Giving Middle Relievers Their Due


As is the case every year when All-Star rosters are announced, a flurry of articles filled the pages of baseball blogs across the interwebs crying foul and declaring the biggest snubs for this year’s midsummer classic. This isn’t one of those articles.

Some of those articles have a point, while others simply feature a myopic writer whose allegiances to a favorite team of player prevent them from accurately analyzing the quality of the athletes involved. Either way, I’m not too concerned about the AL and NL All-Star rosters, or for that matter, the game itself. I’m sure any player would tell you that the All-Star appearances are nice, but at the end of the day they’d trade their spot in the meaningless game for a playoff appearance and a shot at a ring. It’s a fun exhibition, but nothing to get too lathered up over.

I’m all for celebrating the game’s best players, and the All-Star game does so for the most part. However, the game does not seem to have a place for non-closing relievers. No relief pitcher will appear in KC with less than the seven saves of Oakland’s Ryan Cook, the token Athletic on the AL’s team. In the NL, flamethrowing Aroldis Chapman has the lowest save total of any reliever, with only nine, but has collected each of those saves since May 20, when he took over for Sean Marshall as Cincinnati’s primary closer. Since that date, 12 of Chapman’s 16 appearances have come in save situations. After Chapman, the next lowest save total is Huston Street’s perfect 12 in 12 opportunities. Street’s low total belies the fact that his team hasn’t been able to get him the ball with the lead for the ninth inning, and his presence on the All-Star team is similarly largely a function of the fact that he plays for one of the worst teams in the league, and the Padres, like Oakland, don’t have an obvious All-Star representative available. All other relievers named to the All-Star game have 18 or more saves, meaning that among the top 12 saves leaders in MLB, 7 will be representing their teams in Kansas City.

That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily an issue, as teams generally do have their best reliever closing games, so pitchers with large save totals are usually going to have a little better stuff than your average middleman. That said, clearly the save totals don’t nearly tell the whole story. I’m not saying the All-Star game is a place for middle relievers, as they don’t have the star power and popularity that are so large a part of the All-Star game. What I am saying is, as we recognize the best starters and closers in the league, I’d like to shed a little light on three relievers in each league who, despite not inhabiting the closing role, have been impressive in late-inning action and contributed important innings to their clubs.

National League

Sean Marshall, Reds: Marshall was acquired in the offseason from the Cubs in exchange for Travis Wood after spending the last two seasons establishing himself as one of the best lefty relievers in the game. When Ryan Madson, who was expected to close games for the team, was sidelined for the season after Tommy John surgery in late March, Marshall slotted in to his spot at the back of the bullpen. At the end of May, however, Marshall lost his job to the utter ridiculousness of Aroldis Chapman, despite only recording a single blown save. That stat, like the save itself, is somewhat misleading, as Marshall was pretty bad during his time as the team’s closer, pitching to an ERA of 4.15 in 17.1 innings, along with an astronomical BABIP of .428. Marshall’s underlying stats were much better, and, once he was removed from the closing role, his baseball card numbers started to reflect his true skill. Since the beginning of June, Marshall has pitched 12.2 innings, allowed a single run, struck out nearly a batter an inning, and issued only a single walk, an intentional pass handed to Prince Fielder, all while keeping over 60% of balls in play on the ground. Marshall’s ERA now sits at 2.70, thanks to his early-season issues with the luck dragons, while his SIERA of 1.91 gives a slightly better impression of how lights-out Marshall has been for his new club.

Sergio Romo, Giants: As a die-hard Giants’ fan, I find it criminal how little attention Romo gets every year, as I imagine fans of these and many other stellar middle relievers feel about their favorite bullpen guy. Romo maintains a low profile despite his career ERA of 2.15, which his 2.20 SIERA backs up as a true representation of his ability. Romo and his unreal facial hair are overshadowed by bullpen-mate Brian Wilson’s Wooly Willy-esque look, and when Wilson went down before the season, it was something of a surprise to see Santiago Casilla inserted into the role rather than Romo. Romo hasn’t been as ridiculous as he was last season, when he struck out 13.13 batters per nine and walked less than a batter per nine innings, resulting in a league-best 14 K/BB. Romo has uncorked his unbelievable frisbee slider on 64% of offerings this season, and it has retained its status as one of the nastiest pitches in baseball. Romo’s slider is a big reason he induces swings on 38.9% of pitches outside the zone, eighth best in baseball. Batters whiff at Romo’s pitches at a league-leading 17% rate, indicating he’s likely to continue to punch batters out at will.

