Jim Johnson led all of baseball with 101 saves over the past two seasons. On September 27th, Dan Duquette told Roch Kubatko of MASN that, “Jim Johnson is one of our core players,” and it was the team’s intention to keep him despite the $10.8M projected salary for 2014. Fast forward to late last week when Buster Olney tweeted that the Orioles were willing to listen to offers on Johnson. After a flurry of rumors yesterday, Duquette decided to allocate his resources to balance the roster to make it more competitive.
Doing so creates a large hole in the back of the Orioles’ bullpen as Johnson also led all of baseball in games finished over the past two seasons. Johnson stepped in to fill the void left by Kevin Gregg’s ineffectiveness two seasons ago, and now someone else has the opportunity to do so. When Johnson did so, it was the easy choice as he had displayed the skills to do so while getting the ball to Gregg to attempt to save games. In looking at the current 40-man roster for Baltimore, there does not seem as clear a choice this time around.
A review of the late inning usage patterns from Buck Showalter shows that he favored four relievers in the late innings: Johnson, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz, and Darren O’Day. Each of those pitchers appeared in the late innings at least 60 different times in 2013.
Hunter made a smooth transition to the bullpen last season, throwing with more velocity than he had as a starter while striking out 20% of the batters he faced. He was able to maintain his low BB%, but remained susceptible to home runs because he still worked high in the zone. Throughout his career, Hunter has had large splits as he lacks an effective third pitch to left-handed batters. 2013 was no different as his wOBA against lefties was 197 points higher than it was against righties due to the fact all 11 of the home runs he allowed were to left-handed batters. Over the past three seasons, his HR/FB ratio against them was 17.8% . He is not the only pitcher that struggles with splits.
O’Day has enjoyed more success against right-handed batters due to his arm angle, limiting them to a .246 wOBA over the past five seasons. That is 50 points below his wOBA against left-handed batters over the five-year span, but his 2013 splits were as drastic as Hunter’s. O’Day had a .207 wOBA against righties last season but a .384 against lefties. This is where Matusz came into play.
Where Hunter and O’Day struggled to consistently retire left-handed batters, Matusz excelled. His .222 wOBA against left-handed batters was in the top 20 for all relievers in baseball (min 400 pitches). He retired 88 of the 112 left-handed batters he faced and they had just a .221 BABIP against him. When he faced righties, his wOBA was .333 and they had a .368 BABIP against him.
The one name in the bullpen who does not display issues with splits is Kevin Gausman. He had a .338 wOBA against left-handed batters and a .328 against right-handed batters in his rookie season. It would be a curious use of his immense talent to leave him in the bullpen again for 2014, at age 22, and then move him back to the rotation at a later date. The Neftali Feliz situation in Texas would be tough to ignore and Baltimore is already recovering from Dylan Bundy’s career being delayed by injury.
The current roster makeup has the makings of a rather interesting closer by committee based on matchups and leverage situations. Showalter, often lauded as a master of bullpen management, could certainly make it work. Yet, the closer by committee theory would be a 180 from having a closer as a “core player,” on the roster.
This free agent class is thin in many areas, but relief pitching is not one of them. Brian Wilson, Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour, and Joaquin Benoit each are out there for any team that is willing to commit the money to them. While the Orioles were not willing to pay $10.8M to a closer for one year, perhaps an amount near that over a two-year period may be in order. Otherwise, there are plenty of pieces on the free agent market, including surprising non-tenders such as Ronald Belisario and Ryan Webb, that could be added into a committee approach.