(Blogathon ’16) Matt Wojciak: 2015 Middle Relief Report

This guest-post is part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

There’s no set definition as to what constitutes a “middle reliever”. Many might say it’s a pitcher who comes out of the bullpen but isn’t a setup man or closer – I challenge this notion. I think that “setup” men fall perfectly in the realm of “middle relievers”. They throw in the middle of the game, sandwiched between the starters and the closers. Unfortunately for them, the position is often overlooked or ignored, because they don’t have catchy walkout music or a cool statistic to inflate their value in the public eye (sorry closers, but the save is just as useless as the win). Thankfully, a rise in the number of talented pitchers across the MLB has lead to more pitchers embracing the “middle relief” role and more teams giving those pitchers their fair dues, with guys like Darren O’Day, Ryan Madson, Antonio Bastardo, and Mark Lowe all signing multi-season deals for average annual values over $5 million dollars this offseason. The blog I created when I first started writing was called the “Middle Relief Report”, so I figured for this occasion I’d take some time to highlight the past season’s best middle relievers.

The difficult part for this project was compiling the data for every “middle reliever” of relative significance in 2015. Using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, I searched for 6th inning splits from every pitcher with five or more innings pitched (in the 6th inning) and fewer than five games started. I repeated this process for the 7th and 8th innings, and I exported each of the resulting tables into Excel, which is when the real fun started. I put all three of the lists into a single workbook, and got to work consolidating the lists of names, the longest of which was up over 250 players. Through a system of cross-checking and inserting rows as I went, I progressively expanded the lists to include every player from every single list on each list (a painstakingly slow process). Eventually, I ended up with an alphabetical (by first name) list of 295 players, from A.J. Ramos all the way down to Zack Godley (neither of whom made this list, sorry Marlins and Diamondbacks fans). Then, it was on to the compiling of the statistics, which included me creating a fourth list, with all the names, and combining the three separate worksheet into one collective 6th-8th inning stat sheet. The tedious work wasn’t done, however, until I had converted all of the innings pitched from the “.1, .2” format into “.33, .66” format so I could re-calculate each pitcher’s overall rate stats. After paring down the list to pitchers with either 25.0 or more total innings (in the 6th-8th window) or 35 or more total appearances (again, from the 6th-8th), I had 156 pitchers left, and I calculated totals and averages for the group based on this “final cut” of pitchers.

I wanted to make the ranking of these guys as objective as possible, so I put together a formula that ranked each pitcher based on the following criteria:

  • ERA relative to the average of the group
  • RAA relative to the average of the group
  • K:BB rate
  • WHIP
  • HR allowed
  • OPS
  • Innings Pitched

I chose the stats I did based on what I believe are some of the most important parts of relief pitching. Obviously, limiting any runs allowed in these situations are crucial. Strikeouts are highly valuable in these situations, as it limits the opponent’s ability to advance runners even when making outs. Walks and hits are always a negative, but in situations where a pitcher may be inheriting runners, keeping the batters you face off base is even more crucial (with regards to inherited runners, I wanted to factor inherited runners scored percentage into the rating, but the Play Index doesn’t allow that stat to be searched for when looking at splits). Keeping teams off the board with home runs is another large factor. Lastly, I gave some weight to the amount of innings pitched by each player, to give those who were good for more innings a higher ranking. After calculating this “quality rating” for each guy on the list, I had them ranked from highest to lowest. I did not necessarily choose my top 10 as the top ten from this made-up rating, but I did use it as a guideline (for what it’s worth, the lowest guy who made my top-10 was ranked 15th by the quality rating).

Without any further ado, I give you my top 10 “middle relievers” of 2015:

#10 – Hunter Strickland, San Francisco Giants

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images North America

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 40.1 IP, 1.56 ERA, 42:10 K:BB, 0.818 WHIP, 0.536 OPS, 11.95 Quality Rating

Strickland was lights-out as part of a strong San Francisco bullpen this season, appearing in 55 games overall and pitching to the tune of a 2.45 ERA in 51.1 innings. His best work came in the 7th and 8th innings, where opponents hit .168/.230/.307 against the 6-foot-4, 220 pound right-hander from Georgia. At age 26, Strickland was old for a rookie, but he featured an impressive fastball that averaged nearly 97 MPH out of the bullpen for the Giants this season. Strickland is under team control through 2022, and projects to be a solid contributor in the Giants bullpen for years to come.

