RELIEVERS: Usage patterns compared to skills for ATL, BOS, CHC, TAM, TEX

This week, the column incorporates Leverage Index ("LI") invented by Tom Tango. At this point, it gives us a view of usage over the first couple weeks, which can be helpful when teams are all doing very different things with their bullpens. This week's pens are Atlanta, Boston, the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay, and TexasAt the bottom is a list of hot relievers worth monitoring.

Starting in Atlanta, lefty A.J. Minter (LHP, ATL) has returned to join Arodys Vizcaino (RHP, ATL) as co-closer. But highest use in leverage to-date has been Wes Parsons (RHP, ATL). Here is the usage chart (all usage data is through April 11):

ATL (4/11)        Sv Hld  IP Clean/App Inh  LI   vL   vR   xERA  BPV
==============    == === === ========= === ==== ==== ==== ===== ====
W.Parsons          0  1  5.3    5/6     5  1.51 .000 .154  2.48  170
A.J.Minter (L)     1  0  2.0    1/3     1  1.07 .000 .500 10.00 -159
A.Vizcaino         1  0  4.0    3/4     0  0.80 .200 .222  4.67   52
J.Biddle (L)       0  0  6.7    4/6     0  0.51 .333 .235  3.58  137
C.Sobotka          0  1  5.7    5/6     1  0.48 .286 .231  3.05  146
L.Jackson          0  1  6.7    4/6     1  0.44 .000 .412  1.90  193

An important part of what goes into usage is consistency. Seeing a higher percentage of clean appearances (over total appearances) demonstrates that consistency. It is harder to provide that consistency with clean innings when inheriting runners. So inherited runners ("Inh") is included as part of the usage picture. As you can see, the Braves bullpen has been very good with clean appearances so far, with the lone exception of Minter, coming off injury. And the early skills show that too, with Minter's 10.00 xERA and -159 BPV in his two innings of work.

Does this mean Minter is not roster-worthy or going to lose his role as co-closer? No. It is just two innings. And you can see that the Braves like Minter in leverage so far (1.07 LI) and will give him more rope to round into form. Observers will remember that Minter started slowly last season as well, before becoming one of the best left-handed relievers in the NL.

As you study usage over the course of more innings than just two or four or seven, you will see which relievers are trying to hold the fort in tie games, who comes in with runners on, who is asked to get holds and saves with a lead. To make good decisions, you want to match those things up with who is pitching well using skill indicators like xERA and BPV. That will help you predict future usage. For example, if a player in high leverage keeps failing and one in low leverage has been lights-out, you might expect to see a change in roles.

This kind of decision-making always has to be informed by the projections as well. You might expect someone to move up because of how they are pitching that month. But whether you expect to continue to see that success for a prolonged period requires alignment with the projected skills as well. So far, we have seen how Parsons is pitching in leverage and inheriting runners, while Minter and Vizcaino are splitting saves, with neither of those two posting much in the way of demonstrated skills, while all of the other Braves relievers are getting clean innings and superb xERA/BPV results. But now let's check the projections.

Here are the projections going forward:

ATL (proj)        Sv Hld  IP xERA WHIP  Dom  Cmd HR/9 BPV
==============    == === === ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
W.Parsons          0   4  34 4.46 1.32  6.4  2.4  0.8  65
A.J.Minter (L)    15  15  61 3.84 1.28 10.0  2.7  1.0  98
A.Vizcaino        22  12  61 3.99 1.33 10.3  2.3  0.7  83
J.Biddle (L)       0   9  40 4.51 1.65  8.1  2.4  0.9  78
C.Sobotka          0   1  27 4.47 1.56  9.3  1.8  1.3  47
L.Jackson          0   4  34 3.42 1.26 10.9  2.7  0.8 113

Here we see why Minter and Vizcaino are expected to close games. They are the two relievers in leverage with 10+ Dom, solid Cmd ratio and HR/9 numbers, and ok/not-elite xERA and BPV numbers. We also see that Luke Jackson (RHP, ATL), languishing at the bottom of the current leverage chart even while posting a 1.90 xERA and 193 BPV in his 6.7 innings to date, is projected to have a 10.9 Dom, 2.7 Cmd ratio, 0.8 HR/9 and 113 BPV. Jackson is someone you should put on your watch list, because the projected skills are saying that he can leapfrog some of the lesser skill sets and pitch in higher leverage, and his results-to-date are saying so as well.

You can do this kind of analysis yourself for any team you wish by going to the Bullpen Indicators chart under the Teams tab. Let's do a few more.

