A lot of controversy was generated when I released my top 25 relief pitchers’ rankings back in November. Many Anaheim Angels’ fans were asking about the whereabouts of team closer, Huston Street. Others were wondering how Kansas City Royals’ darling Kelvin Herrera stacked up against the elite closers of the game.
But probably the biggest outcry came from Pittsburgh Pirates’ fans and baseball fans who have been taught from an early age that the best relievers have the most saves.
One complaint in particular came via Ron from Pittsburgh:
This list sucks! the fact that melancon isn’t even on it makes it irrelevant…he should certainly be ahead of sergio romo and carson smith.
Sports on Earth’s Jeff Long did a recent piece on the emergence of what he calls the Late-inning Relief Pitching Assassins (LiRPAs for short). Long points out that teams are going out of their way this offseason to create super bullpens, where not only are teams trying to fortify their units, but trying to acquire the best pitchers available not to close out games, but to close out the high leverage situations in the latter stages of the game. Long puts it best by saying:
The closer isn’t necessarily the best pitcher in the bullpen, though he typically is among the best.
You’d think baseball fans, especially after seeing the Royals and the emergence of Wade Davis going from failed starting pitcher to baseball’s best set up man (the original LiRPA?), to one of baseball’s best closers, would understand the importance of an elite, non-closer to a baseball team.
Unfortunately, people saw a guy like Melancon not make the list of top 25 relievers and the list lost validity. All because a list that only concentrated on advanced stats did not take into account a traditional counting stat. Suddenly, saves, a stat that was much-ridiculed when I was growing up as a kid, has this newfound sacred relevance. Baseball is so funny in this manner.
So we will now humor Ron from Pittsburgh and figure out if Melancon did indeed have a better 2015 campaign than Carson Smith and Sergio Romo.
- Mark Melancon–Throws a 90.6 mile per hour (mph) cutter at a usage rate of 58.6 percent. The second most used pitch in Melancon’s arsenal is a knuckle-curve (26.8 percent).
- Sergio Romo–Throws a slider that averages 77.3 mph at a 58.8 percent usage clip. His fastball (23.5 percent) averages 87.4 mph.
- Carson Smith–Probably the hardest thrower here, Smith throws a 92.5 mph sinker at 51.4 percent and a slider (40.9 percent).
PLATE DISCIPLINE RATES
- Mark Melancon–Well, compared to the other pitchers, Melancon’s percentages look pretty pedestrian. To his credit, he induces a higher amount of swings than his counterparts, but the high Swing Rates also result in him having the highest Contact Rates in this trio, despite also throwing the least amount of pitches in the strike zone. Melancon also had the lowest Swinging Strike Percentage (a respectable 11.8 percent) in this triple threat match.
- Sergio Romo–One would assume, by solely looking at these numbers and knowing that Romo is primary a slider pitcher, that Romo is the most entertaining pitching to watch of the three. Not surprising, he induces the second most swings in this group, but unlike Melancon, he does a good job limiting contact. His Swinging Strike Rate of 16.7 percent was the fifth highest among qualifying relievers.
- Carson Smith–Throwing the most pitches inside the strike zone in this group (47.4 percent), it’s not surprising to see Smith induce a lot of swings, especially outside the strike zone. But he too does a good job of keeping his contact rates at bay and still has a better Swinging Strike Percentage than Melancon’s (12.5 percent).
BATTED BALL DISTRIBUTION
- Mark Melancon–A ground ball pitcher (57.5 Ground Ball Rate (GB%)), Melancon doesn’t give up a lot of line drives and does a good job forcing plenty of pop ups despite not giving up too many fly balls in general, which obviously means that his cutter is working very effectively. A concern here is that among the trio, Melancon, by far, had the highest Hard Hit Rate (25.6 percent).
- Sergio Romo–Unlike Melancon, Romo gives up a lot of line drives (19th highest among relievers), but had the lowest Hard Hit Rate in this group. Romo also induces the least amount of grounders in this group (44.8 percent). Romo is the “fly ball pitcher” of the group by default (31.7 percent), which may explain why he had the lowest Home Run Per Fly Ball Percentage in this group (6.5 percent).
- Carson Smith–No surprise to see the sinker baller post the highest GB% in this group. At 64.8 percent, Smith was sixth in GB% last season. Naturally, a high GB% means Smith had the lowest Fly Ball Rate (18.2 percent) in this group, which also led to the lowest pop up rate as well.
- Mark Melancon–There it is! The Pirates’ closer had a whopping 51 saves this past season. Unfortunately, we’re not looking to see who had the most saves to evaluate relief pitchers. Sure, being able to save 50+ games is no small feat and it’s a testament to Melancon’s strong intangibles to be able to get the final three outs of a game to preserve a victory. But there’s more to a relief pitcher than just accumulating saves. Melancon, of this trio, had the lowest strikeout rates and of course, the lowest Field Independent Pitching (FIP) and Skills-Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA). To his credit, Melancon does a fantastic job in limiting his walks, which helped out his traditional ERA and WHIP. Nevertheless, those two stats, were no doubt, helped immensely by a low Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). So just like Huston Street, it appears that Melancon depended much on veteran guile and craft to get through his 51 saves last season.
- Sergio Romo–Having the best Walk Rates in this group, Romo had a healthy 30.9 percent Strikeout Percentage and a very good FIP. His ERA and WHIP (highest in the group) suffered a bit (though still respectable, 2.98/1.06 respectively) due to a really high BABIP of .331. As we explained, Romo gives up a lot of line drives, which would explain the high BABIP, but a relief pitcher that yields high strikeouts and doesn’t give up a lot of walks is a huge necessity.
- Carson Smith–The hardest thrower also happens to have the highest strikeout rates in this group. Unfortunately, he also has the highest walk rates in this group, but his advanced metrics did not suffer because of it (FIP–2.12; SIERA–2.04; ERA–2.31). Smith also had the lowest Home Runs Per Nine Innings (0.26). You don’t get many chances against Smith.
What have we learned in these exercises comparing relief pitchers? For starters, a high yield in saves does not mean a relief pitcher is better than another. Secondly, each pitcher is different and comes with their own unique arsenal and approach. Lastly, the most important thing for a relief pitcher is to shut it down in the latter stages of the game.
Baseball, based on the offseason moves of certain teams attempting to bolster their bullpens, is seeing the importance of the late-inning reliever. You cannot create a save situation without your seventh and eighth inning pitchers surviving these high leverage situations. And that is the beauty of using advanced stats as we attempt to identify the next Wade Davis, Dellin Betances, or Ken Giles (which we wrote about earlier in the year) of the baseball world.