Friday, December 17, 2010

Getting to know the latest additions to the Sox bullpen

With the signing of Bobby Jenks and Matt Albers over the last couple of days, the Red Sox bullpen now has at least enough bodies to start the season. Jenks is the much bigger name of the two, and he came with a much bigger price tag ($12 million over two years). Theo has to be happy that he avoided a third year, which has been given to many of the free agent relievers this offseason, such as Joaquin Benoit, Scott Downs, Matt Guerrier, and Jesse Crain. In a recent article, Dave Cameron pointed out that multi-year contracts for relievers just don't work, unless you happen to be signing Mariano Rivera.

At first glance, Jenks looks like a pitcher in decline. Between 2008 and 2010 his ERA has steadily risen from 2.63 to 3.71 to 4.44, and in the end of 2010 he lost the White Sox closer job due to injuries and inefficiency. However, if you look at his underlying numbers, 2010 was one of Jenks' best seasons of his career. Jenks has always had an electric fastball that flirted with triple digits in the early part of his career, but that did not always translate into strikeouts. His strikeouts per nine innings in 2008 was a career low 5.55; he was able to maintain h is good ERA thanks to a low walk rate (2.48/9 IP) and some good luck in the form of a high strand rate and a very low percentage of fly balls that left the yard. Since 2008 his strikeout rate has risen, despite increasing ERAs. In 2009 Jenks was victimized by a high proportion of fly balls that left the park (17%). On average, 10% of fly balls become home runs, and this is considered to be a skill that is outside a pitcher's ability to control (the number of fly balls allowed, on the other hand, is not). In 2010 Jenks posted one of the highest strikeout rates in the major leagues (10.42/9 IP), kept his walks in check (3.08/9 IP), and had a very high groundball percentage. Despite the spectacular strikeout and groundball rates, Jenks had his worst year since becoming the White Sox closer. Quite simply, it doesn't add up. Look for Jenks to have a great bounce back season, and give the Red Sox a trio of power arms that rivals the best top three on any other team. Because Jenks was non-tendered by the White Sox, he also won't cost the Red Sox any additional draft picks, which are needed to restock the farm system following the Adrian Gonzalez trade. As an added bonus, the Red Sox now can comfortably let Papelbon walk as a free agent following the 2011 season. Daniel Bard is still the closer in waiting, but if for some reason he doesn't prove ready the Red Sox have a proven closer as a fall back option.

Matt Albers is a lot less exciting. He's reliable, having pitched more than 67 innings in both 2009 and 2010, and can be stretched out into a long relief role, as shown by his 110 innings pitched for Houston in 2007 and the fact that he led the AL in relief appearances longer than one inning last year. He's also mediocre – he doesn't strike a lot of batters out (5-6 per 9 IP), he walks more than he should (4-5 BB/9), and should be good for an ERA around 4.50. He does keep the ball on the ground, keeping his home run rates low. While he won't be in the mix for the high leverage innings, he should be a good innings eater, which could be key given the injury potential in both the bullpen and the starting rotation. Replacement level pitchers are terrible; it varies from year to year, but often times they have an ERA of 5 or greater. Albers value isn't related to how well he'll pitch, but rather that you can count on him to be better than replacement level. Based on Fangraph's Wins Above Replacement statistic (WAR), the Red Sox had almost -2 wins from individuals with negative WAR. Even if Albers can pitch some of those innings at replacement level, he'll be an asset.

There is definitely room for another bullpen signing, particularly another lefty if the Red Sox was to keep Doubront in AAA as a starter. Right now Doubront is the only left handed pitcher I've projected to be in their bullpen, as both Albers and Jenks are right handed. Alternatively, if Rich Hill and Andrew Miller pitch well in spring training, either of them could snag a spot in the bullpen. As both are left handers, this would allow the Red Sox to send Doubront back to AAA for more seasoning as a starter. Both Hill and Miller are former starters who are trying to remake their career as relief pitchers, so they're hardly a sure thing. One final option might be to simply go with all the righties. As Tony Massarotti points out, both Jenks and Bard had excellent years against left handed batters in 2010, despite being right handed.

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