Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Division Debate: Your Lead's Safer in SF Than in Colorado

For my part in the Division Debate Series between Community Leaders of division rivals, I've been paired up against Anthony Masterson and we've been handed the live grenade that is each team's bullpen. For Anthony's sake, the powers-that-be have capped the issue at the trio most critical to slamming the door at the end of ballgames.

If you look at the entire bullpen, this becomes a thorough romp. Confining the discussion to the top three firemen at least keeps it close.

For my beloved San Francisco Giants, that means the following three relievers: closer Brian Wilson, newly-acquired Jeremy Affeldt, and newly-acquired Bobby Howry—although I could make a strong argument for either Alex Hinshaw or Sergio Romo as the third musketeer.

For the poor Colorado Rockies, that means this motley crew: closer Huston Street, deposed 2008 closer Manny Corpas, and Taylor Buchholz (and he's apparently on the shelf for the start of the year so I'll look at Jason Grilli and ).

Before I heap more misery upon the Rox, let me first say that I would be arguing in favor of SF's trio even if they were Dustin Hermanson, William VanLandingham, and Joe Roa.

It just so happens that—bluster aside—I really do think SF's bullpen is the objectively superior of the two. Take a look:

Seventh Inning Guys (or Secondary Set-Up Men)—Buchholz versus Howry

This is the spot that helps the Rockies' cause the most because Taylor Buchholz is the real deal and coming off a fine season whereas Bobby Howry—although more proven—is coming off his first rugged year in a while.

Despite fighting the thin-air demons at Coors Field on a regular basis, Buchholz posted the following line in 2008—a 2.17 earned run average, a 0.95 WHIP, 56 strikeouts against 18 walks, and only five home runs surrendered in 66+ innings pitched over the course of 63 games. I repeat, while playing his home games in Denver.

And the kid is only 27. Whoa.

But he's hurt and a sprained ligament in your pitching elbow is always horrible news. That's the kind of insidious injury that becomes Tommy John surgery when nobody's looking and, suddenly, the guy's MIA for a year or so.

Regardless of the long-term situation, Taylor's down for at least a month and that means the most reliable/dominating arm from last season is missing—to be replaced by Jason Grilli and/or Alan Embree.

Both guys are decent enough.

Grilli posted a sub-3.00 ERA after coming over from the Detroit Tigers early last season and only gave up a single bomb in 61+ IP, but his WHIP of 1.40 and K:BB ratio of less than 2:1 suggest his success might be fleeting. Embree's a reliable lefty specialist and every 'pen needs one of those.

But neither is gonna bring the gnarliness that Buchholz supplied.

Bobby Howry had a brutal '08 campaign for the Chicago Cubs, pitching to a 5.35 ERA with a WHIP north of 1.40, but those were uncharacteristic numbers compared to Howry's career numbers. Even in an obviously down year, the guy managed 59 Ks against only 13 walks.

His biggest bugaboo would appear to be the 13 taters given up in 70+ innings of work. At 35, Howry could be showing signs of a final breakdown or that homer total could be the product of the (un)Friendly Confines in Chicago.

Even if it is more than a one year anomally, the move to the more spacious park in San Francisco should bring the long ball total back to respectable levels and (hopefully) the extra confidence will shave some excess off both Howry's ERA and WHIP.

If not, SF still has the young duo of 26-year-old Sergio Romo—2.12 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 33 Ks, eight walks, three HRs in 34 IP last year—and 26-year-old Alex Hinshaw—3.40 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 47 Ks, 29 walks, five HRs in 39+ IP last year. Both guys should be ready to pick up any slack.

Hinshaw's numbers aren't much next to Romo's superlative work, but he's a funky lefty who kinda came apart at the end of the year so his stats are a bit misleading.

That's a lot to digest and, despite my natural lean towards SF, I'll give the edge to Colorado by assuming Buchholz will be right as rain by June. If he's gone longer than that, San Francisco takes this match-up easily.

EDGE: Colorado Rockies

Eighth Inning Guys (or Primary Set-Up Men)—Corpas versus Affeldt

Here's where the trouble really starts for the Rox.

