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Volatility and Value

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"This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs.""

Staffing a bullpen is like casting a sketch-comedy show. Which is probably why relief pitchers are my favorite players in baseball. There is only so much prediction that can be made in the game. At some point, there are just too many variables doing too much varying to do much more than guess. Something close to 98% of that comes from the bullpen. Bullpens are like cages full of seven Andy Kaufman clones. You never know what's going to happen with them.

As such, I was pretty stoked about the Jonathan Broxton trade. I mean, he seems like a good guy and a good teammate and a good pitcher, but come on. He's a reliever. He is set to make $9 mil next season, which is a ton of money to sink into such a volatile asset. So yeah, I was cool unloading that obligation.

He has been a pretty good pitcher for the Reds, though. He spent just over two years in Cincy and posted a totally respectable 2.75 ERA in just over 100 innings. That's pretty good, but yeah, I don't want to spend so much money for it. Especially since it seems like a not-small portion of that success was due to luck. He had a fantastic 1.86 ERA for the Reds this season, but he did it while walking 3.2 batters per nine and striking out only 6.9 per. His HR/FB percentage was a scant 5% and he stranded nearly 88% of the runners he permitted. He's a big time regression candidate, and though predicting relievers is close to impossible, what little we can go on looks pretty grim for him. Getting the Brewers to take on his entire contract and getting a few prospects in return on top of that looks like a masterstroke to me.

Contrast that to another reliever in the NL Central. Well, he's not technically in the NL Central anymore because his team just cut him. I'm talking about Ernesto Frieri, formerly of the Pirates.

Frieri has had the devil's own time this season. He began the season as the Angels' closer, but he had a rough time, got hit around a bit, and was traded to the Pirates for their struggling closer, Jason Grilli. Frieri continued his struggles in Pittsburgh, posting a total 5.40 ERA for the season, and earned himself a DFA.

His struggles are awfully interesting, though. He has been striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings and walking only 3.0. That's right in line with his career numbers to date. His velocity is fine, as it's right in line with his career averages. His ground ball rate hasn't fluctuated much, and though it is a below-average 33%, it is still in line with his career averages. He has always been a flyball pitcher, but this season a great many more of those flyballs have left the yard.

Remember when I said Broxton's HR/FB rate was just 5%? Frieri's is nearly 20%. Broxton's BABIP is only .228 while Frieri's is .330. That's it. That's really the entire difference between these two pitchers this season. That accounts for the full difference between a 1.86 ERA and a 5.40 ERA for a relief pitcher. For reference, their xFIP numbers (which normalize HR rates and BABIP and other such junk) are 4.10 and 3.69, respectively. Yeah, Frieri's xFIP is better than Broxton's.

Of course, results count for a bunch. Frieri has given up 34 runs in 42 innings, which is why he lost his job. Broxton gave up only 10 runs in 48 innings for the Reds, which is why he was so desired to bolster a beleaguered bullpen for a pennant race.

This whole thing underscores the frustrating volatility of relief pitchers so dang well. And of course, I want to see the Reds snap up Frieri, who is arb-eligible twice more and could be a perfecctly suitable (and much cheaper) replacement for the departed Broxton. They always say writing an ending is the hardest thing to do in sketch comedy, but that sounds to me like a pretty good way to end this story. Or maybe have Broxton fake his own death.