Most teams have (some) problems. The Braves have been competitive and in playoff position essentially all seasons, and they are definitely not lacking in roster concerns. Coming in to June’s final week, here were the Braves ranks among all MLB teams in various areas:
- Hitting, wRC+: 4th
- Defense, Fangraphs Def: 5th
- Starting pitching, fWAR: 12th
- Relief pitching, fWAR: 14th
None of these are bad, but the bullpen stands out as the most obvious place to improve. But, improving the bullpen can be a tricky thing. If you get a better position player, you got a better position player. Unless he’s a pinch-hitting specialist (and those don’t exist anymore) or a defensive replacement type, you don’t really choose when to add him into the game. You just put him into the lineup and hope he hits and fields as well as you were expecting. The same goes for starters, too, short of doing something like using an opener. They take their turn in the rotation, and you just watch. Relievers, though — relievers don’t work on a schedule. Managers (and pitching coaches, or whoever makes the decisions) insert relievers as tactical moves to try and increase their team’s chances of winning any individual game (as least in theory).
My own (terrible analogy) for relievers is that they’re kind of like hypothetical cell phones. Some people, i.e., those that have grown up with this type of technology and have never known a world without it, can handle the most involved and complex features. Others, however, just want a phone that makes calls (it seems gauche in this day and age, but I’m sure you have relatives of the type). While, ideally, there would be a cell phone that could morph from the complex to the simplistic to match its user (we can call it the Josh Hader model), that isn’t likely to be particularly affordable or available on the open market. So, what you want are cell phones, I mean relievers, that match reasonably well with the way they are going to be used.
Before I go any further, I do want to indicate why this is a problem. The table below contains a ton of information, enough to be its own post. I won’t discuss all of it, but the takeaways are hopefully clear.
Braves’ pitchers vary by how big of a platoon split they have. (Jesse Biddle is also a weirdo, but that’s definitely a topic for another day.) Where they resemble other teams most closely is that their usage doesn’t hew all too well to preserving the platoon advantage in high leverage situations.
In high leverage situations, the Braves are 13th in MLB in the proportion of batters faced without the platoon advantage (about 47%). They’re also 15th in FIP and 12th in xFIP in high leverage situations, so again, there hasn’t been some kind of huge problem here. That’s not the point of this post. The reason why this is potentially more painful is because the Braves actually lead the league in high-leverage relief appearance duration. More chances mean more opportunities to both get it right and get it wrong, and the data bear this out as well: the Braves relief corps are a perfectly reasonable 15th in aggregate WPA, but have the sixth-most WPA lost. (Correspondingly, they also have the third-most WPA gained.) In short, what I’m saying is that the frustrating part is that this sort of easy-to-handle alignment of relievers to opposing batters to mitigate the platoon advantage happens at all, not that it happens more to the Braves than to other teams.
So, enough about that: let’s go about fixing it, and by fixing it I mean, “Finding relievers with unexploitable platoon splits!” That’s what this post is really about. As shown in the table above, about 40 percent of righty reliever high leverage innings come when the platoon advantage is lacking. This figure is even higher, 60 percent, for lefty relievers. So, what we are relievers that can survive decently well regardless of what type of batter they’re facing, to make any handedness-related snafus tolerable.
Here are the criteria used:
That table might make them look complicated, but they’re fairly simple. The first row just states that we’re looking for relievers that do better than average when they have the platoon advantage. The second row then states that when they don’t have the platoon advantage, they should pitch at least as well as an average reliever. Just for a bit of robustness, these set of criteria are repeated for a three-year retrospective sample instead, to get players who either have a track record of meeting these criteria.
[To be perfectly clear: this isn’t a list of the best trade targets. This is just a list of possible trade targets who have relatively small or non-problematic platoon splits. A list of the best trade targets would be different because it would consider other factors.]
Here’s who this set of criteria came up with. Righties first, then lefties.
