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Warming up: A look towards Hot Stove - Relief Pitching edition

Posted by John Olson , 18 October 2017 · 1,086 views

In less than a month, Major League Baseball will enter the official hot stove season, the period in which some eligible players will be granted free agency and teams will look to sign and trade, trying to improve their clubs. A look at the free agent class, there will be plenty of steam surrounding the hot names and big contracts, while fandoms sit hopeful that their team will make the moves and fill the gaps in the rosters that propel them toward October baseball. The Twins have a few glaring needs, but today we'll be specifically looking at the relief pitching area. Let's take a look forward to which players will be available as well as who, I believe, they should be targeting.

The Twins ended the 2017 season with a bottom 1/3rd relief pitching staff by most available metrics. They were 22nd in bullpen ERA, 26th in strikeouts, 27th in batting average (BA) against and the 10th most used bullpen in all of MLB compiling 566 Innings. While there were some bright spots - namely Trevor Hildenberger - there will be some major construction needed for the 2018 season.

With some staples of 2017 and old friends (Matt Belisle, Dillon Gee, Glen Perkins) likely gone for next season, there will be room to fill with either free agent signings, trade candidates and minor league prospects - likely a mix of all three of those, if we are being realistic - we're only going to look at the available free agents. First, lets give a little background of how the current group measures up and which metrics we'll be using to quantify our targets.

The Metrics
*Advanced stats can be a confusing language - but for the purposes of understanding how good or poorly a relief pitcher has performed, or is treding toward, its important to be familiar with a couple of these. Specificly SIERA and xFIP. Both SIERA and xFIP are ERA-estimators, but while SIERA is a backwards looking projector, xFIP is a forward looking projector. Both are on a familiar ERA-type scale, so for simplicity sake, a 3.00 xFIP or 3.00 SIERA is as good as you'd expect a 3.00 ERA to be. For more information on xFIP and SIERA, I'd recommend highly visiting Fangraphs Sabermetric Library. We'll also use two other, more well known, metrics with WAR and K/9. For reference and baseline, I've added the league averages for metrics below.

*League Average xFIP - 3.8
*League Average SIERA - 3.9

The Returning Bullpen:
  • Buddy Boshers - 4.52 xFIP 4.16 SIERA -.2 WAR 7.2 K/9 (35 IP, 4.89 ERA, 28K)
The 2017 season was not kind to Buddy Boshers. His indicators say he has some room for improvement with a few more balls hitting fielders gloves as opposed to the outfield grass, but more or less what you see is what you've got with Boshers.
  • Alan Busenitz - 4.80 xFIP 4.38 SIERA .1 WAR 6.54 K/9 (31.2 IP, 1.99 ERA, 23K)
This one surprised me, though Busenitz had a shining 1.99 ERA, advanced metrics suggest he benefited immensely from his defense and purely having better "luck" on balls in play as reflected by his .212 BABIP against. The league average BABIP is usually around .290-.310, Busenitz will likely see his BABIP trend toward the mean with more innings.
  • Taylor Rogers - 4.26 xFIP 4.14 SIERA .4 WAR 7.92 K/9 (55.2 IP, 3.07 ERA, 49K)
Rogers was one of the most used Twins relievers, especially prior to the all star break. Fatigue, more than likely, handed Rogers a higher than expected xFIP and SIERA as his first half numbers (xFIP 2.08) and second half numbers (xFIP 3.28) vary by almost a full run and a quarter.
  • Ryan Pressly - 3.81 xFIP 3.55 SIERA .1 WAR 8.95 K/9 (61.1 IP, 4.70 ERA, 61K)
Pressly is an example of why I love advanced statistics. Pressly has xFIP and SIERA numbers that should put him the conversation for best reliever in this current bullpen (I, personally, think he could be a Twins closer sooner rather than later) but his HR/FB ratio - league average is generally around 10-ish % - is a whopping 18.5(!) percent. That number should regress toward the mean, and I wouldn't be surprised to see his 2018 ERA more in line with the 2017 xFIP number.
  • Tyler Duffey - 3.80 xFIP 3.61 SIERA .7 WAR 8.49 K/9 (71 IP, 4.94 ERA, 67K)
Same story for Duffey, with different reasons for inflation. While Duffey did indeed have an inflated HR/FB ratio (13%) he also had a Ground Ball % of 49.5% (ground balls are more often hits than fly balls), so while hes not an elite bullpen arm, he's better than the ERA suggests.
  • Trevor Hildenberger - 2.92 xFIP 2.63 SIERA .8 WAR 9.43 K/9 (42 IP, 3.21 ERA, 44K)
Someone needs to tell me why Hildenberger didn't pitch more often in 2017. The xFIP, SIERA and K/9 numbers he put up in 2017 (admittedly, in 42 IP) are not just the best in the bullpen - they are borderline elite levels.