In Boston, two saves for Ryan Brasier (RHP, BOS) and one for Matt Barnes (RHP, BOS) so far. Barnes has by far the highest leverage use and by far the best xERA (0.96) and BPV (304). Here is the usage chart so far:

BOS (4/11)        Sv Hld  IP Clean/App Inh  LI   vL   vR   xERA  BPV
==============    == === === ========= === ==== ==== ==== ===== ====
M.Barnes           1  1  5.0    3/4     1  1.37 .200 .083  0.96  304
R.Brasier          2  0  5.0    5/5     0  0.96 .250 .111  3.59   97
C.Brewer           0  0  4.7    4/5     1  0.81 .200 .222  4.27   63
B.Workman          0  0  5.3    5/6     1  0.65 .000 .100  3.06  130
H.Hembree          0  0  6.0    2/5     4  0.25 .111 .333  5.43   57
T.Thornburg        0  0  6.0    4/5     0  0.10 .200 .176  3.57  147

Brasier has that nice five-for-five clean appearances, but in lower leverage and without any inherited runners. Barnes has been lethal with a 0.96(!!) xERA and 304(!!) BPV. Looks like a job-share so far, with Barnes getting the harder assignments and wiggling out of high-leverage jams late. Tyler Thornburg (RHP, BOS) only has a 0.10 LI, but the 147 BPV and four-of-five clean appearances is promising. Heath Hembree (RHP, BOS) is inheriting the runners and his 5.43 xERA and 57 BPV show that he has not done well with that scenario, albeit in only a 0.25 LI.

Here are the projections going forward:

BOS (proj)        Sv Hld  IP xERA WHIP  Dom  Cmd HR/9 BPV
==============    == === === ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
M.Barnes          26  18  54 2.75 1.17 12.8  3.4  0.8 156
R.Brasier          9  21  54 4.03 1.09  7.2  3.6  1.2  93
C.Brewer           0   0  27 3.64 1.26  9.3  3.5  0.7 118
B.Workman          0   0  27 3.85 1.15  7.7  3.8  1.3 105
H.Hembree          0  18  54 3.85 1.31 10.2  2.9  1.5 105
T.Thornburg        0  10  40 3.93 1.20  8.8  2.6  1.1  87

Barnes is the best reliever on this team--by a wide margin--according to the projections. He is in the right usage. Brasier has performed, but he might be the worst of these six right-handers by xERA and Dom. His WHIP is strong, though, primarily because he doesn't issue walks. When the Red Sox are trying to hold leads more often, then we will get a better idea of how the team wants to deploy these relievers. For now, it is mostly to hold the fort and try to come from behind and that has been Hembree and Thornburg and Brandon Workman (RHP, BOS) carrying that load.

The Chicago Cubs have started very slowly without much good to show for it from the bullpen. With Brandon Morrow (RHP, CHC) out, Pedro Strop (RHP, CHC) only picked up his first save on Thursday night. Here is the usage chart so far:

CHC (4/11)        Sv Hld  IP Clean/App Inh  LI   vL   vR   xERA  BPV
==============    == === === ========= === ==== ==== ==== ===== ====
R.Rosario (L)      0  0  5.0    2/5     3  0.98 .200 .385  3.02  158
M.Montgomery (L)   0  0  2.7    1/4     6  0.90 .857 .286  6.31   31
P.Strop            0  0  3.0    2/4     0  0.62 .333 .200  3.07   83
B.Brach            0  0  6.0    3/5     3  0.53 .250 .100  5.92 -114
S.Cishek           0  0  3.7    4/5     1  0.46 .200 .143  3.89  -22
B.Kintzler         0  1  5.7    4/5     3  0.32 .091 .333  1.26  265

Morrow is expected to throw to live hitters this coming week. Meanwhile, Strop has not been used much. Instead it has been Randy Rosario (LHP, CHC), Brad Brach (RHP, CHC), and Brandon Kintzler (RHP, CHC) trying to keep the team in games. Each of them has inherited three runners. Rosario has only two-of-five clean appearances, but has pitched in the most leverage (LI at 0.98). Brach and Kintzler have not pitched in much leverage, but ironically, Kintzler has performed the best of anyone in this pen (1.26 xERA; 265 BPV) at the lowest LI (0.32).

Here are the projections going forward:

CHC (proj)        Sv Hld  IP xERA WHIP  Dom  Cmd HR/9 BPV
==============    == === === ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
R.Rosario (L)      0   4  40 4.31 1.53  6.5  1.8  0.9  50
M.Montgomery (L)   0   0  61 4.14 1.46  6.6  2.1  0.7  66 
P.Strop           17  15  54 3.39 1.17  9.2  2.8  0.8 108
B.Brach            0   7  54 4.08 1.41  9.2  2.0  0.8  67
S.Cishek           2  19  61 3.36 1.07  9.6  2.6  0.7 102
B.Kintzler         2  15  54 3.79 1.31  6.7  2.7  0.8  85

Morrow is projected to come back and get 17 saves in 34 innings with a 96 BPV. Strop is better and has an even split on saves with 17 projected. Strop and Steve Cishek (RHP, CHC) are the two relievers who have the better skill sets in this pen. After that, it is fairly weak with Rosario, Brach and Kintzler just mediocre middle relievers and add Mike Montgomery (LHP, CHC) to that list. At least they have some left-handers for match-ups. One can expect Strop and Cishek to lead the way when there are leads to protect until Morrow returns. Then it will depend on how Morrow performs. Owners who want to bet against Morrow might consider trying to trade for Strop once Morrow is activated. And Cishek is always lurking in the event that Morrow can't return to a late role and Strop has a tumble.