Adam Cimber (San Diego Padres)
The rookie sidewinder is not an unusual choice; he has come up again and again in idle discussions regarding relief targets for the Braves, and probably for other teams too.
- Cimber is really good. He’s been on par with Dan Winkler in terms of production.
- He comes with a lot of team control, as this is his first season.
- Despite a simple fastball-slider mix, he has struck out an insane 36.7 percent of lefties faced so far.
- He will no doubt be a popular target in July, and not an under-the-radar acquisition. This will increase the cost.
- He has tons of team control, which will also increase the cost. With reliever volatility, paying the full team control years price for someone who may become a pumpkin later on is a little concerning.
- He’s managed lefties well so far, but many pitchers with his delivery and pitch mix struggle when they lack the platoon advantage. He doesn’t have a huge track record.
The Braves have seen Cimber throw over three innings against them this season.
Lou Trivino (Oakland Athletics)
Before this exercise, I was not aware that Lou Trivino existed. Even this exercise flagging him is a little misleading, as Trivino only has 25 appearances and 30 innings to his name.
Trivino is an odd duck in that he throws a fastball, a cutter, and a sinker, and throws them all quite hard. For the year, among relievers with 30 or more innings, he’s top 10 in four-seamer velocity, and has both the third-fastest cutter and third-fastest sinker in baseball. This results in a strikeout rate (north of 28 percent) that’s pretty good as well as a top-30 groundball rate for relievers. His walk rate is kind of a concern, and like most righty relievers, his performance does suffer a dropoff versus lefties. Still, he’s been quite good to date, and may make a nice target while the rest of the market attempts to fight over teammate Blake Treinen, who is having a great 2018 so far.
- Results are focused on two of the worst result types — strikeouts and grounders.
- May not be expensive due to lack of recognition.
- Lots of team control, in rookie season.
- High velocity suggests he’s doing something other than beguiling hitters via smoke and/or mirrors.
- See the team control note under Adam Cimber, especially with regard to volatility.
- Walk rate is higher than ideal, and gets even worse against lefties, though the overall performance is still within desired parameters.
- Little major league track record; have to believe he turned a corner in the minors around 2017 and is carrying that through to the present.
Matt Andriese (Tampa Bay Rays)
Andriese has functioned as a swingman for his entire career, and is being used as part of Tampa Bay’s opener strategy so far this year. He generally pitches multiple innings, and is not a traditional one-inning, max effort type. Because he is a pseudo-starter, he already doesn’t exhibit much of a platoon splits; the bullpen is often reserved for pitchers with inherently large splits who can’t be trusted to face a variety of hitters.
The Rays, given their unique (and unfortunate) financial situation may be extra-motivated to move Andriese, given that he starts his arbitration eligibility next year. While his performance has actually been really good, especially when you consider that he’s going multiple innings in his outings, he may make somewhat of an awkward fit for a Braves team that’s not necessarily looking for lower-leverage, multi-inning relievers, and seems unlikely to further muddy up its rotation picture with swingmen/starter candidates.
- Can go multiple innings.
- Decent-to-strong regardless of platoon situation.
- Gives team flexibility if they need a long man, rotation fill-in, etc.
- May be easy to acquire given impending arbitration eligibility.
- Platoon splits are a little confusing and non-straightforward.
- Isn’t the type of shutdown, one-inning pitcher that might fit better with the team at this point.
- Will get more expensive starting next year, due to arbitration eligibility.
Seth Lugo (New York Mets)
Another odd duck target; the fact that we’ve got a swingman and a former starter on this list tells you that it’s actually pretty hard to find relief pitchers immune from platoon splits. C’est la relief pitching vie, I guess.
Anyway, I don’t know if the Mets would even trade Lugo in-division. But if they did, he’s another interesting option. While the Braves may best remember Lugo as the guy who gave up one of Charlie Culberson’s legendary walkoffs, he actually has 2.6 career fWAR/600, but has inexplicably only made four starts this season while the Mets have given starts to Matt Harvey (prior to dumping him), Steven Matz (-0.1 fWAR in seven starts), P.J. Conlon (-0.2 fWAR in under six innings, which is impressive), and Jason Vargas (-0.5 fWAR, lowest ERA estimator is his xFIP at an even 5.00).
