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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Is Brett Myers really a closer? 

For the next few days we'll be talking about pitching, and today we are setting our gaze on Brett Myers and the Phillies bullpen. As I suspected when the season started, Tom Gordon struggled as the Phillies closer and left the team in the lurch, without a reliable option to close games down. What would Pat Gillick and Charlie Manuel do? Do they trade Jon Lieber for a closer? Move Ryan Madson over to the spot? The Phillies surprised me by opting to shift Lieber, who had been trade bait for months since the team signed Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton, to the starting rotation and move Brett Myers to the bullpen.

Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.
HR/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP

It was a move that caught me and every other observer by surprise. Prior to this season Myers had pitched in relief in a single game in 2004 while making 140 starts. The last two seasons he had rebounded from his disasterous 2004 campaign (11-11, 5.52 ERA, 1.58 HR/9), going 13-8, 3.72, 1.30 in 2005 and 12-7, 3.91, 1.32 in 2006. Myers was mentioned as a potential Cy Young candidate and he deserved the praise. Myers was durable (103.7 pitches per start in 2006, eighth-best in the N.L.), and had a lot of the tools that I think made for a successful pitcher at Citizens Bank Ballpark – namely, he didn’t rely on his fastball to get the job done. In 2006 Myers had the ninth-lowest percentage of pitches as fastballs, just 49.2%. Myers is a curveball artist. Here, according to the last three Bill James Handbooks, are Myers percentage of pitches that were curves and how they ranked him amongst N.L. pitchers:

2006: 20.7% / 3rd
2005: 20.4% / 4th
2004: 25.4% / 4th

Myers got good defense from the fielders (.707, .724 and .700 DER in 2004, 2005 and 2006), and turned himself into a strikeout pitcher, going from 5.93 K/9 in 2004 to 8.69 and 8.59 in 2005 and 2006. Myers also cut down on the walks and went from a roughly 2-to-1 K/BB ratio to 3-to-1. The slugging percentage against dropped from .490 in 2004 to .410 and .431. Myers looked like a good bet for the Cy Young. Though hot-shot Cole Hamels got a lot of ink from the press, Myers got the start on Opening Day. He was seen as the team’s number one pitcher in the eyes of the brass.

Then April happened. Myers started the season with a good seven inning outing on Opening Day that ought to have been a win for the Phillies, surrendering just three runs in seven and two-thirds of an inning, while getting nine strikeouts and two walks. Myers was then badly beaten in his next two starts, allowing thirteen runs in just seven and two-thirds of an inning. The losses, coming during the Phillies terrible stumble at the start of the season, sent Myers packing to the bullpen while Jon Lieber was summoned to replace him. After being used as a set-up man following Ryan Madson’s struggles, Myers was tasked to replace the injured Gordon, who had blown three of his eight save opportunities, and had a 4.82 ERA.

Since becoming the team’s closer after May 1, Myers has done a nice job, converting six of seven save opportunities … his sole blown save turned into a win when Carlos Ruiz hit his dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth home run against the Brewers on May 15th. His ERA as a reliever is just 1.02. In seventeen and two-thirds innings, Myers got 26 strikeouts to five walks and allowed a single home run (May 15th, vs. the Brewers). If Myers keeps this up, he could be a Cy Young candidate anyway, just as a closer. 35-40 saves is a distinct possibility. The obvious parallel here is to John Smoltz, the terrific Braves hurler who won 157 games for the Braves from 1988 to 2000 then shifted to the bullpen in 2001. From 2001 to 2004 Smoltz saved 154 of 168 games for the Braves, or almost 92% of his opportunities. Like Myers, Smoltz saw his already good ERA drop with his move to the ‘pen, from 3.19 in 2000 to 3.25 in 2002 and 1.12 in 2003, when he saved 45 of 49 games and 2.76 in 2004, when he saved 44 of 49 games. Smoltz returned to the rotation and saw his ERA rise in 2005 and 2006, but he’s still a dominant starter. Obviously the Phillies would like to see Myers make the same transition.

Which brings up an interesting question. How do the Phillies use Myers? The Braves used Smoltz as a ninth inning man. 75% of the time Smoltz’s appearances ended in fifteen pitches or less in 2004, for example. As sabremetricians have complained, teams somewhat misuse their closers these days, employing them as ninth-inning guys only when the threat might be in the seventh or eighth inning. Argues Keith Woolner in Baseball Between the Numbers:

During the “stopper” era of the 1970s, it was common to see a relief ace such as Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage come in as early as the sixth inning to halt a nascent rally. That was the smart way to go. Focusing on situational leverage, rather than the accumulation of easy ninth-inning saves, is the best way to get the most out of a relief ace.

(See, Chapter 2.2, “Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go to Waste?”, page 73.) Myers is a durable hurler who pitched 176, 215 & 1/3 and 198 innings the last three years. He’ll probably log 70-80 innings as a relief artist in 2007, which is a waste. Why not let Myers close-out games by starting the eighth and pitching the ninth? After Cole Hamels goes seven innings I’d prefer to see Brett Myers enter the game than to see Ryan Madson try to bridge Hamels and Myers terrific skills for an inning. It makes more sense to see Myers throw 120-150 innings as a closer than see him enter the game to record a blah 1-2-3 ninth inning.

I think credit for the Phillies recent surge lies, in no small part, with Myers. Having such a smart and determined pitcher available to close out a game is giving the rejuvenated starting rotation a lot of confidence. They know a good pitching performance won’t be wasted on the Phillies struggling bullpen. I’d like to see the Phillies utilize Myers more aggressively though. Don’t make Cole Hamels wonder as he pitches whether he needs to save himself for the eighth inning because otherwise he’s handing the game to Ryan Madson or some other struggling set-up man who might lose it or turn it into a no-decision. Use Myers as a real relief artist, not a ninth-inning mercenary.

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