Jays From the Couch analyzes the closer options already on the Toronto Blue Jays roster.
This past Tuesday, Blue Jays fans learned that Roberto Osuna was arrested and charged with assault of a woman. The investigation is still in its early stages. We on the outside know little for certain, so I have no intention of speculating. Instead, I will simply make the obvious (but important) point that the non-baseball aspect of this situation is far more important than the baseball aspect. We know for certain that a woman felt that she was assaulted by Osuna, and that is more than enough justification for him to be put on leave until an investigation can more clearly determine what happened and what punishment is appropriate.
With Osuna out of the lineup for an indefinite period of time, the Jays will need to find an alternate closer. Gibby has highlighted four Jays relievers as possible options: Tyler Clippard, Ryan Tepera, Seung-hwan Oh and John Axford. In the only save opportunity since Tuesday, Gibby opted to use Clippard in the ninth inning—Clippard performed well, giving up a no-doubt single on a line drive, followed by a lazy fly and two strikeouts.
What follows is an analysis of these four relievers and their performances thus far in 2018. The quick summary is that the Jays are well-stocked with closer-caliber relievers, mainly thanks to the team’s shrewd signings of three strong, experienced relievers coming off of down-years. Homegrown Tepera has also displayed an ability to handle high-leverage situations. Thus, a closer-by-committee approach seems like the most likely option.
That said, it’s worth getting a better idea of the kind of season each reliever has had. The tables to come outline how each of the four relievers has performed in terms of a variety of metrics. Alongside the metric is each pitcher’s rank among the four Jay relievers and percentile rank among all MLB relievers with 10 or more IP in 2018.
Seung-hwan Oh seems like the most logical option for the closer role. He’s the only one of the four who spent last season in a closer role and his 2016 performance is the best single-season performance any one of the four pitchers has ever had (and one of the Top 30 reliever seasons over the last decade). This season, he’s rebounded very well from a subpar 2017. His ERA, FIP, SIERA and xwOBA are all better-than-average—his worse-than-average xFIP is the result of his high fly ball rate, most of which are not dangerous. It’s particularly comforting to see his excellent ERA well-supported by an excellent xwOBA.
He’s produced a slightly below-average strikeout rate, but one of the best walk rates in the majors. The combination results in a K/BB nearly as good as his excellent 2016 mark. He’s not getting batters to chase (O-Swing%), miss strikes (Z-Contact%) or whiff (Swing Strike%) quite as often as he did in 2016, but each mark remains better-than-average among MLB relievers.
His main issue last year was giving up barrels and (as a result) homers. They still represent weak spots for him, but to a much lesser extent than in 2017. In terms of batted balls, more generally, Oh generates a great deal of weak fly balls (low xwOBA and xBA on batted balls).
Oh’s low BABIP and high LOB% indicate that he’s gotten some good luck this season. However, his BABIP is not much different than his 2016 mark (.270), so it’s mainly just his high strand rate that is truly unsustainable. There may be some regression to come in his ERA, but his strong fundamentals (especially his excellent xwOBA) suggest that a lesser, but still high-quality performance is sustainable.
Axford has similarly had a nice rebound so far in 2018, with his ERA down about five runs from 2017 (over a similar number of innings). He’s posting average or better marks in all five overall performance metrics. Just like Oh, Axford’s excellent ERA is supported by a strong xwOBA. Axford’s success has depended on generating weak contact, mainly via the ground ball. He hasn’t excelled at getting strikeouts, though he has kept an average walk rate. He’s also struggled with getting batters to chase, miss strikes and whiff.
However, a look at his batted ball performance suggests that Axford is perfectly happy that batters haven’t missed his pitches. He hasn’t given up a dinger yet this season. That doesn’t seem to be because of good fortune, as his barrel rate is one of the lowest in the majors. His nearly equal xwOBA and xBA on batted balls also imply that that the contact he gives up is not particularly dangerous.
