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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Sanchez Inching Closer, But Whose Rotation Spot Should He Take?

Aaron Sanchez threw a baseball yesterday. Normally that wouldn’t be a noteworthy statement, but with the 2016 AL ERA leader on the DL for the third time this season as he tries to put an end, once and for all, to a long-recurring blister problem, it’s obviously huge.

His return may not exactly be imminent, but it’s on the horizon. And when he gets here… then what?

Apparently if you’re Jon Morosi, you keep Joe Biagini in the rotation no matter what. Thing is, if you’re Jon Morosi, why in the world are we listening to you?

But Morosi, though I think he’s completely wrong about how unbendingly the Jays ought to view Biagini as a starter, in his insistence does lead us to some quite interesting numbers. Because, though we’d usually expect some kind of a dip in performance from a player moving into the rotation from the bullpen, we haven’t really seen that from ol’ Weird Joe.

Granted, we’re talking about some pretty small samples here, but still, as a reliever opponents have slashed .227/.282/.303 against him over 18.1 innings. In 30.1 innings as a starter they’ve slashed .210/.254/.311. Part of those differences are explained by a 50 point change in BABIP, and it shouldn’t be lost on us that his strikeout and walk rates have both been better when he’s pitched in relief. But he’s been just about as good as a starter as he was as a reliever, and that’s translated into a hell of a lot more value. Of course, WAR isn’t a great measure for relievers and the number of innings he’s pitched as a starter matter, but still: in April, pitching out of the bullpen, Biagini was worth 0.3 wins, per FanGraphs. In May and June, making all but one of his appearances as a starter, he’s produced a WAR of 1.2.

The good news is that the Jays ought to feel pretty good right now about Biagini’s ability to be a part of their rotation in 2018 — and with two of their starters due to hit free agency this winter, that’s huge. It significantly lessens the burden on the front office and on the budget next winter, because they no longer will need to go out and pay free agent dollars for a pair of starting pitchers. (In fact, in an ideal world, they won’t have to pay full-market free agent dollars for any starting pitcher, because they damn well ought to re-sign Marco Estrada before he gets there, AMIRIGHT?)

The bad news is, somebody’s going to have to move to the bullpen.

With the relief corps humming along without him anyway, I can see Morosi’s point about keeping Biagini in the rotation, but at the expense of whom?

We have part of the answer right here:

It ain’t going to be Sanchez who moves to the bullpen, and for damned good reason. Aaron Sanchez is really good!

Morosi, because he’s Morosi, threw J.A. Happ’s name into the bullpen mix during the radio hit linked above, but I don’t see that either. Nor do I see the Jays opening up a spot for Biagini by trading one of their current group — something that was bantered about, though Morosi correctly noted that Francisco Liriano probably won’t have a lot of trade value, especially without a long stretch of rotation success.

Liriano, of course, is the pitcher who might be the best fit among any of the Jays starters to move to this version of the club’s bullpen. He’s a left-handed power arm with nasty stuff and a high strikeout rate, and the Jays were just forced to put the man they hoped would be their first chair lefty reliever, J.P. Howell, on the DL with left-arm shittiness. Currently the Jays’ two bullpen lefties are Aaron Loup and Jeff Beliveau, which is a combo that leaves something to be desired (to put it fucking politely).

But as Drew did well to explain on the most recent episode of Birds All Day, as much as Liriano might be a tantalizing bullpen option, do you really want to send someone out to the mound in high leverage spots who is just as likely to be filthy as he is to come in and just start walking guys left and right? (OK, not just as likely, but you know what I mean!)

Even in his strong three seasons in Pittsburgh from 2013 to 2015, Liriano was walking about 10% of the batters he faced. This season so far his rate is above 15%.

This season Biagini has walked just 5.1% of the batters he’s faced, and struck out hitters at nearly an identical rate to Liriano: 21.8% for Biagini, 21.9% for Liriano.

And remember when I said Biagini’s strikeout and walk rates have been better when he’s pitched out of the bullpen? This would be a good place to bring those up right here: as a reliever this year he’s struck out 23.9% of hitters, and walked 4.2%.

