Thursday, March 27, 2008

Position Analysis: Relief Pitcher

The Twins have employed a very simple formula for winning games over the past several years: get five or six solid innings from the starting pitcher, then hand things over to the bullpen and let them dominate. For the most part, this has been a successful strategy because the Twins have maintained a very strong bullpen. Last year, the Twins' bullpen posted a solid 3.80 ERA to rank fifth in the AL -- this in a season where Jesse Crain was lost due to a shoulder injury and Juan Rincon and Dennys Reyes regressed significantly. Breakout contributions from Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier buoyed the Twins' relief unit and another strong season from closer Joe Nathan helped keep leads safe. This year, everyone from last year's group returns, and there is a plenty of reason to be optimistic that this unit can be better than last season, perhaps even closer to 2006 when they posted a 2.91 ERA to lead the majors.

Joe Nathan - Closer
2007 Stats: 71.2 IP, 1.88 ERA, 37 SV, 77 K / 19 BB, 1.02 WHIP


After Johan Santana was traded during the offseason, there was quite a bit of speculation that Nathan would be on his way out right behind the ace starter. Ultimately, the Twins elected not to deal Nathan; on the contrary, they tabbed the star closer to a three-year extension that will pay him $11.25 million in each of the next four seasons. Regardless of your feelings on whether or not a guy who throws a maximum of 70 innings per year is worth that kind of money, there is simply no denying that Nathan is one of the very best at what he does. Since becoming the team's full-time closer back in 2004, he has posted a 1.94 ERA and 355-to-80 K/BB ratio, both of which are simply awesome. Nathan's strikeout rate dipped substantially last year (down to 9.67 K/9 from 12.51 in '06), but he still saved 37 games in 41 opportunities with a 1.88 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, so there is little reason concern. Nathan is 33, but closers tend to age well. There's no reason to expect anything but excellence from the Twins' elite closer in '08.

Pat Neshek - Setup Man
2007 Stats: 70.1 IP, 2.94 ERA, 74 K / 27 BB, 1.01 WHIP

Neshek arrived in 2006, devastating opponents with his funky delivery and posting disgusting numbers over his first 37 big-league innings. During the first half of the 2007 season, he continued to do essentially the same thing nearly earning an All-Star berth. Compare the numbers from his '06 debut to his first half last year:


2006

2007, first half

IP

37

42.1

ERA

2.19

1.70

K

53

52

BB

6

13

WHIP

0.78

0.73


After the All-Star break, things went downhill drastically for Neshek. His ERA shot up to 4.82, his WHIP climbed to 1.43, and his walk rate nearly doubled while his strikeout rate dropped off a cliff. Some people figure that Neshek's struggles were due to the league's hitters getting a bead on his unique delivery, but the more likely scenario is that he wore down late in the year after being overused by Ron Gardenhire. Neshek strengthened up in the offseason and the hope is that he can get back to his early '07 form and return to being an amazingly reliable setup man in front of Nathan. The results so far this spring (10 IP, 0 ER, 2 H, 0 BB, 9 K) have certainly been encouraging.

Matt Guerrier - Middle Reliever
2007 Stats: 88 IP, 2.35 ERA, 68 K / 21 BB, 1.05 WHIP

Like Neshek, Guerrier had a spectacular first half in 2007 before fading a bit after the All-Star break. In Guerrier's case, The drop-off was not as drastic -- his ERA rose from 1.70 to a still-respectable 3.34 and while his hit rate took a major leap his strikeout and walk rates remained relatively steady. It's probably not realistic to expect Guerrier to approach the type of numbers he posted in what was most likely a flukey first half last season, but he's a very solid reliever with an outstanding curveball and should again prove to be a reliable No. 2 setup option behind Neshek.

Juan Rincon - Middle Reliever
2007 Stats: 59.2 IP, 5.13 ERA, 49 K / 28 BB, 1.56 WHIP

Rincon had been on a downward slope ever since his tremendous 2004 campaign, and it all culminated last year with a brutal 5.13 ERA and 1.56 WHIP. Rincon was utterly hittable, struggled with his control, and surrendered nine home runs to nearly double his previous career high. Without any obvious injury issues to point at, it seems that Rincon has become a mere shadow of his former self. He has much to prove this season; any substantial production would be a bonus but expectations should be low.

Jesse Crain - Middle Reliever
2007 Stats: 16.2 IP, 5.51 ERA, 10 K / 4 BB, 1.41 WHIP

After making 18 appearances and posting some ugly numbers last year, Crain underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. The prognosis for pitchers undergoing such a surgery is not at all good, and I didn't feel the right-hander had much chance of being ready by Opening Day. Much to my surprise, he has pitched well this spring and it appears that he will have a spot on the big-league roster when the Twins break camp. Still, it's tough to imagine him being overly effective this year.

Dennys Reyes - Lefty Specialist
2007 Stats: 29.2 IP, 3.99 ERA, 21 K / 21 BB, 1.88 WHIP

Who knows what got into Reyes in 2006. After a career of complete and utter mediocrity, the 29-year-old exploded with an absurdly good season, posting a 0.89 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while holding opposing hitters to a .197 average and fanning a batter per inning. Last year, Reyes came back to Earth in a big way, struggling with injuries while posting an even K/BB ratio and allowing a .309 BAA. In '06, Reyes fulfilled his LOOGY role about as well as humanly possible, holding lefty hitters to a minuscule 424 OPS; last year that figure jumped to 673 while righties pounded him to the tune of .364/.509/.500. If Reyes can stay healthy this year, I suspect his performance will improve from 2007 and he should be an effective lefty specialist, but I strongly doubt we'll ever see anything close to that ridiculous season he had two years ago.

Brian Bass - Long Reliever
2007 Stats (w/ AAA Rochester): 103.1 IP, 7-3, 3.48 ERA, 80 K / 24 BB, 1.16 WHIP

Certainly the biggest surprise on the pitching staff, Bass was out of the options and earned a spot on the roster with a good performance this spring. Formerly a sixth-round pick of the Royals back in 2000, Bass has progressed slowly but had a solid season in Rochester last year. His next major-league appearance will be his first. He's not likely to be any better than Willie Eyre was a couple years ago, but he could be useful on occasions where Twins starters get shelled and have to come out of a game very early.

5 comments:

David said...

I really wish Gardy would go back to using Reyes in the LOOGY role. What he's done since 2006 is put Reyes in for one inning, like any other relief pitcher. Reyes + right handed batter = bad

Anonymous said...

The LOOGY role? That's kind of a funny way to describe what you want Reyes' role should be. Whatever happened to being a "situational" pitcher?

Nick N. said...

A LOOGY is a situational pitcher. Lefty One Out GuY. To be honest though, Reyes wasn't even that good against lefties last year...

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