#9 – Tony Watson, Pittsburgh Pirates

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 67.1 IP, 2.14 ERA, 55:14 K:BB, 0.980 WHIP, 0.545 OPS, 9.45 Quality Rating

Watson was the definition of an exclusive setup man in 2015, leading the MLB in with 67.1 IP in the 8th inning. In his 5th season of work for the Pirates, Watson posted an ERA below 2.00 for the second season in a row setting up All-Star closer Mark Melancon for a team that won an impressive 98 games. Watson’s fastball rarely tops 90 MPH, but his nasty change-up and ability to locate pitches make him an elite MLB reliever.

#8 – George Kontos, San Francisco Giants

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images North America

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 55.1 IP, 1.79 ERA, 36:6 K:BB, 0.831 WHIP, 0.540 OPS, 12.22 Quality Rating

The most versatile of the Giants’ bullpen assets, Kontos pitched more than 14.0 innings in each of the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings in 2015, racking up a total ERA of 2.33 in 73.1 innings across 73 games in relief. Similar to Watson, Kontos features a below-average bullpen fastball in terms of velocity, but makes up for the underwhelming heat with a plus secondary pitch (his slider) and excellent command.

#7 – Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images North America

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 40.0 IP, 1.58 ERA, 51:6 K:BB, 0.825 WHIP, 0.477 OPS, 12.70 Quality Rating

Primarily filling the role of 8th-inning setup man for the Giants in 2015, former closer Romo dazzled hitters en route to a 2.98 overall ERA. Romo’s featured offering is his “no-dot” slider, which not only has nasty movement, but is especially hard for hitters to pick up out of his hand. Romo’s FIP in 2015 was a miniscule 1.91, indicating he actually pitched better than the results indicate. With Romo due for free agency after this season, he looks to put together another impressive campaign setting up closer Santiago Casilla in 2016.

#6 – Tony Sipp, Houston Astros

Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America

Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 43.2 IP, 1.44 ERA, 54:10 K:BB, 0.893 WHIP, 0.535 OPS, 13.59 Quality Rating

After flying under the radar in 2014 for another poor Houston Astros team, Sipp finally made a name for himself in 2015, racking up a 1.99 overall ERA in 54.1 innings for the AL Wild Card winners. Sipp posted a K/BB rate over 4.00 for the first time in his 7-year career, earning himself the chance to sign a nice 3-year, $18 million dollar contract with the Astros following season’s end.

#5 – Ken Giles, Philadelphia Phillies

Source: Hunter Martin/Getty Images North America

Hunter Martin/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 41.0 IP, 1.32 ERA, 54:17 K:BB, 1.244 WHIP, 0.568 OPS, 13.00 Quality Rating

Before the trade that sent Jonathan Papelbon to the Nationals, 24-year-old Ken Giles worked magic in the 8th inning for the Phillies, en route to a 1.80 season ERA in 70.0 innings flat. Giles, owner of an impressive fastball that sits consistently around 97 MPH and can touch 100 MPH, now boasts a 1.56 career ERA in 115.2 innings across two full seasons. After being traded to Houston in the offseason, Giles looks to move into the closer role for 2016.

#4 – Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 44.2 IP, 1.21 ERA, 46:16 K:BB, 0.873 WHIP, 0.476 OPS, 20.22 Quality Rating

Wade Davis was once again electric out of the bullpen for the 2015 World Series Champs, posting a dominant full-season ERA of 0.94 in his third full season of relief (second with the Royals). Had Davis not been moved to the closer role mid-season with the injury to Greg Holland, I have no doubt he would’ve been #1 or #2 on this list. Davis looks to be the Royals closer through 2016 while Holland rehabs, and it will be interesting to see if he maintains the job once Holland returns.

#3 – Carson Smith, Seattle Mariners

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images North America

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 37.2 IP, 0.72 ERA, 48:8 K:BB, 0.850 WHIP, 0.491 OPS, 31.75 Quality Rating

Smith was absolutely spectacular in his rookie season, pitching 70.0 innings for the Mariners to the tune of an impressive 11.8 K/9 and 2.31 season ERA. Most of the damage done against Smith came in the 9th inning, when he was briefly put into the closer role after the departure of the incumbent Fernando Rodney. After moving back to the 8th inning, Smith went back to dominating hitters as he was before. After a move to the Red Sox this offseason, Smith will look to continue his success setting up new Boston closer Craig Kimbrel.