No, Biagini isn’t left-handed, and that’s obviously where the Jays need the most help, but here’s another thing: Biagini has been better this year against left-handed hitters than right-handed ones. Despite allowing a higher BABIP against lefties, Biagini has a significantly better strikeout rate against them (24.4% to 19.8%), a not-too-much-worse walk rate (5.8% to 4.5%), a better FIP, xFIP, wOBA, and a better slash line, too. Right-handers have slashed .221/.270/.308 against him, while lefties have hit just .210/.256/.309.

All of this suggests that, at the moment, Biagini is the better pitcher (though in a great piece at BP Toronto, Josh Howsam looks at how Liriano’s performances degraded before he went on the DL, and how in his return to the rotation he looked much more like the guy we saw at his peak — and those who remember Spring Training and the end of last season will understand that’s a pretty damned high peak).

If it seems counterintuitive to suggest that the better pitcher move to the bullpen to pitch fewer innings and contribute less overall value, I get that. But I’m going to say it anyway. I’m much more comfortable with the pitcher who is less volatile, and less likely to walk a bunch of guys, coming in to bail somebody out of a jam, or to pitch a clean inning. Especially when you consider that Biagini is comfortable in the role, has had great success in the role, and that Liriano (who I’m sure has his eye on hitting the free agent market next winter as a starter) probably would rather not be there.

Then there’s notion of Biagini working as a potential multi-inning reliever — an Andrew Miller of sorts — which obviously has a lot of appeal. In fact, considering the leverage of the situations he’d be asked to pitch in with that kind of role, the difference between it and starting maybe isn’t quite as large as it seems. Miller, for example, was worth 3.9 wins last year, and has been worth 1.9 already this year, per Baseball Reference. Obviously being another Miller is far too much to ask, but any sort of reasonable facsimile would be outstanding for the Jays. And while Liriano could surely work multiple innings, too, if he’s pitching early in the game and doesn’t has his best stuff or his release point, there are simply more ways to work with that. More relievers to use to clean up his mess. More time for his hitters to undo possible damage. More margin for error.

 

Joe Biagini has been a revelation as a starting pitcher, and that’s going to serve the Blue Jays very well in 2018. But here in 2017, once everybody is healthy, though it’s wouldn’t be crazy to go the other way, it seems to me like it’s best that he moves back to the bullpen.

Put as simply as possible: the aggregate value of Liriano the starter and Biagini the reliever seems, to me, rather likely to outstrip the aggregate value of Biagini the starter and Liriano the reliever. Either way, not a bad problem to have.

  • Just Jeff

    I know Biagini was a starter at in the minors, but having him finish this year as a starter would result in a dramatic jump in innings pitched compared to last year, no? I think for that reason alone he’d need to go back to the bullpen at some point.

    But knowing Biagini is a viable option for next year is huge. That effectively saves you $15 – $20 million on next year’s payroll to be used elsewhere hopefully.

    • Barry

      That’s a good point — it would definitely be a big increase over last year, but I believe the philosophy is less about the previous year and more about what the pitcher has done over a period of years. Stroman, for example, increased his innings-pitched significantly in 2016 over 2015, but the Jays were okay with doing that because he had earlier seasons with heavier workloads. Biagini threw 128 innings in 2014 and 130 innings in 2015, so the Jays might find those to be a suitable base.

  • Jeff2sayshi

    What are Biagini’s numbers if you take out those first 6 batters against Atlanta? I know that’s not exactly “fair”, but that double play that wasn’t certainly looked like it rattled him, walking the next 2.

  • Barry

    I think the decision is less likely to be about which pitcher is the best starter, and more likely to be about which of these starters has been the most successful in the bullpen. And since Sanchez-to-the-pen is unlikely to be on the table, I’d have to say that Biagini has had the most bullpen success.

  • Mule or etc...

    I’ll never understand the “start the worse pitcher so the better pitcher can be around to clean up his mess” argument. Isn’t it better to not have the mess in the first place?

    I also don’t think it’s fair to assume that moving Liriano to the pen means he’ll be pitching in high-leverage situations. He’s been terrible this year so I imagine he’d be used as long relief if they don’t just release him.