We’ve likely gone over and above our due diligence in explaining the essential uselessness of paying big money for a proven closer type. The bottom line is that it’s exceedingly rare to find a reliever who lives up to a big money, multiple year contract. In fact, it’s only a little less rare to find a reliever signed to a big money, multiple year contract, who ends up getting used in the highest leverage situations for a team. Hopefully, by now, we can all come to some sort of consensus that opening the purse strings for a closer is dangerous territory.
So, how does an intelligent team put together a bullpen? We’ve seen the Tampa Bay Rays jerry rig successful bullpens out of spare relief parts over the last couple years. However, Toronto’s experiment in this territory last year was somewhat unsuccessful due to Jon Rauch revealing himself to be the least intimidating tattoo inked giant to ever stand on a mound.
I’ve endorsed options like Todd Coffey, Frank Francisco, Mike Gonzalez, Darren Oliver, Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Michael Wuertz from this year’s crop of free agent relievers, but it’s entirely possible that a situation is developing in Colorado that could help the Blue Jays find a balance between fiscal responsibility and acquiring a name reliever. A couple of weeks ago, Troy Renck of the Denver Post reported that the Rockies “would like to move Street to create payroll flexibility to pursue a starting pitcher.”
From Colorado’s perspective, moving Street is justifiable. The team took the closer’s job away from him mid-season and handed it to Rafael Betancourt, and with large and recent payroll commitments made to Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, a $7.5 million salary in 2012, plus a $9 million mutual option in 2013, for a set up guy is likely a luxury that the Rockies don’t need.
$16.5 million over two years may seem like a lot of money for a team whose highest paid reliever last season made a mere $4 million, but Street might be under appreciated in Colorado. In addition to a triceps injury which sent him to the Disabled List and a rehab assignment in August, his demotion from the closer’s role last season had to do with the large amount of home runs he gave up. After only allowing something close to one home run per nine innings in every year of his career prior to this past season, Street posted a 1.59 HR/9 rate in 2011.
That would be far more concerning if we didn’t also see his HR/FB basically double from his career rate coming into this past season. Street actually saw his fly ball rate decrease overall in 2011, but a larger percentage of those fly balls went for home runs. There’s an element of luck involved in this as there’s little difference between deep fly balls getting caught at the warning track and sailing over the fence. Of all the relievers to throw at least 50 innings last season, Street’s HR/FB ratio was the fourth largest in the league. Typically, pitchers with homerun rates much higher or lower than league average, or even their career average, will normally regress back toward those numbers in the future.
Much more important than worrying about the number of home runs he gave up with such a high HR/FB ratio, is that Street had the fourth lowest walk rate in the league last season. He accomplished this despite throwing a below average 42.6% of his pitches in the zone thanks to an impressive swinging strike rate of 13.1% (the league average last season was 8.6%). Meanwhile, the velocity on his fastball, slider and change up were close to his career averages despite the mid-season injury.
Last year, Street did a great job of using his fastball to set up his swing and miss slider against righties and change up versus lefties. Although left handed batters performed better against Street last year than in previous seasons, it’s worth noting that Street might benefit by throwing his slider more often against lefties, something he did in 2010 when he put up his best numbers against them. That could be an important factor if he’s going to find success in the American League East.
Overall, he’s proven his ability through six of seven seasons with elite reliever statistics. Inflated home run numbers in one year shouldn’t scare off interested teams, especially seeing as though he’s been deemed an extraneous salary expense by the Rockies, and could presumably be had at a cost below what his actual trade value is.
While relievers themselves aren’t any more volatile than starters, they do appear to be because of the relatively small sample sizes with which we too often judge them on a year to year basis. Street is also only 28 years old and the terms of his contract, while slightly higher than some of the more bargain bin free agent relievers available, will allow for a short term commitment, something that should always be embraced when it comes to relievers. That way, if I’m entirely wrong about Huston Street bouncing back from last year’s penchant for the long ball, the team isn’t on the hook for several more years of moon raking, which they would be if they went after a pitcher like Ryan Madson or the previously signed Heath Bell and Jonathan Papelbon.