While the Toronto Blue Jays look to improve their team, JFtC offers up a specific set of relievers to target
I’m extremely curious to see how the Blue Jays’ front office approaches the relief market this offseason. Clearly, adding veteran quality to the starting rotation is job one. However, GM Ross Atkins has frequently discussed adding quality pitching in a more general sense, suggesting that meaningful bullpen additions are also a distinct possibility. With that in mind, I reviewed the list of free agent relievers and found five that I think could really help the Blue Jays in 2020 and who are not Wills Smith or Harris.
Drew Pomeranz is a guy who is likely getting a lot of attention this offseason. After two effective seasons as a Red Sox starter in 2016 and 2017—he posted 3 fWAR each of those seasons—he had a below-replacement level 2018. After signing with the Giants last winter, he was once again a negative-value starter and found himself traded to the Brewers. Moved more permanently to the bullpen in Milwaukee, Pomeranz flourished. While the sample size is small (106 batters faced over 28.2 innings pitched out of the ‘pen), a 39.6% K-BB% always catches one’s eye.
Pomeranz made his first relief appearance of the season on July 22nd, just a few games before he was traded. From that day forward, among qualified relievers, Pomeranz ranked tenth in ERA (1.88), eighth in FIP (1.92), second in xFIP (1.67), third in SIERA (1.86) and eighth in xwOBA (.224). He also produced the ninth-most fWAR (0.9) from July 22nd on. Usefully, his numbers were strong against both lefties and righties, of particular importance with the anti-LOOGY rules that will soon be in effect.
Craig Stammen probably wishes he was a free agent last winter, after his extraordinary 2.2 fWAR 2018 season. This past season, Stammen saw his strikeout rate fall from a good 27.8% to a below-average 21.5% and his home run rate jump from an excellent 0.34 to a worse-than-average 1.43.
So, why is he on my wishlist? Well, he managed to improve upon his already great walk rate (5.4% in 2018) by posting one of the league’s best marks (4.4%), which allowed him to once again post a better-than-average K-BB% (17.1%) and FIP- (94). He also effectively limited baserunners, posting a .284 BABIP that was well supported by Statcast (.290 xBABIP), which helped him post a very strong 77 ERA-.
And that home run rate? It seems like there was bad luck involved. For one, his HR/FB (17.6%) was much higher than normal, so it wasn’t a surprise that his xFIP- (which assigns each pitcher the league average HR/FB) was a solid 87. Moreover, he gave up barrels less often than average (3.8%) and owned one of the larger gaps between his xwOBACON (a strong .338) and wOBACON (an average .367) in baseball. The result was an xwOBA (.281) that ranked seventh among baseball’s 25 highest-volume relievers (min. 300 batters faced).
Joe Smith is a known commodity in these parts after his career-best season with the Jays in 2017. While he wasn’t able to replicate that performance with the Astros over the last two seasons, he has certainly performed well enough to pique the Jays’ interest once more. In 2018, he pitched well enough to produce better-than-average marks in terms of ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA and xwOBA.
This past season, he was even better, though an injury caused him to miss the entire first half. In the second half, he pitched 25 rather effective innings. His 22.9% strikeout rate was roughly average, while his 5.2% walk rate was comfortably better than most. He also did an effective job at limiting dingers (0.72 HR/9), allowing him to produce a very strong 69 FIP-, and a good job at avoiding fly balls altogether, allowing him to produce a strong 82 xFIP-.
He limited batters to a .254 BABIP—a mark that was well supported by Statcast (.256 xBABIP) and wasn’t far from his career mark (.271 BABIP)—which propelled him to a very, very low 40 ERA-. Smith’s 2019 performance grades very well by Statcast, as he limited batters to a 3.1% barrel rate and an impressive .289 xwOBACON, the 13th-best second half mark in baseball (min. 50 batted balls). Combine his excellent contact and walk rates with his average strikeout rate and you arrive at his .244 xwOBA, also the 13th-best second half mark in baseball (min. 75 batters faced).
Tyler Clippard is yet another Blue Jays alumnus that I’d like to see return. Playing for the Jays in 2018, Clippard was a roughly average pitcher (99 FIP-), with his strong strikeout rate (29.8%) cancelling out his terrible home run rate (1.70 HR/9). That said, Statcast suggests he was unlucky, with his very strong .278 xwOBA running way ahead of his roughly average .309 wOBA.
Last season, pitching on a one-year deal with Cleveland, Clippard performed even better overall. With small decreases in both his strikeout and walk rates, Clippard produced a K-BB% (20.3%) that was roughly in line with his 2018 mark (21.8%). However, he brought his home run rate down by quite a bit, posting a 1.16 HR/9 that was his best since 2015, allowing him to bring his FIP- down to a strong 85.
Now, because he still gives up a ton of fly balls, he produced a poor 108 xFIP-. However, there is solid evidence that he was able to effectively limit how dangerous these fly balls could be. For one thing, among the 262 relievers who allowed at least 20 fly balls this past season, only 23 saw their fly balls travel a shorter average distance than Clippard (307 feet), while only 33 allowed fly balls with a lower xwOBA (.320). If we include all batted balls, Clippard gave up a xwOBACON of .298, the fifth-best mark among relievers (min. 100 batted balls).
Bring together his better-than-average strikeout, walk and contact rates and the result is one of the league’s very best xwOBA marks (.256, 14th among 170 relievers who faced at least 200 batters). This is no 2019 flash-in-the-pan—his 2018-19 xwOBA of .265 ranks 14th among 122 relievers who faced at least 400 batters.
Yoshihisa Hirano is another veteran signing that I think would bolster the Jays’ bullpen depth after two solid, if unspectacular, seasons in the majors with the Diamondbacks. His 91 and 92 FIP- marks over those two seasons speak to that, as do his better-than-average home run rates (0.81 and 1.19), average-or-better strikeout rates (22.5% and 26.2%) and roughly average walk rates (8.8% and 9.4%).
Similarly, Hirano has posted an average-or-better xwOBACON each of his major league seasons, improving upon his .370 mark from 2018 with a .352 mark in 2019. Combine his solid contact suppression this past season with his above-average 16.7% K-BB% and the result is a strong .293 xwOBA that ranked 69th among 170 relievers who faced at least 200 batters.
I think these five options offer some variety. Pomeranz is the youngest of the bunch and has the most upside, given his unreal cameo this season and limited experience as a full-time reliever. FanGraphs’ contract crowdsource predicts he’ll get a two-year deal with a $6 million annual salary. Stammen, like Smith, Clippard and Hirano, is in his mid-30s, but produced an elite season only a year ago. His upside isn’t the long-term kind, but he could be a very effective reliever over the next season or two. Smith, Clippard and Hirano seem like they could be signed on one-year deals and would be useful stop-gaps until some of the Jays’ relief prospects are ready for the big leagues. Any of the five would help the Blue Jays win games in 2020.
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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.