Apr 12, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Miami Marlins pitcher Randy Choate (36) delivers to the plate during the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Marlins 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

An Ode to the Specialist Reliever-Off the Radar

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Jim Thome has been a good hitter for a long time, and has a fun personality. When he was brought in to pinch hit on Thursday April 12th of 2012 against the Marlins, I imagine something like this happened in Thome’s mind:

“Oh Awesome, I get to bat”

*Marlins bring in Randy Choate*

“Son of a..”

Then this happened:

How can a guy who tops out at 87 MPH bring so much (imaginary) fear to the big lefty? 2 words: Platoon Splits.

If Jim Thome was a right hander, he may have hit Choate’s pitch 8 billion miles. In his career, Randy Choate has given up an OPS of .804 against right handers. For comparison, the Orioles had the worst pitching staff in the MLB in 2011, and their OPS against sat at .801. In 2011, A.J. Burnett gave up an OPS of .802. So against right handers, Choate isn’t good enough to pitch for the Orioles and would be worse than Burnett as a Yankee. Against lefties, Choate’s career OPS against is .581. Roy Halladay’s OPS against in 2011 was .582.

Believe it or not, there is a pitcher with even more profound splits than Choate. Meet Clay Rapada. After being designated for assignment by the Orioles before spring training started in 2012, Rapada tweeted this:

“anybody need a lefty… lefty are 6-67 last two years…#justsayin” Clay Rapada (@pada5something)

April 14, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Clay Rapada pitches against the Los Angeles Angels against the Los Angeles Angels at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Farrell/The Star-Ledger via US PRESSWIRE

What is more amazing to me is how badly Rapada has been used in his career. Rapada has faced 141 lefties in his career, and 100 right handers. For some reason in 2008 with the Tigers, Rapada faced the same amount of lefties as righties. If one lazily looks at Rapada’s 2011 stats with the Orioles, one would see an ERA over 6 and think that Rapada was terrible. However, this simply isn’t the case. Lefties that batted against Rapada in 2011 had an OBP of .170. Yuniesky Betancourt thinks that is a terrible OBP. He also had a 3.11 SIERA (Poorly named Skill Independent ERA, a variation of FIP, tries to measure what ERA a pitcher deserves) in 2011. So Rapada was actually quite good, and yet he got a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. Over his career, Rapada has given up an OPS against lefties of just under .500. So Rapada (and Choate) have the ability to shut down some of the best hitters in the game, such as Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, and Joey Votto and toss them aside like pieces of expired meat. Even if they don’t toss many innings (Choate threw just 24.2 last year, but also had injuries), there is still some extreme value there.

If Rapada threw 60 innings (Choate has never thrown more than 50 in the Majors, but Brad Ziegler, a guy I will talk about below, has thrown north of 70 before) for the Orioles in 2011 (assuming the same effectiveness in Win Probability, i.e. they use him correctly) he would have had roughly the same win probability as (2011 salary in parenthesis) Koji Uehara (3 million), Gio Gonzalez ($420,000), Mark Buehrle (14 million), and Tim Lincecum (14 million). His win probability would be better than relievers such (in 2011) as Mike Adams, Craig Kimbrel, Heath Bell, and Aroldis Chapman.