#2 – Andrew Chafin, Arizona Diamondbacks

Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America

Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 51.0 IP, 1.06 ERA, 37:19 K:BB, 0.824 WHIP, 0.389 OPS, 25.37 Quality Rating

If we’re being honest, I couldn’t have told you what team Andrea Chafin was on before I began research for this piece. Regardless, Chafin fits the term “middle reliever” better than anyone on this list. Appearing in games as early as the second inning and as late as extra innings in 2015, Chafin posted an impressive 2.76 ERA, with his best work coming in innings six through eight. Chafin’s stuff doesn’t call much attention to itself, but his ability to induce ground balls and avoid giving up extra bases is extraordinary – he was the only reliever on this list to post an opponent’s slugging percentage below .200, posting a microscopic .167 mark.

#1 – Dellin Betances, New York Yankees

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images North America

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images North America

2015, 6th-8th innings: 64.0 IP, 0.84 ERA, 99:29 K:BB, 1.000 WHIP, 0.490 OPS, 36.19 Quality Rating

The 6-foot-8, 265 pound figure of Yankees hurler Dellin Betances has been looming over hitters from the American League East and beyond for two full seasons now, and the reign of terror doesn’t look to be ending any time soon, either. In his age 27 season, the right-hander from Brooklyn posted a total ERA of 1.50 in 84.0 innings, striking out a dizzying 131 batters, good for a K/9 of 14.04, third in baseball among relievers with 60 innings or more. The two men ahead of Betances in that ranking – Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman – will both be in the same bullpen as Betances in 2016, making what will undoubtedly be the best and most fearsome bullpen trio in baseball.

Honorable Mentions: Matt Albers, Chicago White Sox; Joe Blanton, Kansas City Royals/Pittsburgh Pirates; Addison Reed, Chicago White Sox/New York Mets; Ryan Madson, Kansas City Royals; Jeff Manship, Cleveland Indians; Darren O’Day, Baltimore Orioles

Dishonorable Mention: Justin De Fratus, Philadelphia Phillies

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2015, 6th-8th innings: 59.1 IP, 5.92 ERA, 49:22 K:BB, 1.517 WHIP, 0.845 OPS, -9.79 Quality Rating

Mr. De Fratus deserved to be mentioned in this piece simply for his expertise in one area: trickery. Somehow, Justin managed to rack up an ERA of nearly 6.00 in the middle innings for the Phillies in 2015, yet was charismatic enough to convince managers Ryne Sandberg and Pete Mackanin to let him pitch a total of 80.0 – yes, eighty – innings in this past season. There were some pitchers on my final list with slightly worse numbers than De Fratus, but the sheer volume of mediocrity is what made him deserving of making the cut. Here, he is pictured after giving up a screaming (114 MPH) line drive home run to Giancarlo Stanton on April 23.

That’s all folks! The best (and one worst) middle relievers of the 2015 season. With teams seemingly overrun with bullpen talent these days, we’re sure to see even more players break out or have career years in this role in 2016. Hopefully this piece has opened your eyes to the skills of some of these players and you enjoy watching them next year as much as I do.


Statistics compiled using data from Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and the Baseball-Reference Play Index.

Matt Wojciak is a 20-year old college senior at St. Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish, ME., studying for a degree in accounting. Hailing from Merrimack, NH, he has been a Boston Red Sox fan for as long as he can remember. He began his writing career with the now-hibernating blog Middle Relief Report, and now writes for Baseball Essential on a regular basis. You can follow him on Twitter @mwojciak21 or look for his work at Baseball Essential at @BB_Essential. Thanks for reading!

This guest-post has been part of the 2016 Baseball Continuum Blogathon For Charity, benefiting the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation. The Roswell Park Alliance Foundation is the charitable arm of Roswell Park Cancer Institute and funds raised will be “put to immediate use to increase the pace from research trials into improved clinical care, to ensure state-of-the-art facilities, and to help improve the quality of life for patients and their families.” Please donate through the Blogathon’s GoFundMe page. Also, please note that the opinions and statements of the writer are not necessarily those of the Baseball Continuum or it’s webmaster.

Breaking OOTP, Episode 1: PITCHERS vs. HITTERS

When my previous computer died, I lost the International Baseball Competition. I will try again next year. I might still have the original starting files to go on, and if I can find them, I will put them up so that you can do the IBC.

However, from the ashes of the 2015 IBC, there has risen…

BREAKING OOTP!

Yes, Out of the Park Baseball tasks me, so I must have it! I will force it to do things that it was not made to do, things that mankind was not meant to see simulated. Some will answer questions, some will settle scores, and some will push Out Of The Park Baseball to it’s very limits, to see if I can literally cause the game engine to beg for mercy.

(And, yes, this is basically Breaking Madden in OOTP form, you have a problem with that? Oh, and CLICK PICTURES TO MAKE THEM BIGGER.)