Who's Available? - The 2017 Free Agent Class

The current free agent class is stocked with very, very good bullpen arms. While the Twins won't be the only team shopping, there more than a few arms on the market that would help the Twins. A quick rundown looks like this:

Bryan Shaw --------- Tommy Hunter--------- Mike Minor
Wade Davis---------- David Hernandez---- Yusmeiro Petit
Anthony Swarzak---Joe Smith--------------- Fernando Rodney
Pat Neshek---------- Brandon Morrow----- Steve Cishek
Luke Gregerson--- Brian Duensing------- Craig Stammen
Matt Albers--- -------Juan Nicasio----------- Jake McGee
Greg Holland-------- Addison Reed--------- Koji Uehara

These are just the top 20 (as filtered by 2017 Wins Above Replacement.) Clearly, some of these names we can immediately look past - Twins, barring some huge surprise - will not be in on the big name free agents on this list like Wade Davis or Greg Holland, perhaps even Addison Reed. That still leaves a glutton of possible candidates in free agency, since I see three relief pitchers leaving the club (Belisle, Perkins, Gee) and a vacant closer spot, here are my potential targets.
  • Joe Smith
Ok, in list above, I want you to name the reliever who leads the pack in our relief pitching metrics. I would bet none of you guessed that the man who leads the pack in both xFIP and SIERA in this group is Joe Smith, and he was very close to topping the list in K/9 as well. Between the Blue Jays and Indians last year, Smith not only put up good ERA (3.33 ERA, 71K in 51 IP) there is reason to believe with the Twins defense behind him and in a pitcher friendly ballpark like Target Field he could be even better. His 2.33 SIERA mark and his 2.39 xFIP project superior ability, and he comes in with a sterling 11.83 K/9 mark. With the lack of strikeouts on demand in the current bullpen, Smith looks like a great addition and immediate upgrade.

2. Bryan Shaw

The second piece of the Indians bullpen to show up here, Shaw has an impressive 3.20 xFIP and 3.30 SIERA and has also been one of Terry Francona's favorite 'pen arms, and its shown by his use - in the last 5 seasons with the Tribe he has pitched no fewer than 64 Innings and thrown over 70 innings in three of the last five. While Shaw doesn't have the K/9 that his battery mate Smith has, his 8.57 K/9 would be a welcome addition in the Twins arsenal. Oh, he also keeps the ball in the park. His HR/FB percentage is a league average 10%, but his HR/9 is a miniscule .59, and his career mark almost equally impressive .91 HR/9. A workhorse who will get you outs, keep the ball in the park and get you some strikeouts along the way? Sure, I'll take two.

3. Mike Minor

Mike Minor is one of those guys who seems like hes been around forever. Former starting pitcher with the Atlanta Braves, Minor moved on to Kansas City and became a very competent relief pitcher. A lefty out of the 'pen, he would be a great dual role guy for the Twins, capable of long relief and lefty on lefty situations. He threw 77 Innings for the Royals last year, with a 3.59 xFIP and a 3.16 SIERA, suggesting he probably got a little luckier on balls in play due to the Kansas City defense (his ERA in 2017 was 2.55). Similar to Shaw, he keeps the ball in the ballpark with a .58 HR/9 and had a stellar 10.20 K/9 in 2017. In other words, he's a left handed Dillon Gee if Dillon Gee struck out 3 more hitters a game and allowed 1 less HR per 9 Innings. A significant upgrade.

Closing the door

With many relief pitchers on this list with closing experience, I had to be a little more subjective. Much to my chagrin there is not a metric for "ice water in his veins" or "clutch genes", but we can see some of the guys on the list have done the job (some for many, many years - looking at you Fernando Rodney) well over the years. That said, the Twins are more than likely not in play for the two biggest (and most likely most expensive) names on the list in Wade Davis and Greg Holland. I will even go as far to say the Twins will not pay Addison Reed the raise he is due after closing much of the year for the Mets and serving as a primary set up man for Craig Kimbrel in Boston. On the other hand, I will say that Fernando Rodney and Koji Uehara's closing days are probably behind them, and for good reason. Neither one pitched particularly well, at least well enough to be considered for the closing spots on a major league club. And yes, I know Rodney did. They also had Archie Bradley. I'll Digress, that leaves me with two interesting players in Luke Gregerson and Steve Cishek.

