Balfour gives Baltimore a Well Balanced Bullpen

Am I glad that’s over – it took a little longer than expected but the Orioles have their first major free agent acquisition of the offseason and their 2014 closer.

The wait – which really was only about one week but seemed much longer – seems to have been worth it.  The Orioles inked former Oakland closer Grant Balfour to a 2 year/$15 m deal today.  $1 million of the total contract – $500k per year – is deferred so the Orioles are on the hook for “only” $7 million next season.  Compared to the $10.5 million it is believed Jim Johnson will get in arbitration, it seems like a relative steal.  Compared to what non-closing relievers are going for today – Boone Logan is getting $5.5 million per year from the Rockies to pitch to a batter or two per outing – it is a definite steal.

The Orioles essentially got Balfour ($7 m), Ryan Webb ($2.25 m), Jemile Weeks (pre-arb), and David Freitas (minor league) for in the neighborhood of $1 m less than what Jim Johnson is likely to earn in arbitration.  I know some were struggling with the concept of trading a closer to reallocate his salary only to go out and get another one, but now that the O’s have done just that it is easier to see that they have benefited from the move.

Balfour slots into the backend of a bullpen that currently is scheduled to include 2013 holdovers Darren O’Day, Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz & Troy Patton, along with a fellow newcomer in Webb.  It is a strong bullpen on paper and well-balanced as well.  While bullpen roles are largely unnecessary, they are also largely here to stay.  The O’s as of right now have a ‘pen where guys fall nicely into assigned slots should Buck Showalter wish to manage his relievers in such a strict manner.

Ryan Webb recorded more than three outs in 23 of his 66 games worked during the 2013.  He recorded at least three outs in 50 of those 66 appearances (76%).  He also was able – at least for one season – to curb his previously noticeable platoon splits.  All of that makes him an ideal middle-innings reliever.  Troy Patton’s relative lack of platoon splits, four pitch arsenal, and history as a starter also peg him as a strong middle reliever even if he did not as have as many multi-inning outings as Webb did last season.  Patton and Webb provide a nice lefty and righty middle inning relief tandem.

Likewise, Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz appear to form a strong late-inning matchup duo.  Hunter was nearly unhittable versus right-handed batters in 2013, holding them to an unbelievable .141/.190/.154 slash line.  Matusz was almost as effective versus left-handed hitting with a slash line against of .168/.225/.277.  Both pitchers struggled quite a bit when tasked with retiring a batter hitting from opposite their strong side.  That’s okay, however, as long as they are used mainly in platoon advantage situations late in games and continue to be as effective as they were when given the platoon advantage.

  Grant Balfour will serve as the Orioles closer in 2014.

Grant Balfour will serve as the Orioles closer in 2014.

With two match-up guys in the late innings, a setup man that can work an entire inning (or more on occasion) is essential to bridge the gaps.  Enter Darren O’Day.  O’Day did struggle versus LHP last season, but it was the first time in his career that he showed such dramatic platoon splits.  For his career, O’Day carries a reasonable .559/.734 OPS split.  Darren’s platoon splits are something to keep an eye on but one would expect him to perform closer to his career splits next season as he works mainly three or four inning stints in the 7th and 8th innings.

Balfour, of course, will find himself stationed at the backend of games closing things out for the 2014 Orioles.  A strikeout artist (27.5% SO rate in 2013) who talks to himself to get going, hurls brawl-inciting profanities at the opposition, and has a twitter account for his rage sure seems like the prototypical closer.  Balfour keeps batters off the bases (1.052 WHIP from 2010– 2013), strikes out more than a batter per inning, is very difficult to hit (.193 batting average against from 2010 – 2013), and does not allow many extra base hits (6.1% XBH/H rate from 2010 – 2013).  All of those attributes have made the hard-throwing Aussie one of the best relievers in the American League the past several years.

Age (Grant turns 36 at the end of this month) and home/away splits are the only real concerns with Balfour.  However, he does not have a lot of innings on his arm (473 IP over 10 major league seasons) so he is a relatively “young” 36 in baseball terms.  The home & away splits are odd.  One might assume that the spacious O.Co Coliseum contributed to Balfour’s home success but it might not be that cut and dry.  In 2013, his SO %, batting average against, BABIP, and homerun rates were roughly the same on the road as they were at home.  The big difference – the apparent factor driving the difference between his home and road ERA – was the BB rate (14.5% at home and 6.9% on the road).  2012 tells a somewhat similar story, only with a little more significant of a gap between home and road K-rates.  I am not sure what to make of that other than Balfour possibly approached hitters differently at home than on the road which hurt his results.  In any event, I’d much rather see the home/road splits be a function of walks and strikeouts than hits and homeruns.

The Baltimore bullpen – in whole – rolls out nicely with two middle relievers (one LH, one RH), two late-inning match up pitchers (one LH, one RH), a one-inning setup man who has done a good job getting batters out from both sides of the plate during his career, and a strikeout throwing closer.  The one missing piece – as Roch Kubatko pointed out on Twitter – is likely a long man but the Orioles have more than enough internal candidates around to fill that hole.  Edgmer Escalona, Josh Stinson, Steve Johnson, and TJ McFarland would appear to be the favorites for that role as all four can pitch multiple innings and are already on the 40-man roster.

It might have taken a while, but the Orioles have their closer and have a relatively set bullpen heading into the New Year.