Tampa Bay has mostly closed out games with Jose Alvarado (LHP, TAM), with three other relievers each also picking up a save: Diego Castillo (RHP, TAM), Hunter Wood (RHP, TAM) and Jalen Beeks (LHP, TAM). The Rays will continue to use openers, will continue to pitch each reliever in a variety of set-up roles and will allow a wider variety of relievers to save games when the occasion calls for it. But so far, Alvarado is both the main closer and lower on the leverage depth chart than some others. Here is the usage chart so far:

TAM (4/11)        Sv Hld  IP Clean/App Inh  LI   vL   vR   xERA  BPV
==============    == === === ========= === ==== ==== ==== ===== ====
D.Castillo         1  3  7.0    6/6     5  1.91 .125 .077  2.01  167
C.Roe              0  4  4.3    5/6     2  1.49 .200 .182  4.17   60
J.Beeks (L)        1  2 10.0    3/5     3  1.17 .222 .310  3.55  113
J.Alvarado (L)     4  1  6.3    6/7     3  1.00 .100 .231  2.43  173
W.Font             0  1  5.7    1/4     2  0.93 .273 .273  4.88   57
A.Kolarek (L)      0  4  4.3    7/7     3  0.89 .200 .333  4.06   90

It is always fun to look at the Rays usage. Note that Ryne Stanek (RHP, TAM) is not on the chart because he is primarily an "opener" and Hunter Wood (RHP, TAM) has barely pitched, although he does have one save. Tampa Bay is using a lot of its left-handed relievers. Alvarado has seven appearances as does Adam Kolarek (LHP, TAM). Jalen Beeks (LHP, TAM) has only five appearances but ten innings total. This trio accounts for 16-of-19 clean appearances and 20.7 innings. And all those innings come in somewhat lower leverage. In fact, Alvarado has a LI of 1.00, putting him fourth in this grouping.

The higher leverage has gone to Diego Castillo (RHP, TAM) and Chaz Roe (RHP, TAM). These two right-handers have 11-of-12 clean appearances. Castillo has been phenomenal so far, with a 2.01 xERA and a 167 BPV. The only other reliever on the team close to that is Alvarado with a 2.43 xERA and a 173 BPV. Obviously, the Rays are pushing all the right buttons in the early going.

Here are the projections going forward:

TAM (proj)        Sv Hld  IP xERA WHIP  Dom  Cmd HR/9 BPV
==============    == === === ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
D.Castillo         4  21  54 3.20 1.04 10.0  4.0  0.8 137
C.Roe              4  21  54 3.53 1.24  9.3  2.8  0.8 105
J.Beeks (L)        0   0  54 3.95 1.41  8.3  2.4  1.2  82
J.Alvarado (L)    26  14  54 2.95 1.13 11.3  2.7  0.3 124
W.Font             0   0  54 4.63 1.43  7.2  2.4  1.5  70
A.Kolarek (L)      0   0  27 3.97 1.30  8.0  3.0  1.3  95

These projections show Alvarado continuing to gather the save chances. He may well be Plan A, but the Rays are not afraid to use Alvarado when the situation calls for it and then plug in Castillo or Beeks or even Hunter Wood. Alvarado has four of the seven team saves. The skills say that Castillo is as good as Alvarado. After that, Roe and Kolarek are reasonably good. As the Rays usage evolves, you will get a better idea of how much you can count on the relievers not named Alvarado to try to vulture some saves. And again--note that this list does not include regular "openers" like Stanek and Wood or even Ryan Yarbrough (RHP, TAM) because of how different their roles are. Understanding the Rays usage is important as other teams (e.g., Twins) mimic some of it. So pay attention to what Castillo, Roe, Beeks and Kolarek do around Alvarado to see where the value comes.

