Pursue the Next Ayala, Not Luis Himself

Jim Bowden tweeted over the weekend that six teams were pursuing reliever Luis Ayala. The list of suitors included progressive teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays. Since these teams typically spend money wisely, their interest in a retread reliever like Ayala is pretty puzzling.

Yes, Ayala had a decent 2011 season with the Yankees, but he isn’t the type of player all these teams should pursue. He isn’t a closer or a traditional setup man. Aside from last season, when he had a 3.40 FIP against lefties and a 4.99 mark against righties, he isn’t very effective against opposite-handed hitters. He has never really lit the league ablaze against same-handed opponents either.

Throughout his career, Ayala has posted average strikeout and walk rates, a decent groundball rate, and home run rates — per nine innings and relative to flyballs allowed — right in line with the league. He was also previously reputed as a rubber-arm reliever, though injuries have taken their toll on his durability in recent years.

Ayala does not really stand out as a reliever worth a guaranteed major league deal that may start a bidding war between teams serious about contending.

The only way this amped up pursuit of his services makes sense is if teams are convinced that he is actually the reliever that posted a 2.09 ERA in 56 innings with the Yankees. That would be a foolish belief.

That was merely 56 innings of work, and few of his approach-laden metrics shifted from 2009, his last season in the majors. His pitch data is consistent across those two seasons, especially after considering that the slider/cutter issues are classification-based and not a true change in repertoire. On top of that, his SIERA was in line with rates dating back to 2005, when it ranged from 3.95-4.28. Last season also saw Ayala post the worst walk rate of his career as well as his first sub-2.0 K/BB ratio. His groundball rate jumped to 50 percent, which was a good sign, but his BABIP plummeted to .282. Pitchers with high groundball rates don’t tend to prevent hits at that magnitude.

He stranded 86 percent of his baserunners allowed, good for eighth in the American League among qualifying relievers. He also allowed four unearned runs, more than any junior circuit reliever in the top ten in earned run average.

There was plenty of wiggle room in his ERA: add back a couple unearned runs and normalize his strand rate closer to his career 76 percent mark and suddenly that 2.09 ERA can be adjusted to the 3.20-3.30 range. While still solid, that rate would fall more in line with expected marks based on his underlying numbers.

Mix together the ingredients of this analytic stew and it sure seems like Ayala’s success had less to do with his specific attributes and more to do with surrounding circumstances.

If anything suggested that Ayala changed his approach and was truly a different pitcher, then he could become a decent buy-low candidate as an under the radar setup man. But that isn’t the case. One of these teams is likely to guarantee him $2 million to sporadically log the sixth or seventh inning. One of the major reasons he added value to the Yankees last year was his initial signing of a non-guaranteed, minor league deal. He was a low-risk, medium-reward candidate that fulfilled the reward since so little was invested in his direction.

Players fitting that description are who these teams should be pursuing. It’s very tough to evaluate relievers, let alone to predict which free agent could turn into an Ayala clone for 2012. However, signing one or more of them to minor league deals in the hope they can string together 50-60 solid innings is a much sounder strategy than guaranteeing funds to Ayala and hoping he can stave off regression over another small sample of innings.

Who would fit this bill?

There are at least four candidates that could likely be signed to minor league deals, offering a similar chance to “break out” in the majors if given a chance.

One is Taylor Buchholz, who posted a 9.0 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and 2.92 SIERA with the Mets last season in 26 innings. He’s just 29 years old and is definitely worth a flier if he has found a way to get past his depression and anxiety issues, which is in no way a given. Another candidate is Kiko Calero, who has been hit hard by recent injuries, but who has very appealing career numbers: 9.6 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 3.36 SIERA. He spent 2010 in the Mets and Dodgers farm system and didn’t pitch in 2011. Health permitting, he is another low-risk, medium-reward reliever.

Juan Cruz and Jason Isringhausen are two others that immediately come to mind. Cruz walks plenty of batters, but he still misses plenty of bats, and over his last three full seasons — 2008, 2009 and 2011 — he posted respective BABIPs of .276, .276 and .256. Izzy threw just eight innings in 2009, supposedly retired, tossed five frames in the Reds farm system in 2010, and pitched relatively well for the Mets last season. An 8.5 K/9 for a 38-year old is nothing to sneeze at, and he wouldn’t cost much either.

None of these relievers is guaranteed to perform well next year, but neither is Ayala. Guaranteeing money to a reliever risky in both the health and performance departments is foolish, especially when viable alternatives exist and the reliever won’t even be considered for the vaunted closer or setup roles.

Luis Ayala is not worth a bidding war. Teams would be much better-suited to look for relievers with solid underlying numbers that they can sign for similar low-risk deals.

Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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Brad Johnson
11 years ago

Buccholz is a great name to mention.

Ayala seems like a prime candidate for a $750k contract to fill out a bullpen, nothing more. It will be interesting to see if teams are making him substantially higher offers. I suspect several teams like him as a “free” pitcher but will bow out as soon as anything approaching real money is discussed.