This is part one of the column, covering the four relievers who figure to start the season pitching at the end of games. Check back for part two on the other four relievers shortly:
Pitcher: Alfredo Aceves
Projected Role: Closer
Upside: Aceves is handed the closer’s job after being squeezed out of the rotation competition. Aceves is durable and versatile: he led the majors in innings pitched as a reliever last year, held opposing hitters to a .193 average, and sported a 2.03 ERA. His career record of 24-3 (.889) is the best winning percentage of any pitcher in big league history with at least 14 decisions.
But how will Aceves fair with the move to the closer role? Instead of a long reliever with several innings to set up his four pitches, he’ll have to focus on getting only three outs. Bobby V said when he appointed Aceves to the closer’s role, "He loves competition," Valentine said when asked why he selected Aceves. "He's one of the better competitors I've seen.” That is why I believe Aceves can become a top-notch closer. After all, the last AL reliever with an ERA below 2.10 in at least 90 relief innings was Mariano Rivera in 1996 – the season before he became the full-time closer.
Downside: Aceves doesn’t have great control. Last season, only Andrew Miller had a worse strikeout-to-walk rate on the Sox staff and he hit 15 batters. Plus, stats say he was lucky in 2011:
- · The league average BABIP was .298, but opposing hitters had only a .235 BABIP against Aceves. This is partly an outcome of good infield defense, and partly indicative of a lot of at 'em balls in 2011.
- · Also, Aceves’ xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching, or a pitcher’s performance based on controllable outcomes) was 141st of 145 pitchers with at least 100 innings last year. That ranks him beside such names as Clay Hensley and Andrew Miller.
Pitcher: Mark Melancon
Projected Role: Primary Setup Man
Upside: Melancon saved 20 games in 24 save chances for the Astros last year, so he has big league experience at the end of games in pressure situations. Granted, he was pitching on a team that lost 100 games in the weakest division in baseball. But Melancon has more stats to back up his performance in 2011 than his 20 saves:
- · Melancon allowed 4 out of 17 inherited runners to score in 2011, or 23.5%. The average MLB pitcher allowed 30% of inherited runners to score, so Melancon was above average in this area. For comparison, Daniel Bard allowed only 15% of inherited runners to score (best on the Sox staff). Newly appointed closer Alfredo Aceves allowed 38% of inherited runners to score in 2011. If these rates continue, then it will be beneficial to have Melancon enter the game in the 7th or 8th inning when runners are more likely to be on base, and then have Aceves come in during save situations – often with the bases empty (Papelbon only inherited 10 runners all season in 2011).
- · Melancon pounds the strike zone (64% strike percentage) and doesn’t waste pitches (3.6 pitches per plate appearance and 2.54 K/BB). All this led to a .234 batting average against in 2011. Melancon won’t put batters on base easily when it matters most in the late innings. He’ll make hitters earn it against a pretty good Sox defense (10th in fielding% in 2011).
In addition to the above stats, which point to Melancon’s ability to be a consistent setup man, reports say that he has the makeup to be a late-inning pitcher in the fishbowl of Boston. Melancon was quoted by Peter Abraham in Boston Globe as saying, “I love the passion of the fans and how important baseball is in Boston. I love the daily pressure to win.”
Downside: Despite the stats above and the reports of Melancon having the makeup to succeed as a primary setup guy, the following might say otherwise:
- · Melancon does not really have swing-and-miss stuff. He threw 64% of his pitches for strikes in 2011 (712 of 1121), but batters only swung and missed at 17% of his pitches in the strike zone. Which means if Melancon is throwing strikes, hitters are putting the ball in play. He needs to be able to set up his above-average curveball (thrown out of the strike zone) to put guys away. Otherwise, he’ll depend on his defense behind him in the late innings.
Rating: Melancon does not possess the stuff of an elite set up guy. He won’t blow batters away. In order to succeed in the role, he will have to paint corners, mix pitches/locations, and above all have great consistency. He has already had two meltdowns and is already 0-2, but so far he doesn’t seem like a guy who is going to allow the Boston media to rattle him. Average.
Pitcher: Franklin Morales
Projected Role: Late-inning Left Hander
Upside: Morales split time last year between Colorado and Boston. Morales is a hard-throwing lefty, routinely bringing his heat around 93-94 mph. He has experience in late-inning situations, having amassed 10 saves with the Rockies in 2009 and 2010. In 36 appearances with the Red Sox in 2011 he only pitched 32.1 innings, meaning he was often called upon to pitch one inning or less. There are some stats that indicate he could thrive in clutch situations:
- · In “Late and Close” situations in 2011 (Baseball Reference defines late and close situations as plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck), Morales faced 60 batters and only gave up 7 hits, an opponents’ batting average of .140, and 2 runs. This shows Morales’ potential to become a go-to reliever when games hang in the balance.
