Three Stats to Follow: Deadline Relief

Coming into the season, the trio of Michael Blazek, Jeremy  Jeffress, and Will Smith were arguably three of the top four bullpen pieces in Milwaukee, alongside Tyler Thornburg. This piece examines some factors which may have affected their value over the past 4 months. While the potential headline trades involve names such as Braun and Lucroy, it’s more likely that bullpen pieces are dealt at the deadline. Relief pitchers are more affordable in terms of talent, meaning there will be more bidders. This is one reason to specifically look at a few key stats for Blazek, Jeffress, and Smith.

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Contending teams are always thirsting for more arms. Furthermore, the recent success of the Kansas City Royals, and the Yankees before them, may prompt teams to prioritize locking down the back end of the bullpen to shorten the game.

Jeremy Jeffress: Service time at the end of the 2016 season 3.104
Jeffress’s service time is notable because he will be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason. As a newly minted closer, he will start to become expensive as he proceeds through the arbitration process. Jeffress is earning $519,100 in 2016, which will surely increase for 2017.

It’s difficult to find a direct comparison, because many 2016 relievers who filed for arbitration either had more service time or more experience in the closer role. However, Jeurys Familia comes close to Jeffress’s potential numbers after this season. He finished last season with 3.03 years of service time, about where Jeffress will end up, barring injury. 2015 was his first full year as a closer, after spending some time in a setup role. He had a slightly better ERA and WHIP than Jeffress in their pre-closer seasons and had logged about 30 more innings, although the arbitration hearings may not yet be an area welcoming of advanced stats that effectively describe relievers’ success. Familia’s salary jumped to $4.1 million for 2016. That means one might expect Jeffress to come in a little under $4 million.

This is important because an expensive closer is an unnecessary luxury on a rebuilding team. If the team can clear the Braun contract, maybe they won’t mind paying Jeffress’s increased cost. However, with attendance and TV ratings down, this may be an expense they don’t want to bear. It also doesn’t hurt to note that while Jeffress has the closer label, he hasn’t been the best pitcher in the bullpen. These factors may make Jeffress the most likely Brewers reliever to be dealt.

Michael Blazek: 5.62 DRA
There are lots numbers we can use to show how much Blazek has struggled in 2016 aside from DRA. While his strike out rate per nine innings has remained constant at 7.6, he’s allowed 4.1 more hits, 3.6 more walks, and 1 more home run per nine innings in 2016. His .333 BABIP should allow for some improvement, but if he keeps getting hit hard regression will only do so much. Most importantly, an important bullpen piece who is still cheap and potentially valuable via trade is now in AAA to try and regain his form, which likely kills his trade value for the July 31 deadline.

The issue seems to be his fastball. Whereas last year hitters only slugged .338 against his four seamer, this season that’s up to .608. Blazek is allowing slightly more fly balls this year (up around 2.5 percent), his line drive and groundball percentage have remained constant. His velocity is also slightly up this year (94.78 vs. 94.32). Looking through Brooks Baseball, there doesn’t seem to be a specific reason for this downturn. Maybe it’s the small sample of 30.7 relief innings sandwiched around a DL stint. More troubling is the idea that maybe 2015 was the outlier. Relief pitchers are generally shine bright and burn out fast The Brewers need to hope this is an uncharacteristic blip on the radar or a minor injury if they hope to salvage some value from Blazek, either in Milwaukee or via trade.

Will Smith: 6: Times Smith has pitched in at least two consecutive games 
Before the season, it looked like Will Smith was going to close for the Brewers. While a lefty, he was the best returning reliever on the team, and Craig Counsell seemed hesitant to give Jeffress the reins in April without at least a nominal tether. Smith’s injury changed that plan and had the hidden benefit of raising Jeffress’s value as he can now be valued as a true closer.

While there was some speculation that when Smith returned, he would soon be anointed closer, that didn’t happen. He’s primarily been brought into the game in the seventh and eighth innings. Smith’s ability has never been in doubt. Last year he solidified his reputation as the rare lefty who can get guys out from both sides of the plate (.208 TAv against RH in 2015). While he’s not an Andrew Miller level talent, Smith would be an elite available LHP and could command a hefty price. Continuing to show little effects from his knee injury will only serve to increase his value.

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