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Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.



Posted by Jon on Sunday, February 01, 2004

Arthur: Paving the Rhodes for Bradford in 2004?

The best closer in the American League last season, Keith Foulke, could have stayed in Oakland, where Billy Beane offered as many millions as he could to prevent his All-Star from signing with the AL Playoff rival Red Sox. But Foulke, the AL Rolaids Relief pitcher of the year, decided to bring his relief to the city most hurting from stomach pain and heartburn, and most aching for a World Series title. Baseball Prospoectus thinks the Red Sox will end up losing big on his contract, but I, along with the rest of New England, eagerly envision Foulke trekking cross-country to the Bay State. I see him entering Fenway with a solitary suitcase, busting at the seams due to its contents: 21 Win Shares and a self-made pamphlet about throwing the palmball. This is all the relief Red Sox Nation needs.

Foulke, ranked by Adjusted Runs Prevented, was the sixth-best reliever in baseball in 2003. After losing one of the best closers in the game, the Oakland A’s needed to find somebody to fill their suddenly cavernous hole in the bullpen. Billy Beane signed Arthur Rhodes, a reliever who has never closed games for a full season, to a three-year $9.2 million contract, making Rhodes his new relief ace. This move divided the writers here at Talking Baseball. Mike argued that Rhodes, while a solid addition, should be the primary set-up man before Chad Bradford, one of the stars of Moneyball. Dave understandably favors Rhodes. I decided to mediate the dispute.

Looking only at last season, Oakland has no choice but to admit Chad as their best reliever. Rhodes had a dismal year, posting an ERA+ of only 106, or just minimally above league average. Compared to Bradford, whose ERA+ was 140 (or a bit better than Mike Timlin), Rhodes seems like a distant second option. But it must be taken into account that 2003 was Arthur’s worst season since 1999. Let’s examine his stats and try to determine whether last season’s falters were just a blip on the radar screen or a preview of what’s to come in Oakland.

Some disturbing differences appear between his stats in the 2001-2003 seasons and his stats in 2003:

Rhodes
....................K/9.............K/BB...........OPS............ERA+
2000............10.00...........2.66............602............107
2001............10.99...........6.92............507............245
2002............10.46...........6.23............500............181
2003.............8.00............2.67............688............106

In 2003, Rhodes’ K/9 was as low as we have seen from him in a decade, and his K/BB is down so drastically that you may wonder why Beane made this move at all. But we must remember that in 2001, Rhodes sported a better K/9 and ERA+ than Foulke in 2003, and Arthur continued to have a very good season in 2002.

One important descriptor of Rhodes’ career is the word ‘inconsistency’. Since 1997, when he first appeared in over 50 games, his ERA+ has fluctuated wildly, from poor (1999) to mediocre (2000, 2003), and from above average (1997, 1998) to elite (2001, 2002):

Rhodes
........................ERA+
1997.................145
1998.................129
1999..................89
2000.................107
2001.................245
2002.................181
2003.................106

So before the 2003 season, Rhodes last pitched that poorly in 2000, which he followed with a phenomenal season in 2001. It is worth noting here that Rhodes' 2003 numbers are relatively strong with the exception of the month of July. In July, Rhodes fell off a cliff, sporting a .448 batting average against and allowing eight earned runs in only six innings, and was probably injured. With the exception of July, Rhodes posted a 3.12 ERA, which is nothing to scoff at. But it is questionable as to whether Rhodes will be better this season. His September ERA ballooned back up to 6.75, and his .385 September batting average against, should give rise to suspicions that Rhodes may have trouble readjusting in 2004. Closers must also prepared to pitch at least 75 innings, and to pitch in multiple games in a row. At the very least, Rhodes' 2003 performance leads to serious questions of durability. He only pitched in 54 innings total all year and from July to September, he appeared in only 28 games and pitched only 17.2 innings. Questions of durability, inconsistency, and injury remain.