Furthermore, Morales has solid strikeout rates:
- · For his career, Morales has a 7.2 K/9 rate, and in 2011 that rose to 8.2 K/9. For comparison, Morales’ 8.2 K/9 was higher than established closers Heath Bell (7.3), Joel Hanrahan (8.0), Francisco Cordero (5.4), Brandon League (6.6), and Chris Perez (5.9).
Downside: Morales was not especially effective against left-handed batters in 2011. Here are some stats from his 2011 splits:
- · RH batters had 85 at-bats against Morales in 2011; LH batters had 84 at-bats against Morales. He gave up an identical 14 runs, 20 hits, and 3 home runs against both RH and LH hitters. RH batters hit .235 against Morales, while LH batters hit .238. This is all to suggest that Morales may not be suited to a lefty-specialist role, and he may not be a guy who we can expect to get a tough lefty out in a late-game situation.
Also, Morales has had control issues throughout his career:
- · For his career, Morales has a 4.8 BB/9 rate. In 2011, Morales walked 19 batters, hit 2 batters, and threw 2 wild pitches in 46.1 IP.
Rating: Morales has the stuff and the makeup to become an elite late-inning pitcher. If he can locate his pitches with consistency, he has the track record of performing in the clutch. For now, he must be considered an average setup guy, but he has the potential to become much more in 2011. After the opening series debacles, I would like to see the Sox give Morales some save chances. Above Average.
Pitcher: Vicente Padilla
Role: Late-inning right-hander
Upside: I believe Padilla is the biggest mystery in the bullpen. He has the ability to be an effective long reliever. He also may end up finding himself in a lot of late-game situations if Aceves/Melancon continue to struggle. He may end up being the super-utility guy of the bullpen much like Aceves was last year (a comparison Art has made repeatedly on this blog). He is a 13-year veteran with his fifth franchise, so he has been around the proverbial block. He has a reputation for being a hothead who will not think twice about plunking a batter or two, but it hasn’t taken long for Padilla to be noticed being a leader to a younger bullpen mate. After Melancon’s second meltdown on Sunday, Padilla was seen throwing an arm around his shoulders and whispering some encouragement in his ear. Having a pitcher with Padilla’s MLB experience should be a bonus in this rather unproven bullpen. In terms of pitching stats, a few stand out:
- · Can you say off-balance? In Sunday’s game Padilla uncorked back-to-back breaking balls to Prince Fielder that registered 54 and 52 MPH on the radar gun.
- · Padilla’s career 1.37 WHIP (with most of his career spent as a starter) means that he doesn’t put a lot of guys on base (unless he is plunking them).
- · He has a history of being an innings-eater, which may bode well if he is used as a long reliever. Padilla pitched between 115-208 innings every season from 2002-2009.
Downside: Before 2011, Padilla spent most of his career as a starting pitcher, starting 20+ games every year from 2002-2009 and 16 starts in 2010. It has been since 2001 that Padilla has had more than 10 appearances as a reliever. How will a pitcher used to coming to the park and preparing to start adjust to being a late-inning guy? His 9 appearances out of the Dodgers pen last year isn’t a big enough of a sample size to tell. Also, the following stats raise questions about using Padilla in a late-game, high-pressure situation:
- · In his 3 ½ seasons in the AL, Padilla’s K/9 is a pedestrian 5.98. He is not going to be a guy who comes in and racks up strikeouts. He will have to rely on veteran guile.
- · Padilla hasn’t had a season with a sub 4.00 ERA since 2003. His career ERA is 4.32. He’s going to give up some runs.
Rating: Padilla does not look like a pitcher who is going to blow anybody away at this point of his career. But he has the ability to be flexible in his roles, to be a veteran presence and leader in a relatively unproven group, and to not be intimidated by any hitter or moment. He may very well fulfill Art’s prediction of being this year’s 2011 Aceves for the Sox – meaning he is used in a variety of ways and is a consistent presence in our bullpen. Average.
Overall, there are a lot of questions amongst this group of four who are going to be tasked with closing out games at the beginning of 2012. I have rated all four as being either average or above average in their role. There are no dynamite arms in this group. The radar gun will not be overworked when these guys take the hill, and we will most likely not see this group rack up the strikeouts. However, despite the early meltdowns of 2012, there is a nice mix of experience and makeup in this group. If you look around the MLB, there are several contenders with big question marks in their bullpens and a lot of early blown saves. At this point, nobody can say for sure how effective this group can be. My hope is that this compilation of stats and anecdotes may shed some light on who these four pitchers are, or can become for the 2012 Red Sox.
Part two of this column will deal with the other four relievers on the Sox Opening Day roster.