December, in the baseball world, is speculation time. I have tried hard to avoid most of the speculation because it is almost always misdirection or, just downright wrong. (Can’t wait to see Cliff Lee face Carl Crawford the first time New York is in Anaheim this year.) Also, it drives me crazy.
But, I cannot ignore the recent hot stove rumors about the back-end of the 2011 Rays bullpen. Yesterday, the wise Jonah Keri (check out his kick-ass podcast series — I can say “ass” on the internet, right?) was on a local talk-radio show where he floated an interesting theory: Why not use Jeff Niemann as a closer? Almost every closer in baseball is overrated and overpaid (I am not going to rehash that logic here because lots of smart people have written it in lots of places. Let me know if you’d like me to compile some links because it is interesting reading) so better to to finish games with the guys we got than overpay someone else to do it.
Expanding on Jonah’s thought, why not use Wade Davis, James Shields, or Jeremy Hellickson at the back end? (I think we can all agree that David Price and Matt Garza are locked into the rotation – unless we deal Garza). So, for the heck of it, and for the purposes of discussion, here is how I’d rank the potential closers looming in the Rays rotation after looking at their performance against hitters the first time through the lineup and their performance in high-leverage situations:
1. Jeff Niemann
Niemann has a career 88 tOPS in High Leverage situations according to Baseball Reference. That means opposing hitters perform about 12 OPS points lower against Niemann in high leverage situations than they do in other situations. Niemann also has a 2.36 SO/BB ratio when facing a hitter for the first time as a SP (5.00 ratio as a reliever). He has a tOPS of 77 the first time through the lineup as a SP. Basically, Niemann is at his best in high-leverage spots and when hitters see him for the first time. Sounds like the perfect description of a 9th-inning guy. That Jonah Keri is a Canadian-genius.
Jamie’s overall performance the first time through an opponent’s batting order is not as good as Niemann’s (94 tOPS) but he does strikeout more hitters than Niemann, particularly the first time around (4.51 SO/BB). I have Jamie as the second option, though, because he isn’t particularly good with runners on base or in high-leverage situations. (HL tOPS of 115). Basically, looking at these numbers, part of Jamie’s success is based upon keeping runners off base early. So, in the traditional 9th inning role, he should enjoy some success until he got into trouble.
3. Wade Davis
Davis is an intriguing option here, especially the way he pitched down the stretch in 2010. He definitely has strikeout stuff and has good career numbers in high-leverage situations (84 tOPS, 3.25 SO/BB) but I ranked him behind Shields for one simple reason: Wade needs one trip through the order to get his legs. The production of opposing hitters goes down as Davis gets deeper into a game (1st at bat OPS of .791, 2nd at bat OPS of .788, 3rd at bat OPS of .637) so one of his strengths is erased with a move to the bullpen.
4. Jeremy Hellickson
Hellickson’s career splits don’t seem very relevant because they are derived from such a small number of innings but, if you are interested, they are here and here. I ranked Hellickson as the last option simply because he looked so awful in his ill-fated move to the bullpen last fall. There are a lot of reasons Hellickson may have scuffled in that position but, I think it is fair to name him as the last-ditch option in this hypothetical.
Of course, late last night, all of this speculation became sort of academic when rumors began to swirl that the Rays were either close to a deal with Bobby Jenks or at least one of the teams in the hunt for his 2011 services. The guys over at DRays Bay did a sweet breakdown of Jenks 2010 numbers and have convinced me that he would fair much better with Longo, Brignac, Rodriguez, Jennings, Upton, Zobrist, and Joyce behind him than he did with the 8 stiffs the White Sox had in 2010.
Ultimately, a guy like Jenks is a better option than re-purposing a piece we already control but, the best thing about following the Rays is speculating on the next way they will try and break the mold.