliders or curveballs or both can lead to more injuries. Of course, it's hard to create these studies exactly right, and each arm (ligament) is different. Some pitchers have thrown thousands of pitches in little league and college. Some, like Stephen Strasburg, took up the craft in college. Tough to lump those together in the same buckets.

 

When reading the tea leaves, it's not good to see your closer pitch in a losing game, but at least Steve Cishek only came in to get one out in a game that the Marlins trailed by one run. He's still the nominal closer, and Heath Bell still gave up four runs in his last appearance. Add up the fact that Bell has gone three appearances without a strikeout (and has six in his last ten outings), and you don't get the sense that the highly paid one is knocking down the door. That means Cishek gets to rise above the fray.

 

Alfredo Aceves has one foot in the bottom tier now that Andrew Bailey is back, but Aceves has really righted the ship after a stormy debut as the closer. Still, he's about two strikeouts per inning shy of an average closer, his control is only average, he doesn't get more ground-balls than the average reliever -- there's a crack of daylight for the more excellent but more often injured Bailey to take the reins. Bailey's a decent pickup.

 

Read more about the most volatile closer situations on the next page.


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Eno Sarris is an editor and writer at FanGraphs.com. You can find his work gathered in one place at and enosarris.com. Follow his misadventures in writing on Twitter as well.
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