Look back at the first table I provided. In 2001, Rhodes was striking out more than one batter per inning. Last season, he struck out one quarter batters fewer per inning than in 2000. This decline should raise some eyebrows, but Arthur’s largest problem in 2000, and then in 2003, was his K/BB ratio. In his only two dominating seasons, 2001 and 2002, Rhodes’ K/BB ratios were more than two times better than in his most recent problematic seasons, 2000 and 2003.

We all know Billy Beane’s philosophies regarding closers: (1) just about anybody can be a decent closer, and (2) relievers are fickle. Rhodes has the warning signs of a pitcher in decline. Fortunately for him, his career has been so unpredictable that it still seems possible for him to bounce back to at least a decent level of production. Although Rhodes is not a safe bet, Beane really believes that most any pitcher can act as a team’s closer.

But if Rhodes proves Beane wrong and isn’t Oakland’s answer for the ninth inning, Chad Bradford could be an in-house solution. First (although I consider it meaningless, you may not), Chad has yet to allow a run in over eight innings of postseason experience. Does that indicate he has what it takes to finish games in pressure situations? I think not (he has not accumulated enough innings for his post-season performance to be statistically significant). There are a few important trends in Bradford’s recent seasons. He, too, seems to be slipping:

Bradford
....................K/9............K/BB............OPS............ERA+
2001............8.35............5.67.............757............161
2002............6.69............4.00.............622............150
2003............7.25............2.07.............686............140

For a guy who doesn’t rely as heavily on strikeouts to get hitters out, Bradford has boasted respectable and steady K/9 numbers since 2001. But his K/BB and his ERA+ have both declined over each of the last three years. Bradford’s deterioration, though, has not been as dramatic as Rhodes’ one-season slip. Both pitchers should expect some more difficulties next season. While Rhodes could conceivably revert back to his old ways, posting at a productive, but not great, level, expecting a return to his 2001 form would be ill-advised.

The Bradford-for-closer argument is not far-fetched. His declining ERA+ shouldn’t worry the A’s because luck does play a part in the determination of a pitcher’s ERA. Bradford’s ERA+ has been relatively consistent, though it has experienced a noticeable decrease. In addition, Bradford has an extra tool in his utility belt: that crazy delivery, which induces a huge amount of ground balls. Although hitters may be getting used to it, as evidenced by his flagging K/BB numbers, Chad’s ability to induce ground balls at a level rarely paralleled in Major League Baseball, might make him Beane’s best option in the ninth. Interestingly, Bradford could be a Derek Lowe-type of closer. Chad’s numbers compare favorably to Derek’s All-Star season in the bullpen.

............................GB/FB............K/9............K/BB
Lowe (2000)............3.45............7.79............3.59
Bradford (2003).......3.54............7.25............2.07

They share almost identical GB/FB and K/9 ratios. Bradford’s largest problem last year was that he doubled his walks from the previous season.

There is little doubt in my mind that Bradford, with a bit better control, could be an effective closer in the majors. And after this analysis, I consider him the best of the A’s relievers going into the 2004 season. That being said, there is absolutely no way that Chad will ever be named as the A’s closer, even if Rhodes has the worst season of his career. For one, all who read Moneyball know that Bradford dislikes the limelight. He prefers perform his job quietly, as just another player. Endorsing him as their closer, Oakland would be setting Bradford up for a role he would not appreciate and one in which he would not perform especially well. Also, this is Billy Beane we’re talking about! Beane knows that a team’s best reliever need not be their closer. While Bradford may be a noticeably better than Rhodes next season, Beane loves having him ready to take the mound when the game is on the line, usually in the seventh or eight innings. Bradford is happy to come into a tight game, induce a double play and be out of the inning. Why save Bradford to start him in the ninth-inning, when he has more value getting out of tough jams with runners on base?

Derek Lowe proved that a groundball pitcher who strikes a few guys out can be an All-Star closer. Chad Bradford, given the opportunity, has the talent to thrive in closing situations, too. But he will never be used this way; in 2004, Bradford will continue to pave the way for Rhodes.


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