Tyler Clippard, Nationals: OK, so Clippard is the Nats’ closer, but I don’t think the longtime ace middle reliever gets the respect he deserves. That’s probably because, until now, he was only keeping the seat warm for Drew Storen, and was only the team’s third choice to finish games after Henry Rodriguez entered the season with the role but eventually pitched himself out of it in late May. Storen will start his rehab assignment today, with his sights on being ready to rejoin the team after the All-Star Break, but manager Davey Johnson has already told reporters that Clippard has been so dominant that he feels he has no choice but to leave him as the team’s ninth-inning man. Incredibly, in 15.1 innings since taking over as the team’s closer, Clippard has allowed just two hits, and he hasn’t given up a run since mid-May. It’s time to take notice; Tyler Clippard has been one of the best and most reliable relievers in baseball since 2010 and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him continue to find success as Washington’s closer.

American League

Scott Downs, Angels: Downs has allowed a ridiculous two runs in 28 innings and counting on the bump this season. While such a streak is probably going to be tough to maintain, Downs’ 2.69 SIERA suggests the ace reliever likely won’t fall that far. Downs has been one of the best relievers in the American League since 2007, when he pitched for the Blue Jays. Since then, he hasn’t had an ERA or SIERA above 3.25, and overall has induced grounders on more than 60% of balls in play. Because of that, Downs benefits disproportionately from Los Angeles’ strong defense, which UZR evaluates as the best in the AL. Assisting Downs are the strong infield gloves of second baseman Howie Kendrick, third baseman Alberto Callaspo, and most importantly new addition Albert Pujols, who currently ranks behind only Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira among first basemen in UZR.

Tim Collins, Royals: The pint-sized favorite of analysts everywhere, the lefthanded Collins uses every inch of his 5’7”, 163 lb frame to uncork fastballs at an average velocity of 93.3 MPH. Collins sports a 3.26 ERA that his 2.56 SIERA suggest is somewhat deceptive. He throws his fastball on roughly half of his offerings, supplementing it with a curve he uses just under 30% of the time and a changeup he throws for the remaining 20%. Collins’ offspeed stuff is what truly allows him to be successful, as’s pitch outcome splits reveal. Collins’ curveball induces whiffs on over 40% of batters’ swings. Even more incredibly, his secret weapon, the changeup, gets swing-throughs over half the time. When batters do make contact with his devastating cambio, they rarely hit it with authority, with less than 12% of balls in play classified as line drives. The 9.5 MPH average difference between Collins’ fastball and change is enough to baffle batters and force off-balance hacks. Collins’ nasty off-speed stuff has allowed him to strike out 33.5% of batters he’s faced in 2012, fifth best among AL relievers. If hitting is timing and pitching is upsetting timing, the diminutive Collins may be one of the best relievers in baseball at upsetting his opponents’ timing in the box.

Octavio Dotel, Tigers: Dotel has allowed a 3.86 ERA so far this season, but has been bitten by the BABIP bug, as his .333 mark for this season is over 50 points north of his .278 career mark. While his ERA isn’t impressive, DIPS suggest he’s been stellar this season, with a SIERA of 1.90 that places second best among AL relievers to only the Rangers’ All-Star closer, Joe Nathan. Dotel’s success stems from the fact that, like Collins, he’s struck out more than a third of the batters he’s faced, while bucking his career numbers as a flyball pitcher by inducing worm-burners on half of all balls in play. Dotel’s always had success inducing grounders with his curve, keeping more than 50% of curves hit in play on the ground since the start of brooksbaseball’s data set, in 2007. However, until 2012, Dotel’s fastball and slider were not as effective at inducing grounders, as batters were more likely to hit both pitches in the air than on the dirt. This year, however, that trend has reversed, as Dotel has gotten groundballs on over 40% of sliders and half of the fastballs hitters have put in play, while his groundball rate on his curve climbed further to an unbelievable 57%. While his Pitch F/X heat maps don’t appear to show Dotel pitching lower in the zone than he was last year, I would not be surprised to learn that Dotel is focusing more on keeping the ball at batters’ knees. A veteran of an MLB-record 13 major league teams, the 38-year-old Dotel seems to be setting himself up to hang on in the big leagues for a significant period of time, possibly even until his mid-40s, especially if his first-half results do indicate a change in his approach to shutting down opposing lineups.

Twitter Question of the Day: Which reliever would you most like to see stretched out and used in a Dan Quisenberry-type ace reliever role, pitching something like 100-120 innings and going roughly a couple innings per outing? Could any reliever in baseball today handle such a situation?

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