The Toronto Front Office has been aggressive in their efforts to further bolster a bullpen that proved troublesome in 2021. Many Blue Jays fans feel confident the relief corps will help their team contend in 2022. But do the Fangraphs ZIPS Projections send out warning flares?
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If Blue Jays fans were asked to pinpoint the reason their team did not make the post-season in 2021, the majority would need only one word-bullpen. The club had 119 save opportunities, but only converted 34 saves The Jays Save Percentage of 65% trailed only the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East. Each of their division rivals saw their bullpens post 20 or more holds than the Jays total of 64. This last comparison tells the story of the Blue Jays’ bullpen misadventures, especially before the All-Star break.
While Toronto starters for the most part exceeded expectations, protecting leads handed to relievers by the starting staff proved troublesome. Injuries and young pitchers called upon to fill unfamiliar bullpen roles were an issue. But the Blue Jays posted the second best Simplified Rating System (SRS rating 1.2) in the American League. Their Pythagorean Win total of 99 was 8 wins better than their final total of 91. Both of these rating systems, based primarily on run differential and strength of schedule, indicate the Blue Jays should have easily made the playoffs in 2021. The fact that Toronto finished 1 game out of a Wild Card spot points to a team that underachieved over the course of the season. Nowhere was this underachievement more prominent than in the bullpen.
Once GM Ross Atkins acted to stop the bleeding just before the All Star break, the Blue Jays bullpen began to produce healthier results. Yes, there were some scary results turned in by Brad Hand, Rafael Dolis, Thomas Hatch and Joakim Soria. But Jordan Romano provided reliable late inning heroics while earning 23 saves. Tim Mayza established himself as the primary left-handed option in leverage situations-even during a lengthy stretch when he was the only lefty available to manager Charlie Montoyo. Mid-season acquisitions Adam Cimber (0.964) and Trevor Richards (0.796) were the only Jays relievers (not named Mayza) to post a WHIP under 1.00.
With this foundation to build upon, Atkins acted swiftly to add experienced arms to a bullpen that needs to be better if Toronto is too be a serious contender for the AL East title. Yimi Garcia signed a two-year, $11 million contract with Toronto on December 1st, fresh off a successful stint with the World Series runner-up Houston Astros in 2021. The Astros acquired Garcia from Miami at the deadline, hoping to capture some of the lightning he displayed while assuming the closer role in 2020 with the Marlins. An established high leverage reliever, Garcia should help solve the bridge situational issues that doomed too many Blue Jays wins last season.
The Blue Jays also re-signed veteran righty David Phelps to a minor league deal before the lockout was imposed. While Phelps will rarely sniff save situations, he is an experienced major league arm which has performed effectively in a number of relief roles. In his 11 appearances for Toronto in 2021, Phelps recorded a minuscule 0.87 ERA with 15 strikeouts before suffering a right lat injury that required surgery in late May. So on paper, a bullpen of Romano, Mayza, Garcia, Cimber, Richards, Phelps and a (potentially) healthy Julian Merryweather seemed to quiet concerns of the Blue Jays faithful about the bullpen derailing the team during the playoff run in 2022.
But then…… Fangraphs released their ZIPS Projections for the upcoming season.
Before we proceed, allow me to make a confession. There are few Blue Jays analysts that eschew advanced analytics more virulently than I do. Any number that is preceded by a w(weighted), an x(expected) or finds a + behind it needs to be ignored. But some of the original sabermetric formulas, such as the aforementioned pythagorean win total and simplified rating systems, which are based on actual game results, are useful to monitor in-season and post-season analyses. There are 2 ZIPS projections I do look at closely as a means to assess where a team’s pitching staff may be at going into the season- FIELDING INDEPENDENT PITCHING (FIP) AND WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT (WAR). After digesting the FIP and WAR numbers, I have been experiencing enough heartburn to share my concerns with Blue Jays fans.
NOT A PERFECT FIP IN THE BULLPEN….
