There’s an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune today about Kevin Towers and his ability to build bullpens. Well, that’s what the article would lead you to believe at first. The main topic of discussion is Heath Bell. He’s a somewhat strange case. For the most part, his minor league numbers were good, despite a few iffy years. But he never found success in the majors during his early years. Yet, through it all, he’s always been able to 1) strike out a ton of guys and 2) not walk too many. If you’ll glance through his stats in the minors and majors, he’s been able to carry at least a 3:1 K/BB ratio most of the way. And in the later years in the minors, it was far greater than that.
“I can’t really get into details,” Padres General Manager Kevin Towers said yesterday, “but we have guys who do stat analysis who look at lucky versus unlucky. Heath had horrible numbers in the big leagues, but (based on) hard-hit balls versus non-hard-hit balls and balls that should have been caught that weren’t, he just had rough, rough luck.”
Now, I’m not going to sift through batted ball charts right now. Maybe that’s an exercise for another day. But for now, let’s look around the majors who in some way or another fit the Bell profile. We’re talking guys in their late 20s who have had minor league success in the bullpen, but who haven’t quite put it together on the major league level. Peripherals are really key. We’re looking for a strikeout an inning, or at least close to that. And we’re looking for a 3:1 K/BB ratio.
Frasor has been in the majors since 2004, and he actually had a decent year in 2005, so he might not jump out at you right away. But if you look at his major league numbers, he’s put up a strikeout an inning and at least a 3:1 K/BB ratio over the past two years. His ERAs in those campaigns: 4.32 and 4.58. But what I find most similar between Bell and Frasor are the minor league marks. Once Frasor was converted to the bullpen in 2003, he was a strikeout machine. The best part is that he doesn’t walk too many. In fact, in his first year in the pen, he struck out 86 in 61 innings, which is insane. It’s more insane that he struck out 87 the previous year in 112 innings. And to bring the insanity meter even higher, he walked just 18 guys in 2003, giving him a K/BB ratio of 4.78. He could really help out an improving Blue Jays bullpen this year.
Balfour had spent most of his career with the Twins until 2006, when he was signed by the Red, and then split time between Milwaukee and Tampa Bay in 2007. In the majors, he’s put up ERAs in the mid-4s. And when you look at his peripherals, he seems to walk a few too many guys to fit our desired profile. But he does strike out more than a guy an inning, which is the first step. Now, take a gander at his minor league numbers. Well now. Those K:BB numbers are looking a bit nicer. The Brewers hid him for a bit in the minors last year, where he racked up 47 strikeouts to 11 walks in 32 innings. So yeah, the potential is there. And really, if you look at his game logs, you’ll see that his ERA last year was rather tainted by a zero-inning, four-run outing against the Red Sox. We could certainly see Balfour step up this year and become another cog in Tampa Bay’s hypertrophying pitching staff.
You might notice a discrepancy in Casilla’s age. Look at his Baseball Reference page, and then his minors page. The A’s roster has him as being born in 1980, so we’ll say that he’s entering his age 28 season. He only has one season of more than six innings in the majors, last year, when he tossed up a 4.44 ERA in 50.7 innings, striking out 52 and walking 23. So he walked just a few too many guys, but nothing too too alarming. He had a similar trend in the minors, too, basically a 2:1 ratio. So why do I mention him? His previous years have been better. Back in 2005, he struck out 103 batters in 65 innings, while only walking 29. That’s 14 per nine innings! I’m not sure what happened in 2006, though. He struck out 32 in 33 innings, walking only 10, which is quality. But he tossed under 35 innings for the year, which speaks of injury. RotoWorld notes shoulder issues in 2006. Casilla has only been up in the majors for one season, really, and could struggle again in 2008. However, he’s not a bad bet moving forward, especially if he can regain that electric strikeout stuff he apparently demonstrated in ’05.
I really considered leaving Aquino off here because of his walk rates. He’s managed decent strikeout rates since converting to the bullpen, but he’s never really gotten far past the 2:1 K/B ratio, even in the minors. He had some arm troubles last year which limited his playing time. But if he can find some way to bring down that walk rate, he’s going to find success in the majors. Of course, it makes sense then that Andy MacPhail picked him off of waivers this off-season.
A few other guys to keep an eye on:
Of course, none of this is guaranteed, not by any means. A thorough scouting job needs to be performed on each guy before you can say that he’s going to blossom into a viable reliever. However, given the statistical profiles, it seems these guys are worth a look.