Both Gregerson and Cishek have closing experience, and both have been transient from their closing roles over the years. When the Astros traded for Ken Giles, Gregerson was removed from his closing role into setup (the Giles experiment didn't go so well in the first year) and was thrust back into the role when Giles struggled. Cishek has also seen a wax and wane to his role, he's served as primary closer for the Rays and Marlins, but has also played setup man for Brad Boxberger and more recently Erwin Diaz in Seattle.

Neither have excellent peripherals in high leverage situations, but the ability to have a veteran pitcher in the 9th inning, someone who's been there before to take the role and perform, is valuable. The ideal scenario, short of trading for or signing a premier closer, is that you have a Gregerson or a Cishek type player to take the role and wait for an emerging, younger reliever to succeed in higher leverage roles, hopefully supplanting Gregerson or Cishek eventually due to their superior "stuff."

The relief pitcher market is ripe with possibilities and improvements. There's no time like the present, and this years relief pitching class couldn't have come at a better time for the reloading Twins to stock up for a new season.

NEXT UP: Starting Pitching


  • Cory Engelhardt likes this

Oct 18 2017 03:07 PM

well written piece. What do you think a Wade Davis type would want? I'm asking from the standpoint that if it was under 10M a year, I'd probably still go after him. I think the Twins could do well to get one or two RP pieces, but I'd rather them get the shut down types so Molitor doesn't have to overly rely on guys like Hildy as he did with Duffey this season.

Thank you for the kind words! I think, a Wade Davis or Holland are in line to make in the range of 10-12 Million annually - with lockdown type relievers being a premium, I think even 15 million wouldn’t be out of the question.
I would agree, I’d love to see the Twins get at least two tier 2 type relievers, which is where I think Smith and Shaw sit. Even so, I’m skeptical, the Twins would probably need to commit about 4-6 Million annually for each. Will be interesting to see if the increased win total in 2017 is reflected in an increase in the payroll to accommodate moves like this.
Thanks - JohnOlson

Thanks for the article and research. I have always been a Brandon Morrow fan. Rooting that he is one of the two added

I don't see Cleveland letting those guys go to a Central team. I'd make a run at Brandon again as a set up man and sign a stud closer.




well written piece. What do you think a Wade Davis type would want? I'm asking from the standpoint that if it was under 10M a year, I'd probably still go after him. I think the Twins could do well to get one or two RP pieces, but I'd rather them get the shut down types so Molitor doesn't have to overly rely on guys like Hildy as he did with Duffey this season.

The big boys of relief were getting 15 million or more a year.Davis will get near hat

Gameday Memes
Oct 19 2017 05:49 PM

Is anyone thinking Trevor May will be ready for next year? Or at least midway through?

I see the Twins going after Kintzler. I like Minor, gregerson, Joe Smith as the 2nd reliever. And if the Twins sign a 3rd reliever expect minor league deals or at best Belisle if he wants to return for around 3 million or so.

In the past it would have been Kintzler, but I think that FO will move on and up.I am not sure that Belisle does not return.Trevor May is like the ghost of Christmas past.How many years have we speculated on his potential.I say he comes to Spring Training and we hope to be impressed, but do not plan on him.Pressly at Closer gives me ulcers.He and Tonkin are the HR specialists.They fit with many of today's hitters, HR or K.Not what I want in a closer.

​It will be good to see what the rookies look like next spring with their seasoning behind them.


I look at the list of relilevers and I am not excited by any of them.In fact the I am fearful of signing relief pitchers and expecting them to match past performance.The pen is erratic.Check out this essay: https://www.fangraph...s-year-to-year/

Oct 20 2017 08:01 AM

I'm not sure the dislike for May. He kind of got jerked around by the old administration in a "competition" that never was. He was moved into the pen, where he was fine until he got hurt. He got TJS this offseason. Like it or not, you have to be patient here. He should be pitching at some point next year, and I do hope they give him every opportunity to start when he is ready. Failure to do so would be a waste in my opinion.