Today’s game got a lot of attention for two things: the fight between the Brewers and Pirates, and the second blown save by Jason Grilli. I’m going to skip talking about the fight. I’ll save that topic for the next time a Brewers player overreacts to a slight against him, then blames the other person for his over-reaction. You know, the same thing that children do.
Instead, I’m going to focus on Grilli. The closer position is the most “what have you done for me lately” position there is in baseball. A lot of players are getting unfairly judged on small sample sizes early in the season, whether those samples are good or bad. The closer gets judged by small sample sizes all year round. It’s for that reason that the Pirates have been able to get good value on relief pitchers in the past — because other teams have placed too much emphasis on small samples.
In Grilli’s case, he blew two saves this weekend, giving him three blown saves in eight appearances. That’s going to start the calls for him to be replaced as the closer. But let’s break down the results.
Grilli’s first blown save came during his second outing of the year, in the ninth inning against the Cubs during the second game of the season. The Pirates went on to win the game, but Grilli put them at risk of losing it by giving up the lead in the ninth inning. Following that outing, he converted four saves in a row, before his struggles this weekend.
Both blown saves were a result of Ryan Braun home runs. That raises the question of whether it was evidence of Grilli being a bad closer, or just a situation where Braun came up big in back to back games. In other words, should Grilli be replaced just because Braun got to him two games in a row?
If you look at the larger sample, you’ll see that Grilli has a 2.79 ERA in 148.1 innings since joining the Pirates, along with a 2.75 FIP to back that number up. However, switching back to the small sample, he has a 4.50 ERA and a 4.90 FIP in his eight innings this year.
It’s entirely possible that this is the start of Grilli’s decline. At the same time, we could just be looking at a small sample, which will eventually revert back to the numbers prior to this season. The only way to tell which is correct is to send Grilli back out there for more save opportunities and see which version continues to show up.
Of course if Grilli was eventually replaced, the top option would be Mark Melancon. Anyone worried about Grilli’s small sample size this year might also dock Melancon for a small sample of struggles last year at the end of the season in the closer’s role. So far, Melancon has been effective once again this year, and shouldn’t have a problem if he needs to move back into the closer’s role. I say he shouldn’t have a problem, because I’m not docking his entire season last year, and his strong start this year, based on a few bad outings.
You can choose to give more weight to small sample sizes for relievers. In some cases, you might be correct. In other cases — such as the one with Melancon in Boston — you might lose out on a player by putting too much weight on a few bad outings.
In the end, it’s all about comfort. Fans tend to gravitate toward comfortable situations. Reclamation projects don’t provide comfort. Rookies don’t provide comfort. And relievers coming off a few bad outings don’t provide comfort. But if a team avoided these situations, and focused on comfortable moves, then that team would miss out on a lot of what got the Pirates to the playoffs last year, and to the point this year where an 8-11 start is seen as a disaster.
As uncomfortable as it may be after this weekend, the Pirates need to give Grilli another chance, so that he can show which Jason Grilli will emerge going forward.
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