Mariners Get Joaquin Benoit, Who Won’t Go Away

Here’s the difference between now and the trade deadline. At the trade deadline, when the Twins went out and picked up Kevin Jepsen, I shrugged and kept thinking about other, potentially bigger things. I forgot about the move five minutes after I learned about it. Now, this is a whole post about the Mariners going out and picking up Joaquin Benoit from the Padres. Not that Benoit and Jepsen are identical, but they belong in the tier of second- or third-class moves. As such, I’m sure many of you couldn’t care less about this, but before you go away, let me tell you — Benoit remains one interesting reliever. Good relief pitching is en vogue at the moment, and while Benoit will be 39 next July, he doesn’t seem to be on the verge of anything but another strong 65 innings.

Benoit is going to cost $7.5 million. The Mariners got him from San Diego for Enyel De Los Santos and Nelson Ward, and while De Los Santos is a young one with a big arm, there’s a reason those are two unfamiliar names. Neither is likely to do anything at the highest level; Benoit is likely to go another season or three. For the Padres, there’s nothing wrong with shedding salary and adding a live-armed project. But, necessarily, this is more interesting from the Mariners’ side. As long as Benoit has pitched, he still seems capable of keeping opponents off base.

There’s something strange about Benoit, first of all. The Rangers shifted him permanently into relief in 2006. He actually throws harder now than he did back then. He’s not the only such pitcher, but it’s uncommon and unexpected. Injury cost Benoit his 2009; the Rays got him all better in 2010. That’s when Benoit found a new level of velocity, and he hasn’t left it since.

So let’s think about those six years. Six years of high-leverage relieving, in Tampa Bay, in Detroit, in San Diego. Over the six years, 590 different pitchers have faced at least 500 batters. Benoit ranks 11th in wOBA allowed, at .249. He’s essentially tied with Jake McGee. He’s essentially tied with Clayton Kershaw. He’s a few points ahead of Sergio Romo. He’s not on Craig Kimbrel’s level, over the whole window, but then nobody is.

That establishes Benoit’s overall effectiveness. But, he’s a reliever. Relievers frequently become relievers because they aren’t so good against opposite-handed hitters. Against righties, Benoit has allowed a .240 wOBA — ranking him 14th, out of 619. That’s clearly outstanding. Yet against lefties, Benoit has allowed just a .257 wOBA, ranking him 36th, out of 543. That’s also terrific. That means Benoit has allowed about the same wOBA to lefties as Kenley Jansen and Matt Thornton.

When Kelvin Herrera came into one of the playoff games last month, the broadcast talked about how the Royals love him in large part because he doesn’t have a big platoon split. He can pitch against anybody. That does make him a relatively unusual kind of weapon, and, Herrera has a career platoon split of 17 wOBA points. That’s exactly where Benoit comes in over the six years. This could be important in a Mariner bullpen with Carson Smith, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Charlie Furbush, all of whom have their issues against opposite-side hitters.

Benoit isn’t a huge-strikeout sort. He gets his whiffs, but he’s not exactly Aroldis Chapman. One of the things that allows him to be successful is that he limits contact quality, as evidenced by the fact that, over the six years, he’s allowed baseball’s second-lowest BABIP. His BABIP is like Tyler Clippard’s, and Clippard is widely recognized as a guy who out-pitches his peripherals. Supporting this to some extent — look at this Baseball Savant pitcher leaderboard. If you look at the Statcast data, then, last year, out of all the pitchers in baseball who allowed at least 100 measured batted balls, Benoit yielded the lowest average exit velocity. Lower than Herrera. Lower than Kershaw. Lower than Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta. And to be honest I don’t know why I set the cutoff at 100; if you drop it to 50, then Benoit ranks second, just ahead of Chapman and Dellin Betances.

I’m not saying Benoit is definitively that good at avoiding hard contact. But he does seem better than most. And while he’ll occasionally groove a mistake, that’s just part of the package, and Safeco will devour a few long fly balls. You might say it’s not really fair to fold in Benoit’s 2010 season, given how long ago that was. He is, after all, 38 years old. But he’s not showing any signs of it. Here are his yearly pitch velocities:

Joaquin Benoit Pitch Speeds
Year Four-seam Slider Splitter
2010 95 87 84
2011 95 87 84
2012 95 87 84
2013 95 89 85
2014 96 90 86
2015 95 88 85
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

I’ve rounded the decimals away, for ease of reading. Benoit’s stuff isn’t any slower. His pitches haven’t changed shape. He’s remained about the same talent, with his results simply bouncing around. At some point he will be in decline. Maybe it’s started. But nothing dramatic has happened, yet. He allowed 70% contact with the Rays in 2010, and he allowed 68% contact with the Padres in 2015. He’s still not a pleasure to hit.

Darren O’Day is a highly sought-after free agent. As he ought to be — he’s still just 33, and he’s been tremendously effective for a number of seasons. Given his ability, and given demand, it wouldn’t at all be a shock to see O’Day find himself four guaranteed years. Every competitive team in baseball wants him. Two, three, four years from now, O’Day will probably be better than Benoit. He is significantly younger. But over four seasons since arriving in Baltimore, O’Day’s allowed a .256 wOBA. Over the same four years, Benoit’s come in at .258. Joaquin Benoit’s been pitching forever, but he’s long been excellent at his job, and it seems like all systems should be go for 2016. That makes him a good add for a team that wants to win without coughing up what long-term assets it has.

We hoped you liked reading Mariners Get Joaquin Benoit, Who Won’t Go Away by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Guy in the Veal Calf Office
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Guy in the Veal Calf Office

“One of the things that allows him to be successful is that he limits contact quality, as evidenced by the fact that, over the six years, he’s allowed baseball’s second-lowest BABIP.”

I’m behind state of the art in “contact quality” analysis, but I read that and asked myself:

1. We can confidently attribute a skill to one player (and not another) of controlling contact quality based on ~400 IP? How about 200IP? 100?

2. Are there scout-able skills (e.g., velocity, repertoire, handedness, holding runners) that can predict contact quality skill?

3. Are there splits for pitching from windup/stretch that might show degrading velocity, movement, contact quality, etc?

Also, and this is more Laurila’s beat, how does this trade come together? Say San Diego decides to lower salary, do they (i) identify an expensive player, identify teams that need that player, and call those teams or (ii) post a message to a Yahoo GM board: “Clearance Sale This Week, All Items $7m AAS or More” and start taking calls? Did the GM lose a bet to the Seattle GM? Did Alpine climbing eclipse surfing as Benoit’s #1 hobby.