Lugo has had both elbow and shoulder issues in the past year or so, which may be why the Mets have restricted his use. He’s also re-entered the rotation as of late May, and the Mets may not trade him if they feel they have no one else to eat innings in their lost season, though that may be kind of a poor decision. In any case, Lugo is a speculative case, but as befitting a starter-turned-reliever, he doesn’t have much of a platoon split.
- Lots of team control, with one more pre-arbitration year and then three arbitration years
- Pretty decent rotation candidate if the need comes up, or a swingman otherwise
- Not actually as dominant as one-inning relievers, which makes sense
- May be more expensive due to intradivision trade considerations
- May not actually be available
- More of an injury risk, managing his health may be an impediment to his desirability
Other RHP Reliever Candidates
These guys didn’t meet all of FIP/xFIP criteria above, but were pretty close. Not included here are players that probably won’t be available due to playing on surefire contenders.
- Adam Ottavino - but the Rockies aren’t out of it. He’s also never been this good, so there’s some serious regression risk and winner’s curse considerations in terms of trading for him.
- Blake Treinen - a really obvious candidate with his great stats. The Braves may entertain such a deal, but he’s basically a “top of market” candidate.
- Craig Stammen - kind of a mix of Ottavino and Treinen. He’s been dominant, but he’s also 34 and coming off a crappy 2017 and only pitched four major league innings the two years before then. Buyer beware.
- Richard Rodriguez - a minor league journeyman that’s been crazy dominant for the Pirates this year. He hasn’t walked a righty all season and has a near-40 percent strikeout rate against lefties (to go with his 32 percent strikeout rate against righties). Sounds great, right? Well, the downside is that the Pirates have used him only for mop-up duty, As weird as it is, the only two games he’s entered that even had average leverage or above, he’s blown. I don’t think this is really a reflection of his skillset, and he probably warrants more higher-leverage use until his ability set becomes more easily gauged. So, he may be a target, but caution should be exercised. Also, with just a fastball-slider mix, the narrative surrounding his ability to retire lefties is a little muddled at present.
- Ryan Pressly - falling back in love with his slider has made Pressly a better pitcher this year, which has been an odd twist of fate given that his early adventures with heavy slider use didn’t go well, likely due to the different ball and batter approach being employed back in 2014. A decent and possibly cheap choice if the Twins decide to sell, as he’d only be control for one additional season if acquired at the deadline.
Onward, to lefties.
Jose Alvarez (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
I don’t know if the Angels will decide to sell. Even if they do, they have no real incentive to trade Alvarez given that he’s under control through 2020. But, should they decide that Alvarez is on the block, it would behoove the Braves, and other contenders, to take notice. Alvarez is currently with his fourth organization, and has been a decent middle reliever that’s ridden the AAA shuttle a lot over the past few years. This appears to be his peak season, as he’s upped his four-seam fastball usage and gotten rewarded with a lot more strikeouts as a result. He’s been very tough on lefties and good enough against righties to qualify for the criteria set out above.
- Not a pure rental
- Track record of being at least decent, so potentially less likely to bust than other options
- Elicits very weak contact in general, especially relative to other options (see xwOBA), even when lacking platoon advantage
- Not limited to just one inning; has gone over an inning in about a quarter of his appearances this year
- Angels may not really have much of a reason to trade him
- Decent chance that any trade will simply buy his past performance and he’ll revert to his prior, not-all-too-notable (though still relatively immune to platoon splits) self
- Doesn’t escape the basic pitfall that most lefty relievers really struggle against righty hitters, even if he’s better than a lot of his peers
Tim Hill (Kansas City Royals)
The odds have always been against Tim Hill. He was a 32nd-round draft pick. He’s never been any kind of ranked prospect. He missed what would have been his first full professional season due to injury, and severely underperformed his peripherals last year in AA. Still, he made the Royals’ Opening Day roster this year, where he’s posted a pretty good set of peripherals despite getting slammed by an unfortunately low strand rate of just 55 percent. He’s also an extreme groundball guy debuting in an age where the zeitgeist is definitely unfavorable to groundball pitchers, yet here is, making hay in the Kansas City bullpen with a sidearm motion. He might be something like the lefty version of Adam Cimber... or not.