Down in Texas, closer Jose Leclerc (RHP, TEX) has started off rough, with two saves despite a 5.01 xERA and 25 BPV. Lefty Kyle Bird (LHP, TEX) has the highest LI at 1.32, along with a 7.52 xERA and -119 BPV. This is not how you want leverage to go, where your two highest LI relievers have a 5.01 and a 7.52 xERA. Here is the usage chart so far:

TEX (4/11)        Sv Hld  IP Clean/App Inh  LI   vL   vR   xERA  BPV
==============    == === === ========= === ==== ==== ==== ===== ====
K.Bird (L)         1  0  3.7    2/4     8  1.32 .250 .200  7.52 -119
J.Leclerc          2  0  5.0    4/6     1  1.29 .571 .083  5.01   25
J.Chavez           0  1  5.3    2/6     5  1.11 .250 .500  4.35   89
C.Martin           0  2  4.0    3/4     2  0.88 .375 .375  3.78  121
S.Kelley           0  2  6.0    5/6     4  0.82 .375 .154  3.30  144
J.Springs (L)      0  0  7.0    3/4     3  0.57 .570 .250  5.83  -50

As you can see, only Shawn Kelley (RHP, TEX) has done a decent job with 5-of-6 clean appearances. Bird, Leclerc and Jesse Chavez (RHP, TEX) combined for 8-of-16 clean appearances in the highest leverage faced. This is not a combination for success. Bullpens malfunctioning like this are where you end up seeing role changes. Kelley and Christopher Martin (RHP, TEX) have had the most skills success in the early going. Expect them to get more leverage down the road if the projected skills match up. So let's check that--

Here are the projections going forward:

TEX (proj)        Sv Hld  IP xERA WHIP  Dom  Cmd HR/9 BPV
==============    == === === ==== ==== ==== ==== ==== ===
K.Bird (L)         0   4  27 4.32 1.33  8.7  1.9  1.0  51
J.Leclerc         26   0  61 3.66 1.15 11.5  2.6  0.9 102
J.Chavez           0   4  67 3.96 1.34  7.9  3.7  1.5 107
C.Martin           2  10  54 3.69 1.22  8.2  4.5  1.0 116
S.Kelley           2  24  47 4.15 1.15  8.6  3.5  1.3 100
J.Springs (L)      2   7  40 3.58 1.48 11.7  3.1  0.5 127

Martin and Kelley do check off strong skills. Leclerc will get more rope due to his projected 11.5 Dom and strong showing in 2018. But projections do not show him to be better than Martin (due to Martin's 4.5 Cmd ratio). This is worth watching. Leclerc's 5.01 xERA and 25 BPV to-date are not going to continue, according to the projections. But he cannot afford to have a whole month like this. Kelley and particularly Martin, are viable alternatives if he does.

Lastly, here are some relievers to watch:

                    IP   K BB HR xERA WHIP BPV pxERA pBPV
==============     ==== == == == ==== ==== === ===== ====
N.Burdi (PIT)       4.7 10  1  0 1.63 1.07 311  4.11   73
N.Anderson (MIA)    5.7 12  1  0 1.25 1.24 298  3.55  128
T.Buttrey (LAA)     5.7  9  0  0 1.36 0.88 293  3.31  105
A.Swarzak (SEA)     3.3  5  1  0 1.64 0.60 215  3.92  103
C.Devenski (HOU)    4.0  5  0  0 3.53 1.50 206  3.42  136
A.Garrett (CIN) (L) 5.7  8  1  0 2.48 0.71 200  4.35   71

These six relievers have started out the first couple weeks of the season on fire with a 200 BPV or better. Nick Burdi (RHP, PIT) may be better than his 4.11 projected xERA and 73 projected BPV, but he is going to have to show consistency over some weeks to get into the same leverage for the Pirates as Keone Kela (RHP, PIT), much less Felipe Vazquez (LHP, PIT). So far, so good. Nick Anderson (RHP, MIA) has been the Marlins best reliever and given the stumbles and bumbles around him, could find himself closing games at some point in the second half. The 3.55 projected xERA and 128 projected bpv would put him in the mix.

Ty Buttrey (RHP, LAA) has been highlighted for the Angels here before. His start puts pressure on Cody Allen (RHP, LAA), so watch this space. A 3.31 projected xERA and 105 projected BPV are below the projections for Allen, but it isn't automatic. Anthony Swarzak (RHP, SEA) has steadied the ship for the hot Mariners after Hunter Strickland (RHP, SEA) went out. The shiny new toy in Seattle might be Connor Sadzeck (RHP, SEA)--and Sadzeck picked up a quick save already. But Swarzak is Plan A and has performed at an elite level when available.

Forgotten man in Houston is Chris Devenski (RHP, HOU), but he has put up a 206 BPV despite a 1.50 WHIP. Devenski still projects to be a star reliever with a 3.42 xERA and 136 BPV. But he just happens to pitch in a pen stocked full of those types of relievers. Amir Garrett (LHP, CIN) has started hot for the Reds before. This year, he is on it again, but has the weaker projection with a 4.35 xERA and 71 BPV. Time will tell if he can keep it up in 2019, where he hasn't been able to do it in 2017 or 2018.

Next week, this column will continue comparing usage with projected skill sets to help you make decisions. Follow me @dougdennis41


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.