In a move that sent approximately zero shock waves through the baseball world, the Red Sox signed former Jays left-handed reliever Jesse Carlson to a split contract this week. It was such a big story that it wasn’t even reported on MLB Trade Rumors for well over a day after the news of the signing first broke. While this transaction has flown under the radar for obvious reasons, it could pay dividends for the Red Sox.
For his career, Carlson has thrown 141.1 innings with a FIP of 4.11, good for 1.1 WAR. This obviously isn’t much to get excited about, and neither is the fact that he has only pitched 13.2 innings in the big leagues since the end of the 2009 season. After two solid seasons in the Blue Jays pen, Carlson was sent to the minors before the 2010 season, and stayed there until he was recalled on August 15th. He then missed the entire 2011 campaign after undergoing left rotator cuff surgery.
Obviously there is some injury risk with Carlson, but let’s take a look at what he can do when he is on the mound. First of all, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his mechanics. The left-handed Carlson has a fairly low arm slot and springs off the mound to the first base side during his throw. This makes him a tough match-up for left-handed hitters, as evidenced by his 3.72 FIP against lefties, due mainly to his ability to keep the ball in the yard – 0.67 HR/9.
However, it is his performance against right-handed hitters that makes him a useful piece of a bullpen. While Carlson isn’t a lights out left-handed specialist, he also doesn’t embarrass himself against righties, posting a career FIP of 4.48. This means that he can give you more innings than your typical lefty specialist, as indicated by the 127.2 innings he accumulated in his two full seasons with Toronto. This was the 5th highest number of innings thrown by a lefty during that time span. There is value in a pitcher who can get left-handed hitters out but also eat up innings by staying in the game to face a right-handed hitter, not to mention that he has proven he can do it in the AL East.
It should also be mentioned that while he was a fly ball pitcher in 2008 and 2009 with GB%’s of 34.2% and 37.1%, in limited action in 2010 he did induce ground balls 52.3% of the time. This may just be small sample size noise, but he did change his pitch mix to include more fastballs, on which he does have good movement. If he can keep the ball on the ground close to 50% of the time, it should help decrease his home run total, a death sentence for the statistics of any relief pitcher.
The best part about this for the Red Sox is because it is a split contract, there is minimal risk on their end. If their evaluators decide in Spring Training that his stuff isn’t there, or he gets hurt, they can send him packing to Pawtucket with a minimal financial loss. If it does work out, they are looking at 0.5-1.0 WAR from a low-cost left-handed reliever. Due to the fickle nature of relief pitchers, it is always beneficial to have as many options as possible.
While Jesse Carlson certainly isn’t the difference maker between a 3rd place finish and October glory, he does offer the opportunity to bring some innings and stability to the pen for new manager Bobby Valentine.