There are two things I feel should be common knowledge by now about relief pitchers.
1. Relief pitchers are very volatile.
2. ERA is a horrible stat to evaluate relievers.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have had success finding strong relievers at low costs because they’ve ignored short-term struggles, and have looked past a poor ERA to see potential with advanced metrics. Meanwhile, other teams give out long-term deals to relievers, paying them millions of dollars, and mostly for the ERA.
Eventually other teams are going to get it, but it doesn’t look like that has happened yet.
The trade between the Angels and the Pirates looks like the Mark Melancon trade all over again. The Pirates sent Jason Grilli for Ernesto Frieri. They dealt an aging reliever who looks like he’s on a rapid decline, for a 28-year-old reliever who throws 94 MPH, has put up solid numbers in the past, has an inflated ERA, but has advanced metrics that say he should be better, and a glaring HR/FB ratio that screams bad luck.
In Melancon’s 2012 season, he had a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings. His strikeouts were fine. His walks were a career best. But his home run rate was high, due to a 22.2% HR/FB ratio. He had been around 10% previously in his career. His xFIP, which normalized the HR/FB rate, was 3.45. Melancon has obviously made some bigger strides than just seeing his HR/FB ratio normalize. His walks continued to go down, and he just doesn’t allow home runs anymore. But even without any further changes, he could have expected to see a rebound from his ERA in 2012.
It looks like Frieri is in the exact same situation. He has a 6.39 ERA in 31 innings. His strikeouts are fine. His walks are a career best. His home run rate is high, with a 21.1% HR/FB ratio. His career ratio is 10%. His xFIP is 3.20. That’s almost exactly the same scenario that Melancon was in when he came over.
Here is my prediction on what will happen with this deal. Frieri’s home run rate will go back to normal, and as a result his ERA will go back to a normal rate. This has nothing to do with PNC Park, moving to the NL, or changing teams in general. There’s just no way he continues with a 21% HR/FB ratio, as we’ve seen by the other 231 innings in his career. The Pirates might have some other adjustments in mind, which could allow him to see bigger improvements going forward. But they don’t have to do much to watch Frieri return to being a good reliever. They just have to look past ERA, and realize that the nature of relief pitchers will lead to some horrible numbers in a small sample size such as this one.
From there, the Pirates will control Frieri through the 2016 season. He’ll be a late inning option, and maybe even a closer option. Meanwhile, even if Grilli rebounds with the Angels, he’ll be a free agent after the season. So if the Pirates are going to get a rebound from anyone, it’s better that it comes from Frieri, since they control him beyond the 2014 season.
These seem like bold predictions. A guy with a 6.39 ERA will turn things around. He will be a late inning option. But they’re not really bold predictions. They actually feel kind of obvious, like I’m predicting that Andrew McCutchen will hit another home run this year. We’ve seen this story play out so many times that it just amazes me when teams like the Angels trade away a guy like Frieri. This move makes absolutely no sense for the Angels, and it makes all the sense in the world for the Pirates.
I keep thinking that eventually teams will catch on and won’t make moves like this anymore. But here we are, two years after the Mark Melancon trade, and teams are still making moves like that. I wrote at the time that it was a strong chance Melancon would bounce back and be a good reliever. He did just that, and became one of the best relievers in baseball. And now the Angels have made what looks like a very similar trade, only they’re not getting a reliever with good numbers like the Red Sox got with Joel Hanrahan.
One day teams might catch on. Until then, the Pirates will probably keep trying this move as often as they can.
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