TODAY:

PITCHERS

vs.

HITTERS

Yes, for all time, the pitchers have waged war with those at the plate. But now, it is time to finally settle it once and for all, as a team made up entirely of pitchers will play a team made entirely up of hitters. And at the end of the day, ONLY ONE SHALL BE LEFT STANDING…. AFTER THE JUMP:

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Looking at the Team MLB roster for the Japan All-Star Series

Above, you can see the roster for the Japan All-Star Series for Team MLB. As you can see, the term “All-Star” is sort of loose. Oh, yes, it’s a good team, and there are plenty of All-Stars on it. It’s definitely a team you’d be able to make the post-season with in a 162 game schedule. But on the other hand, the pitching staff isn’t exactly world-beating and the outfield is thin due to the pull-outs of Bryce Harper and Adam Jones, meaning a utility player like Ben Zobrist or Chris Carter will be playing a bit there. Another worry is that Evan Longoria might have to leave early because his fiancee is very pregnant, and, honestly, I’m surprised he’s going in the first place with something like that going on.

Anyway, here’s a bit of a run-down on the MLB roster… after the jump:

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Crazy Question: Should Surgeons be in the Hall of Fame? (AKA: The Importance of Tommy John Surgery)

A man who had a major impact in baseball passed today, someone who helped teams win championships and aided some of the biggest names in the sport.

That man was Lewis Yocum, and he was a orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports surgeries like Tommy John Surgery, in addition to serving as the team physician for the Angels. His passing has been commented upon by many in the baseball community, with some declaring that they owed him their careers.

Which leads to this: should surgeons and doctors be considered for the Hall of Fame?

Well, the answer is probably no. After all, they aren’t in this for fame, and to try and say what makes a “Hall of Fame Surgeon” is fraught with questions I don’t think can be answered.

But, let’s just consider for a second the impact that some of these surgeons have had on baseball.

Imagine what the world of baseball pitching looked like before Frank Jobe. Who’s Frank Jobe? He’s the guy who first performed ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction surgery, where a UCL is replaced by a tendon from elsewhere. You probably know it as Tommy John Surgery.

Before TJ Surgery, to have a dead arm was a death sentence for a career. Let that sink in and then remember the full implications of that statement:

  • Without TJS, Stephen Strasburg‘s career would be done.
  • Without TJS, Jim Morris would never have been portrayed by Dennis Quaid in a movie.
  • Without TJS, Hyun-Jin Ryu never gets out of high school, much less comes to America and becomes one of the few bright spots of the 2013 Dodgers season.
  • Without TJS, Chris Carpenter‘s career probably would have ended on Opening Day, 2007. Adam Wainwright‘s career would have ended in 2011.
  • Without TJS, Eric Gagne‘s career probably have ended in the minors. Same goes for Kenny Rogers, C.J. Wilson and David Wells.
  • Without TJS, Tim Hudson wouldn’t have won the 55 games he’s won since 2009.
  • Without TJS, Phil Humber never has his perfect game. Francisco Liriano doesn’t have his no-hitter. Neither does Anibal Sanchez.
  • Without TJS, Kerry Wood‘s career would have been an even bigger “what might have been” than it ended up being.
  • Without TJS, John Smoltz‘s career ended in 2000, with 56 wins and 154 saves never happening.
  • Without TJS, we MAYBE might never have even heard of Mariano Rivera. (There is some confusion over whether or not Rivera had a TJS in the minors, or if it was a different type of surgery).

Hmm… maybe surgeons should be in the Hall of Fame. At least Jobe should.

Picture of the day: Disconnect between perception and reality

The general perception of the World Baseball Classic is that, almost universally, fans want their favorite team’s players- and especially pitchers- to avoid it like the plague. Which is why it’s interesting when I saw poll results on ESPN.com:

Screen Shot 2013-01-26 at 10.57.11 AM

Huh. What do you know. It seems like a majority of people, at least on ESPN, would be fine with it. Now, it’s hardly a runaway majority, but it is a majority. Perhaps this suggests that there is a “silent majority” in favor of the WBC that is overlooked by the fact that those who are against having their team’s players playing in it make a lot more noise.

(Now, admittedly, this is hardly a scientific poll, and isn’t exactly specific- for example, it isn’t something like specifically asking Tigers fans if they’d be okay with Justin Verlander pitching, or Mariners fans if they are okay with how Felix Martinez is pitching, but the fact remains: in general, it seems like a majority of people have no problem with their team’s pitchers playing in the WBC.)