Fielding Independent Pitching attempts to neutralize the effects of fielding and random luck on pitching performances. FIP takes a focused snapshot of the skill level of a pitcher by isolating results a pitcher can actually control during a game- home runs allowed, walks, hit batters and strikeouts. Divided by innings pitched, this statistical measuring stick tells staff and fans how a pitcher is likely to impact a game. It also has incorporated a constant into the equations by incorporating league-based performances in these categories.
When looking at FIP, any number in the 3.00s is considered Good. A FIP in the 4.00s is considered league average and any result under 3.00 is Cy Young worthy.
Looking at the Toronto ZIPS results, four of the Jays 8 projected Opening Day relievers will sport a FIP in the Good/3s range (Mayza 3.54, Romano 3.59, Richards 3.71, Cimber 3.82). Promising, but these projections need to be measured against other projected American League contenders. The Yankees and Red Sox have 5 relievers who project a FIP in the 3.00s. Tampa Bay and Chicago match Toronto with 4 relievers with a 3ish FIP, but each team has a reliever with a projected FIP under 3.00 (Andrew Kitteredge 2.96, Liam Hendricks 2.82). Seattle and Houston both trail the pack, though the Astros do boast one reliever (Ryan Pressly 2.77) with a sub-3 FIP.
While this is not a “the sky is falling” comparison, based on FIP ZIP Pojections, the Blue Jays would be wise to seek further bullpen upgrades-especially left-handed ones (Andrew Chafin 3.53 FIP-yes please) to ensure they can match up better against likely playoff contenders.
Going to War over WAR….
Of all the analytic measuring points, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for me is the single most important one in the assessment of pitching. Batter WAR is flashier and sexier, but WAR for pitchers make the difference between playoff and World Series chances and average seasons. In the rotation, Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios and Hyun-jin Ryu are projected to post a better than 3.0 WAR, so they in theory are worth at least 9 games to a Blue Jays playoff race. Alek Manoah is projected with a 2.6 WAR; things look good when each of these pitchers takes the mound.
Starting pitchers are expected to have a larger impact on a team’s success than relievers. But it is vital for contenders to have multiple bullpen arms produce a WAR of at least 1. In 2021, only Romano (2.3) and Cimber (1.1) met that criteria. So imagine the angst you will experience when you look at 2022 ZIPS projected WAR and see only Jordan Romano will put up a WAR of at least 1.0. In fact he is expected to regress to exactly a 1.0 WAR level. So how does Toronto match up against the other projected contenders?
The White Sox and Yankees are expected to have five relievers each post a WAR above 1.0. The Rays, Red Sox and Astros have 2 relievers with a 1.0+ WAR.
Time for panic-of course not. But the WAR comparisons amongst contenders does demonstrate a need for the front office to spend money and time targeting reliever upgrades before the season begins.
A FINAL WORD….
The Blue Jays will be aggressive once the new CBA is finalized. Much of the fan chatter has revolved around major offensive targets and the age-old pursuit of additional rotation pieces. While a big time bat like Freddie Freeman, Matt Chapman and Jose Ramirez would look mighty fine in Blue Jays baby blues, the lineup was not the problem in 2021. Nor was the rotation. While bullpen upgrades have been added, the FIP and WAR inequities outlined here point to more upgrades needed to heal last year’s Achilles’ Arm issues. I am old enough to have watched every Blue Jays season. I have witnessed far too many wasted Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Jimmy Key and Roy Halladay quality starts doomed by ineffective bullpen performances. After seeing an entire season neutralized by bullpen bloopers, I just had to take a few hundred words to encourage the front office to make sure it doesn’t happen gain
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Jersey born, Pittsburgh resident, baseball lifer. Staff Writer jaysfromthecouch.com. Host THE ON FEK CIRCLE on JFtC YouTube Channel. Regular guest on Jays From the couch Radio Podcast. Established WPPJ Rock-a-thon benefit, which has been broadcast annually since 1981 and has raised for than $500,000 for the Early Learning Institute of Pittsburgh. IBWAA member.