Two of Axford’s luck metrics do raise sustainability concerns, in particular his strand rate. His career mark is 76%, so we should expect some more of Axford’s base runners to score going forward. That said, his strong xwOBA implies that a better-than-average ERA should still be in the cards for Axford this season. Similarly, his 0% HR/FB is not super-concerning given his low barrel rate. Surely, over time, he will give up more barrels and more homers. However, he isn’t giving up a large number of warning track fly outs at the moment—he has yet to give up a hit with a projected distance of 395 or more feet this season (64% of pitchers have).
Tyler Clippard has gotten the only save opportunity since Tuesday, so perhaps his team best ERA has convinced Gibby that he should get first dibs on the interim closer role. His excellent ERA is not well-supported by his FIP, xFIP and SIERA—due to his high HR/9 (FIP) and league-high FB% (xFIP)—though his xwOBA has been much better-than-average. It’s important to note that his fly ball-heavy approach has always ensured that his FIP (career mark of 3.85), xFIP (4.16) and SIERA (3.47) were higher than his ERA (3.07). The current gap is obviously much larger.
He’s managed to strikeout a high proportion of batters, but that’s come at the cost of a high walk rate. That said, I could envision his K/BB to improve going forward, given how well he has gotten batters to chase balls, miss strikes and whiff. Clippard’s barrel rate seems to justify his high home run rate—he’s given up three barrels and all three went for home runs. Aside from the long ball, however, Clippard generates a lot of weak fly balls, the key to his success.
His luck metrics are alarming, however. His super-low BABIP should regress, to some extent—his .237 career BABIP makes it clear that, relative to most pitchers, far fewer balls in play given up by Clippard turn into base hits. Similarly, while his 100% strand rate will certainly regress this season, his career mark (80%) is much higher than most pitchers, which should limit how much negative regression occurs.
Ryan Tepera, the lone homegrown reliever in the bunch, has been a very average reliever in 2018. That’s useful, but not necessarily closer-quality. That said, he has been good at generating strikeouts and limiting walks. He probably deserves better, in fact, as his chase and whiff rates are among the league’s best.
His problems emerge when balls are put in play, with one of the league’s worst HR/9 underlining how much he’s been burned by the long ball. His worse-than-average barrel rate suggests that this hasn’t been driven entirely by bad batted ball luck. While his xBA on batted balls is worst among the four Jay relievers we’re examining, it is still better than most major-league relievers. This indicates that when he is not getting barreled, batters are struggling to create effective contact.
On the one hand, his exceptionally high HR/FB should regress downwards, given his career rate of 13.6% and his recent seasons with a high single-digit home run-to-fly ball ratio. On the other hand, he is stranding an exceptionally high number of base runners, which should also regress to a more sustainable level, like his 76.7% career strand rate. Those two predictions make a lot of sense together—the equation for LOB% includes home runs in the denominator. So when a pitcher gives up a lot of homers (like Tepera has in 2018), their LOB% will be higher (as Tepera’s is, at this point).
Ultimately, I think there’s a logical reason to use any of the four relievers as a closer. Ryan Tepera has the seniority and was already the eighth-inning guy. Tyler Clippard has the highest strikeout rate, an attractive trait for closers. John Axford has the fastest pitch of the bunch, a 96 mph sinker that is the fifth most valuable sinker among major league relievers.
Seung-hwan Oh is the Final Boss. He would be my pick, if I had to choose. None of the others have a comparable resume—he produced 2.6 fWAR in 2016, which was the 22nd-highest single-season mark among relievers since 2008. He ranked behind only Kenley Jansen, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman in that season. He currently owns the best xwOBA of the bunch, a metric I put a lot of confidence in. He has produced both an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio and a great deal of the kind of contact that doesn’t lead to either base-hits or extra bases.
But again, all four of the relievers discussed have pitched effectively so far this season. These sorts of situations tend to sort themselves out anyways, with Gibby likely to go with the hot hand. Offer your opinions on this topic in the comments below!
*Featured Image Photo Credit: genevieve.ducret
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.