Scouting the Relievers

added 11/15/2005 by Scott Barzilla

The Astros have already announced their intentions to get a lefty reliever. After all, when you have Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls in the bullpen there isn’t THAT much of a need for a relief pitcher. However, the club isn’t completely enchanted with Mike Gallo. Gallo did perform last season, but he is one of those guys you always feel nervous about when he enters the game. Which lefty they go after depends greatly on some speculation that is being bandied about. Are the Astros thinking about dealing Brad Lidge?

The kneejerk reaction is to think that the possibility is an overreaction to his struggles in the playoffs. However, there is some logic behind it in general. First, teams that spend a great deal of money on closers normally don’t get bang for their buck. Lidge is at the point where he is going to get paid. The club dealt Billy Wagner when they felt they had a decent replacement (Dotel) and they dealt Dotel when they felt they had a replacement in Lidge. Now, some within the organization feel Qualls might be ready to take over. Yet, the newest rumor has the Astros eyeing B.J. Ryan of the Baltimore Orioles.

The thought process around Ryan is that he has closing experience, he is a lefty, and he will be a mid-range kind of signing (4-5 million). All signs point to Lidge entering Billy Wagner money within two or three seasons. Branch Rickey thought it was always better to deal someone one year too soon than one year too late. Lidge has been injury prone and is coming off of three consecutive seasons with eighty or more innings in relief. Signing a Ryan to a long-term (three years) contract is that it gives you cost certainty at the position and even provides an out in case Qualls proves to be the guy. Ryan will still be valuable as a lefty setup guy if he gets ousted as the closer.

The Astros hold the hammer on Lidge because he is one of the hotter commodities at the position. Yet, they could easily hold onto him and sign Ryan to be an additional late inning arm. The logic follows the blueprint from the 1999-2001 Mariners who went from a shaky bullpen to the deepest bullpen in baseball overnight. Asking the likes of Astacio, Rodriguez, and Backe to provide six quality innings is more plausible then asking them to go seven. Of course, the Astros want a lefty that can get lefties out consistently, but B.J. Ryan isn’t the only marquee name available. The reunion of Billy the Kid and the Astros could be a possibility if even a remote one. He has said he will only return if he’s the closer, but the trade Lidge backers will pounce on that irony.

After Ryan and Wagner there is an impressive collection of accomplished lefties. Some of them might not be what they used to be, but some of them have flown under the radar before. Like with the starters, we’re going to look at their DIPS over the past three seasons and then their lefty/righty splits. The grand list this off-season includes Ryan, Wagner, Scott Eyre, Chris Hammond, Jason Christiansen, Terry Mulholland, Alan Embree, Buddy Groom, and Joey Eishen. Out of the group, Hammon, Mulholland, and Embree are on the wrong side of 35, but on a one year basis they may work. At any rate, we’ll start with the overall numbers over the past three years.

                    SO/9   BB/9  Ratio   HR/9	
B.J. Ryan          12.35   3.81   3.24   0.39 
Billy Wagner       10.66   2.08   5.13   0.81
Scott Eyre          7.53   3.99   1.89   0.76
Chris Hammond       5.80   1.95   2.97   0.92
Jason Christiansen  5.43   4.51   1.20   0.84
Terry Mulholland    3.84   2.78   1.38   1.28
Alan Embree         6.78   2.32   2.93   1.24
Buddy Groom         5.57   2.72   2.05   1.17
Joey Eischen        7.27   3.34   2.18   0.84

Out of this list, we want to get guys that have a two to one SO/BB ratio or better and fewer than one home runs per nine innings. Of course, B.J. Ryan and Billy Wagner fit that bill, but Chris Hammond and Joey Eishen do as well. Scott Eyre is the next closest to fulfilling both. Hammond has the best control of the group and has always been a personal favorite of mine. He signed in San Diego last season for less than a million dollars.

I could look at the lefty/righty splits, but there is something that needs to be addressed first. We will look at Jeff Bagwell’s situation in more detail when we look at first base, but we have to consider the possibility that he will not be able to play regularly in the field. If that is the case it will have a very important ripple effect on the rest of the roster. There are four regular infielders. We can surmise that Eric Bruntlett and Mike Lamb will be back as the primary backups. If Jeff Bagwell is on the bench, he will be the third reserve infielder.

Most teams carry five outfielders, so that would be five outfielders, seven infielders, two catchers, and five starting pitchers. That leaves space for six relief pitchers. This is where need to get into some more math. If we assume the Astros’ starting pitchers hurl the same number of innings as last season we can estimate the number of innings they will need out of their relievers.

                    GS  INN     IPS
Roger Clemens       32  211.1  6.60 
Andy Pettitte       33  222.1  6.74
Roy Oswalt          35  241.2  6.90
Brandon Backe       25  149.1  5.97
Ezequiel Astacio    14   81.0  5.79
Wandy Rodriguez     22  128.2  5.85
Total              161 1034.1  6.42

We cannot reasonably expect this again, plus Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez, and Astacio actually had a few relief appearances that inflated these numbers. Is it safe to assume that the starting pitchers could average six innings a game next season? Well, if that is true the starting pitchers would work 972 innings. If there were no extra inning games at all we could expect the bullpen to work 486 innings. However, let’s be realistic and say the bullpen would work 500 innings counting any extra innings affair.

With six relief pitchers, that means that each would work more than eighty innings if they divided the work evenly. If you have a lefty specialist they work 40 innings if they get in maximum work. That leaves five relief pitchers to work a combined 460 innings. 92 innings a piece is a lot to ask of five relievers. The subtle effect on the bullpen cannot be ignored when you move to seven relievers, but the Astros will be hard-pressed to do that with the Bagwell situation. What they have to do if they want a lefty is find one that can be used against both righties and lefties. No better place to look than at how they have been used before.

                   Games Innings    IPG
B.J. Ryan            221   207.2   0.94 
Billy Wagner         198   212.0   1.07
Scott Eyre           243   178.0   0.73
Chris Hammond        158   175.1   1.11	
Jason Christiansen   168   107.2   0.64
Terry Mulholland     133   281.1   2.12 	
Alan Embree          203   159.1   0.78	
Buddy Groom          167   139.0   0.83
Joey Eischen         148   107.2   0.73

We have two considerations here in the same chart. First, how many games were these pitchers able to pitch each season and how many innings per game did they pitch. What we see is that Ryan, Wagner, Hammond, and Mulholland were used normally, but the others are closer to the lefty specialist types we all know and love. So, if we boil it down to the four normal relievers we find that Wagner and Ryan are probably too expensive unless we trade Lidge. That leaves Mulholland and Hammond. Hammond is the best choice out of the bunch.