Manny Corpas was absolutely electric in 2007, enough to wrestle closing duties away from the departed Brian Fuentes. Huge things were expected from the 26-year-old and he responded by totally crapping the bed in 2008.

The difference was simply night and day. His ERA doubled from 2.08 to 4.52, his WHIP jumped from 1.06 to 1.46, and he gave up 30 more hits in about two extra innings. Although the difference wasn't as drastic as above, Corpas gave up more walks, an extra homer, and whiffed fewer batters.

It was a global regression for the young righty.

Maybe he bounces back in 2009, maybe not. Relievers have a unpleasant little habit of requiring a change of scenery before they can recapture that elusive lightning in a bottle.

Jeremy Affeldt, on the other hand, put up another year of stellar work. His 2008 line—3.33 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 80 Ks against 25 walks, nine taters, and 78+ IP over 74 games—is impressive in a vacuum.

Turn that vacuum into the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, toss in the fact that Affeldt's a 30-year-old lefty, and the numbers become downright filthy.

Although Great American isn't quite a bandbox like a lot of the other parks in the National League Central, it can't be considered a pitcher's park like Pac Bell definitely is. That means his numbers should get even better when some of the fly balls find gloves instead of metal bleachers.

Plus, Affeldt's role is clearly defined whereas Corpas must have some designs on recapturing the closer's job. I say that limbo makes a bounce-back season from Colorado's Manny less likely.

If the Rockies get a version of Corpas closer to 2007 than to 2008, this one could be closer than it looks now.

Big Edge: San Francisco Giants

The Closers (or...the Closers)—Street versus Wilson

That sound you just heard was the Colorado bullpen wagon jettisoning all four wheels at once. And then landing on the horses that were pulling the freakin' thing.

Let's pretend the side-by-side was a dog-fight heading into the final bout. Shoot, you could even pretend the Rockies were a little bit in front.

The San Francisco Giants would still emerge from this round the clear winner. Brian Wilson is that much better than Huston Street. San Fran's closer would pull the entire bullpen ahead of Colorado's. He is that much better than Street.

Forget about all the peripherals, forget about all the really sophisticated metrics. For closers, there is only one stat that matters—save percentage. As in, how often did you blow the game when entrusted with a lead.

All the rest get skewed by poor performances in non-save opportunities or on the rare occasion things come apart at the seams in save chances.

Brian Wilson saw 47 save opportunities and failed to secure the win six times. So, while the 41 saves were very nice and his gaudy total at the break was certainly what garnered Wilson his All-Star nod, it was his 87 percent save rate that blows up my skirt.

All the more so because this is not a guy who was usually working with the max margin of three runs (or whatever your version of the max is). The Giants' anemic offense usually forced Wilson onto a tightrope without a net—blow the slim lead and those SF bats probably aren't gonna recoup your losses.

Flip over to Huston Street. While his peripherals are significantly better than Wilson's, check out the save percentage.

In only 25 save opportunities, Street blew seven leads. That would be one more than Wilson in 22 fewer chances. For those scoring at home, Huston registered 18 saves and a save percentage of 72.

Furthermore, Street has developed injury problems for two consecutive years now. Even though he's actually a year younger than Wilson, red flags are flying high regarding his durability.

If Street goes down (which recent history suggests is likely) that bumps everyone up a spot and now you're relying on Corpas to close, Buchholz/Grilli/Embree for the eighth, and whoever is left for the seventh.

Obviously, Brian Wilson's one great year is no guarantee of future success. But the baseball gods never promise anything, especially in the bullpen. It's about potential at this point.

And, potentially, Huston Street can't carry Brian Wilson's jock.

Huge Edge: San Francisco Giants

There you have it. If you're a Major League pitcher and you want a lead protected, I suggest handing the job to the San Francisco Giants' bullpen if the alternative is that of the Colorado Rockies.

The boys in Orange and Black have the better arms, healthier arms, and more of them.

Now, about those bats...

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