There are problems with win probability of course, mainly that it is not predictive. Win probability works off situational baseball, and thus falls into many of the same traps people trying to measure “clutchness” do. There doesn’t seem to be a such thing as clutch players, so win probability is fun, but mostly worthless when evaluating players. For instance, if you type in “Captain Clutch” in Baseball Reference, you are directed to Derek Jeter’s page. However, over the 2007-2009 seasons, Jeter had a OPS + of 106 with a win probability of .6. Hank Blalock also had a 106 OPS + in that time, but his win probability was 1.9. So Captain Clutch should direct us to Hank Blalock right? No actually, “clutch” is just a perception, usually directed on faulty memory or chance. However, I think it is different when it comes to specialist relievers. Imagine a game between the Tigers and the Yankees where the two teams are tied in the 8th inning with 2 outs and the bases are loaded (or there is a guy on 3rd with less than 2 outs, in other words, you have to get the guy out). Prince Fielder is up at the plate, David Robertson is unavailable because he ate some bad tuna, and Mariano Rivera has thrown 3 days in a row. The Yankees have two choices, bring in Clay Rapada or keep Boone Logan in. Logan will make 1.8 million dollars this year, but has a career OBP against lefties of .323 (about league average). This means that Rapada has a 6.1% better chance to convert in this situation. This means that if Rapada is used against lefties instead of an average reliever (or Boone Logan) 50 times over a season (and then immediately taken out after 1 batter), he will get the guy out 3 more times. This doesn’t sound that drastic, until you realize two things: 1. Only facing 50 batters two batters would be about 12 to 13 innings, so one would expect this number to grow over a season, although it is probably inevitable he would have to face some right-handers as well (probably a 2-1 lefty/righty ratio, which would make Rapada about a league average reliever, with a .331 OBP, .377 SLG allowed) and 2. The average MLB player makes 3 million dollars, and although you would expect the average reliever to make a little less than that, we are still talking about an above average reliever. So even though Rapada didn’t even get a guaranteed contract to start the year, he is worth at least league average salary if used right.

April 10, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Brad Ziegler (29) throws during the seventh inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

On the right side, Brad Ziegler is a possessor of crazy sidearm driven splits. Against lefties in his career, Ziegler has given up a pretty ghastly .422 OBP and more walks than strikeouts. Against righties, Ziegler gives up an OPS of just .543. The Diamondbacks got Ziegler in a trade from the Athletics last season, giving up Brandon Allen (who has already be designated for assignment by the A’s) and Jordan Norberto (who has a minor league ERA of 4.33 and 6.32 MLB ERA). Sergio Romo is another extreme right handed splits guy, earning an xFIP of under 1.00 against righties in 2011. Against lefties, he is very average striking out 7.36 per 9 innings, while he strikes out 12.45 lefties per 9 innings. Romo makes 1.575 million in 2012, while Ziegler makes 1.795 million this year. While the math works that if you use them correctly, they are above average relievers, the 4 will combine to make 5.395 million dollars this year. Jonathan Papelbon will make 11 million dollars this year, while Mariano Rivera will make 15 million dollars this year, all because of the idea of the traditional closer. Fantasy baseball falls into the same traps that managers and general managers fall into as well, falling in love with the save statistic, a rather foolish stat that claims that Heath Bell was basically the same pitcher in 2011 than he was in 2010, despite striking out 35 fewer hitters. A stat that made the Marlins overpay for Bell, the Rangers to overpay Joe Nathan, and the Rockies to trade for Huston Street (despite his 7.5 million dollar salary for 2012 and .305 OBP against in 2011). If managers actually knew how to utilize bullpens, and Joe Girardi is one of the worst offenders (so bad news for Rapada), GMs will be able to build bullpens much cheaper, and more effectively. Once this happens, and the typical fantasy league gets out of the 60s, these pitchers will also have fantasy value as well. The Cubs are paying 10 million dollars for Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol, The two combined for a .334 OBP, i.e. worse than Rapada if he faced 2 lefties for every right-hander. The extreme split guys seem to be extremely underrated and undervalued. If Papelbon at 11 million is “market value” for a top flight reliever, with his .265 OBP against, then the combo of Romo, Ziegler, Rapada, and Choate should be worth this much combined, since their OBP against (in their specific splits, Rapada against lefties etc.) is .263. So it seems that the combo is worth twice as much as they are currently being paid.

When the draft comes in June, each team will have 40 rounds to build their minor league system and hopefully find prospects that will help their MLB team over the next few years. Since we are talking about specialist relievers with dramatic splits, I have a junior for you to consider:

Aaron Burke of Coastal Carolina  is a right handed submariner, who tops out at 76 MPH. He also has a change of pace in the 60s, but everything looks thanks to his delivery, and most importantly, he has good movement. Right handers stand no chance against him, and are hitting under .130 so far in 2012.

watch?v=gCXjFFB6bfk

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Tags: Brad Ziegler Clay Rapada Off The Radar Randy Choate Relief Pitchers Specialists

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