Everybody knows about Billy Wagner’s ability at the closer position, and by now most know about impressive rookie Jonny Venters holding down the Atlanta Braves bullpen. However, the best FIP on the team belongs to Takashi Saito and his 2.40 mark over 48 innings this season. This impressive performance has Saito at 1.1 WAR already, making him the third Brave reliever to top the 1.0 WAR mark this season.
It’s not terribly surprising that Saito is having a good season. CHONE and ZiPS both projected a sub-3.50 FIP out of Saito despite his advanced age – a major input for these systems. However, there were warning signs that Saito wouldn’t be as good as these projections expected, as Erik Manning pointed out in the winter.
Saito’s career K/9 of 10.9 dropped to 8.4, which is substantiated by an 80% contact rate. Compare that to a career rate of 73%. His walks were also up, as more batters sat back on his breaking stuff rather than chasing it outside of the zone.
Saito also became an extreme fly ball pitcher – 52% of his balls in play were flies, but 18% of those were of the infield variety, so that’s at least a positive here among some negatives.
Throw this and more together and out pops a 4.40 tRA – not completely terrible, but a clear decline across the board for Saito. It’s definitely not what you would want to see out of high leverage reliever.
Groundball rate typically stabilizes quickly, and so even though Saito only threw 55 innings in 2009, that’s enough to worry at least a little bit about a 15% drop in groundball rate. Whatever it was that caused the massive increase in balls in the air, it has reversed itself in 2010. Saito is once again inducing ground balls on 46% of balls in play. Combine that with a strikeout rate (12 K/9) that’s back at elite levels and a walk rate (2.6 BB/9) that’s back below average, and Saito is once again looking like an elite reliever as he did with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Swift drops across the board in a relief season like those Saito suffered in 2009 may not be worrying for a younger pitcher, as the small sample size typically has a high impact. However, when the subject is over the hill, we have to worry about legitimate deterioration of skills with age. In this case, it doesn’t appear that Saito has lost much, if anything, of what made him worth a staggering 6.9 WAR in only 189 innings from 2006-2008. The magic continues for Saito with Atlanta at the age of 40, and any hints of his career headed towards its end appear to be gone now.
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