Joel Hanrahan is not walking through that bullpen door, Pirates fans. Well, he probably won’t be.
It is a strange and funny world sometimes, so I guess no guarantees. At least for now and, most likely, the foreseeable future Joel Hanrahan will not be walking through that bullpen door. Nope, Hanrahan rode the gravy train on over to Beantown to come outta the ’pen for the Rouge Hose. Now closers, as the aforementioned Rouge Hose can attest, are not so easily replaced. It helps if a team already has someone that can slide into the role fairly effortlessly or, like the Rouge Hose, have enough money to pony up for a hot free agent closer…or an oft-injured one (*cough* Andrew Bailey *cough*). In any event, Hanrahan, is not as notable or as high priced as say a Jonathan Papelbon (then again, who is?) but Hanrahan was solid game finisher for the Bucs. Hanrahan posted 76 saves over the last two seasons with Pittsburgh with an ERA in the low twos. I didn’t watch nearly as many Pirates games as I would have liked to in 2012, but I never heard much complaining or belly-aching from the Pittsburgh faithful….until Hanrahan went shipping up, er over, to Boston. These were mild grumblings I will grant you, but grumblings nonetheless. If not only for the fact that Joel darted for the big bucks and left the Pirates without an established major league closer. The Pirates, of course, are not flush with cash like the Red Sox, so the best bet for them is someone already in their system. Enter Jason Grilli. Aka the Grillmaster.
Grilli is slated to start the season closing games in the ‘Burgh. Now Grilli has had some ups, some downs, some what-have-yous, in his 10 major league seasons, but as a Pittsburgh Pirate he has established himself as one heck of a good reliever. Over the past two seasons he has a K/9 of 12.51, including an eye-popping 13.81 number last season in 58.2 innings! I think you know how much I love me some Ks/9! If you don’t, well, I love them, I love them a lot! For relievers in 2012 who threw at least 50 innings out of the bullpen, that was a number good for 4th on the list, behind Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Antonio Bastardo (yeah, that one surprised me too). While K/9 is not the end all be all (although it really should be) it is a very helpful number in rating closers. The more batters you can get out without them putting the ball in play, the better your chances of survival. Simple as that. But, as I said, the strikeouts are not all there is to closing, so let’s see how the Grillmaster compared to some of last year’s closers in other areas.
Well, Grilli posted a 2.91 ERA out of the Pirates bullpen last year, which is a very solid ERA for a pitcher however this is about middle to back of the pack for closers. His xFIP, however was a tad better at 2.68 and he was hurt a bit by a .309 BABIP, which is not super unlucky but leans a tad more in that direction than towards the “super-duper lucky” end of the spectrum. Although it does not look like the batted ball will be his biggest issue if he is to be the Buccos chosen closer. Grilli walked 3.4 batters per nine innings which, for a starter is pretty good, but for a reliever? A closer? That will need to be improved if he is gonna close the door on Pirates victories. That 3.38 was good for 81st among relievers who threw at least 50 innings out of the bullpen in 2012. Among the 37 closers who had 10 or more saves in 2012, 11 posted higher walk rates than Grilli. Three of those relievers saved three or fewer games and three others would lose their closing gig at some point in the season. The good-ish news, cause I am silver lining type a guy sometimes, is that Grilli’s walk rate is down from 2011 when he was at four walks per nine innings. In fact, that 2012 walk rate was the lowest he has posted since 2005. Baby steps, Jason, baby steps. Besides, shouldn’t we really be seeing how the Grillmaster stood up against what the Pirates are losing at the closer position? That was rhetorical, folks.
Here are the numbers Hanrahan put up as the Buccos’ closer in 2012:
5-2, 36 saves, 63 appearances, 59.2 IP, 2.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP 4.28 xFIP, .225 BABIP, 10.11 K/9, and 5.43 BB/9
Umm, yeah, there are a few red flag numbers there that make it seem wise for Pittsburgh to have not kept Hanrahan around for 2013. 5.43 BB/9?! And I thought Grilli’s walk rate was high?! That’s more than a walk every other inning, in case you didn’t want to do the quick arithmetic. Also that xFIP and BABIP point to a regressions for Hanarahan in ’13. Well, at least Hanrahan didn’t go to a big baseball market pressure cooker, where every bad outing will be picked apart to no end. Oh, wait a minute. Anyways, back to Grilli. Here were his 2012 numbers:
1-6, 2 saves, 64 appearances, 58.2 IP. 2.91 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 2.68 xFIP, .309 BABIP, 13.81 K/9 and a 3.38 BB/9
Not too shabby and all of those stats are based on about the same number of innings Hanrahan pitched. So Grilli had a lower WHIP, xFIP and BB/9 with a higher K/9 and BABIP. Now I am not necessarily saying Grilli was, or is, a better pitcher than Hanrahan, per se. You also need to account for the fact that Grilli was not pitching the 9th for the most part. And while the 7th or 8th inning can provide plenty of high leverage situations the 9th is still going to carry some extra pressure with it. So let us see how we can level the playing field a bit here. Courtesy of Fan Graphs, Grilli had 27 shutdowns and 9 meltdowns in 2012. With shutdowns and meltdowns you can kind of draw a comparison with relievers that close games and those who are 7th or 8th inning guys. Grilli’s numbers but him in the above average category, so that’s good if your a Pirates fan. Hanrhan was pretty similar, if not a tad better, in this regard, posting 26 shutdowns and 5 meltdowns. Also in that above average category, but a tad more above average than Grillmaster.
Now, again, I am not saying that Grilli is better than Hanrahan, merely that this was a good move by the Buccos. Pittsburgh should at least be able to get relatively the same production from Grilli that Hanrahan gave them, at a cheaper cost (Hanrahan will make almost $5M more in ’13). If Grilli cuts down on the walks a tad he could be this years sleeper in the closer field. Maybe I am overly optimistic of Grilli because of his sexy K/9 numbers or because the bar his dad owns has some of the best wings in Syracuse, NY, I dunno? Grilli could very well implode early, and often, losing his closer job, but I like his chances to be an above average closer this year for the Buccos and surprise a few people. For fantasy purposes, you have to like Grillmaster as a great source of cheap saves in ’13. More importantly, if it is not already, I think Grilli’s intro music should be Nelly’s Grillz, who is with me? Wait is Grillz a better nickname than Grillmaster? Well, that’ll be an article for another day.