Hill’s appearance on this list mostly indicates that it’s very tough for a lefty reliever to avoid platoon splits over any length of time. In fact, while Hill is the last pitched highlighted here as a trade target, the data showed that only 11 southpaw relievers this year have even managed to meet the criteria of average platoon-advantaged performance and a platoon-disadvantaged performance that resembles average relief performance. (These 11 relievers are Sean Doolittle, Tony Watson, Zach Duke, Jose Alvarez, Aaron Loup, James Pazos, Taylor Rogers, Josh Hader, Aaron Bummer, Tim Hill, and A.J. Minter.) If you add track record considerations into the mix, the list shrinks to just five (Doolittle, Alvarez, Hader, Hill, and Minter), and of these, only Doolittle and Alvarez have really had long track records, though Hader’s been phenomenal for 80 innings and 60 appearances at this point.
Anyway, I don’t know if Hill will keep this up. But if the Braves can get him cheap because his ERA is severely inflated, they should at least look into it. The Royals are probably among the teams most likely to sell at the deadline given the state of their major league club and farm system, and a promising rookie reliever will hopefully not be off limits just due to team control. I guess we’ll find out.
- Good contact management
- Grounders are good if you can make them work for you
- Lots of team control, rookie
- Royals should be very incentivized to trade
- Very little track record
- As with most lefty relievers, peripherals when the platoon advantage is ceded aren’t great
- Sinker-slider combination isn’t a guarantee to maintain platoon-disadvantaged effectiveness and it may be hard for Hill to integrate another pitch given his delivery
Other LHP Reliever Candidates
These guys didn’t meet all of FIP/xFIP criteria above, but were pretty close. Not included here are players that probably won’t be available due to playing on surefire contenders.
- Tony Watson - relief veteran now looks even better than he did during dominant 2014-5 years with the Pirates, but was ineffectual in each of the last two seasons. More of a gamble as a result. Very affordable, and the Giants are unlikely to go anywhere this season.
- Zach Duke - an even older veteran than Watson who has alternated good and awful years lately. Also very affordable (on a $2.2M contract for 2018). Historically has been fairly suspect against righties, so only speculatively really fits into the premise of this article.
- Aaron Loup - not particularly well-liked in Braves Country because of that time he broke Freddie Freeman’s wrist, but should be available from a Blue Jays team that didn’t get the breaks it needed. Better than you’d expect against righties this year, but track record against them is still questionable. His command/walk rate are also better than you’d expect, but he may be available at a discount since he always seems to get way more stung by BABIP than his contact quality would suggest. Not a big strikeout guy, though, and strikeouts are down for him this year.
- Taylor Rogers - really wearing out the Twins with some of these bullets. Sinker-curve lefties aren’t too common, especially not in relief, and Rogers has the dubious distinction of pitching way better this year than in his first two seasons, yet getting burned by a combination of both BABIP and strand rate. He’s been great this year and has managed righties well, but was awful against them last year. Could be a good candidate to pounce on if the Twins move to sell and the Braves believe that his poor performance against righties in 2017 was an anomaly.
So, there you have it. Some under-the-radar options to avoid playing in the expensive top of the market, and to try to mitigate the consequences of tactical decisions that end up yielding the platoon advantage to opposing batters. None of these may happen, and perhaps none should — all relievers have boatloads of volatility and most have red flags of various shades. Still, I’ll be watching these names with interest as the trade deadline market develops over the next month.