Mariners Fulfill Pledge To Sign Free Agent LOOGY for Some Reason

marc w · December 5, 2016 at 5:30 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

You’ve got to hand it Jerry Dipoto: there’s no subterfuge, no hiding his wish-list. He’s told everyone who’ll listen for months that a high priority of the team was signing a veteran left-hander to round out the team’s bullpen, so we can’t be shocked that he’s signed Marc Rzepczynski to a two-year deal.

I think we *can* be a little surprised that he’s guaranteed the player nicknamed Scrabble 2 years and $11 million, slightly more than the 2-year, $10 million deal he gave Steve Cishek, and the second largest contract he’s given out in his tenure as GM. He signed last year’s starting catcher for 1 guaranteed year, and he’ll pay Chooch Ruiz $5m to back up Mike Zunino this year. Obviously the biggest deal was Hisashi Iwakuma’s extension, but even in that 3-year deal, only the first year was guaranteed. Iwakuma hit the IP threshold to give him a second year, and could earn that third year if he stays healthy, but Dipoto’s been somewhat reluctant to dive into the free agent market, unless he’s shopping for relievers. And he’s seemingly always shopping for relievers.

Marc Rzepczynski’s legitimately great at two things: absolutely neutralizing left-handed power and getting ground balls. Since 2010, Rzepczynski’s .293 SLG% allowed to lefties ranks 9th out of 265 pitchers, just behind Clayton Kershaw, but a bit above Brett Cecil, who just signed a 4-year deal with St. Louis. Those are legitimate strengths, and Rzepczynski’s consistency is a key reason he’s been traded mid-season *four times* already. A contending team that believes they’ll face some critical, high-leverage situations involving a tough left-handed hitter could do worse than picking up Marc Rzepczynski. It’s just that the going rate for Rzepczynski hasn’t been all that high- Cleveland got him for a non-prospect from Toronto. Oakland got him as a smaller part of the Yonder Alonso deal, and then swapped him for a lower-ranked (but intriguing!) prospect from Washington.

So, should M’s fans banish any doubts from their mind and cheer this solid investment in a low-risk bullpen arm, the baseballing equivalent of investing in treasury bonds? Here’s another leaderboard, looking at how pitchers have fared against RIGHT handed batters since 2010, with a minimum of 150 IP. Marc Rzepczynski’s OBP-against is the highest, out of 372 qualified pitchers, at .391. Yes, yes, regress those results, and you need 2,000 PAs of average splits, etc. But the problem is, Rzepczynski’s splits are just getting worse, not better, with time. Scrabble hasn’t allowed righties to post an OBP below .400 since *2012.* “Usage will take care of this,” you say. The problem is that it’s really, really hard to ensure any pitcher will see a steady diet of same-handed hitters. Last year, Scrabble faced 102 RHBs and 113 LHBs. For his career, he’s faced 960 righties and 768 lefties. Even with benches constricted by the growth of the modern bullpen, teams can, and do, pinch hit when they see splits like Scrabble’s. It’s likely that his high walk rate is his adaptation to life as a pitcher whom righties see really well, and that’s further solidified his role as a true LOOGY (Lefty One-Out-GuY). He’s made over 70 appearances in each of the last 3 years, but hasn’t tossed 50 IP in any of them.

The M’s aren’t going to get a lot of total innings from their $11 million man, so they need to make sure those innings count. For whatever reason, that hasn’t usually been the case for Scrabble. For obvious reasons, Rzepczynski isn’t a threat to close, and closers typically post the highest leverage index for players, meaning that they enter the game with the highest stakes: the situations featuring the biggest possible swing in win expectancy. Closers might get near a gmLI of 2, with elite set-up men/firemen coming in around 1.5. Scrabble was at 1.13 last year, and 1.18 for his career, meaning he was used in equivalent situations as Drew Storen, and a bit less critical than Tom Wilhelmsen. The M’s bullpen *averaged* a gmLI of 1.16 last year, with Cishek and Diaz leading the group. If this move is going to pay off, the M’s need to get Scrabble in at crucial times.

At one point, the M’s seemed to be after a high-octane, flame-throwing lefty, and Rzepczynski isn’t that. He now throws about 91, with a big slider as his primary weapon. Rzepczynski’s consistent dominance of lefties mean he can be used in late-inning, pressure-packed situations, but he’s not an Andrew Miller type. Dipoto has, in fact, already made a move for a lefty reliever with premium velocity and high upside in his trade for James Pazos. Signing Rzepczynski makes that move a bit harder to figure out; the M’s now have fewer situations in which they can use Pazos, and while letting him pitch low-leverage innings seems like a good way to ease him in to the majors, it means the M’s may now struggle to find enough IP for two pieces they spent a decent amount of capital on.

Of course, this worry about cost and IP may be yet another understandable miscalculation of the baseball market. $11M for 2 years of *anything* in baseball isn’t much anymore, and again, with proper usage, it could become money well spent. It’s just surprising given Dipoto’s reticence to dive into the market elsewhere. Take Steve Pearce, the lefty-mashing RH bat that just signed for Toronto for just a touch more than Scrabble will get. Both players have limitations and both are seen more as platoon players. To me, Pearce makes a heck of a lot more sense, especially given the fact that the M’s already *have* a high-octane, lefty-destroying bullpen arm in Edwin Diaz. This isn’t to say Scrabble doesn’t have value – he does – but it just underscores the importance Dipoto and the M’s place on the bullpen. A year ago, the M’s seemed to be the one team avoiding the mad rush to spend money on super ‘pens, like the one the Yankees constructed. The M’s stayed out of that, and focused on role on certain types: guys who’d been stung by high HR rates, but walked no one. It’s not that they didn’t *spend* on the bullpen, they just looked for different (and cheaper) skillsets than the Yanks and Red Sox sought. They seem to be taking the same approach this year – leaving Aroldis Chapman to someone else, and instead building a pen around some key roles, roles that don’t require 103mph fastballs. That’s sensible enough, but you wonder if the somewhat unorthodox approach isn’t as blind to a pitcher’s market value as a spend-at-all-cost alternative would be.


2 Responses to “Mariners Fulfill Pledge To Sign Free Agent LOOGY for Some Reason”

  1. maqman on December 6th, 2016 4:50 am

    I’m a big fan of GM Jerry but not this move. I know he knows a lot more than me about the game and relievers. In my eyes Scrabble is a .22 pistol where I was hoping we’d be packing a .38 if we couldn’t afford a .45 magnum.

  2. marc w on December 6th, 2016 10:47 pm

    Agreed Maqman. Yes, Chapman/Miller are left handed relievers, and the 2016 postseason proved their value in important situations. But that doesn’t mean a traditional LOOGY should skyrocket in value just because freaks like Miller (whose handedness is essentially irrelevant) can pitch multiple innings in the playoffs. Not when the replacement level LOOGY is so high; the M’s plucked Lucas Luetge out of the low minors in the Rule 5 draft a few years ago, and he was fine for a year. Scrabble will be better, I think, but by how much? I’m not sure.

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