Megan’s note: I have an appointment at 8pm tonight, and will likely not be able to take care of any sort of game-watching. In that stead, here is the first post from Conor of ProBallNW, as promised. I’ll get back to my regularly-scheduled griping about and weirdly-unconditional love of the team tomorrow.
Greetings ladies and gents. I’m Conor Dowley, one of the writers over at Pro Ball NW. I’ll be doing guest posts here once in awhile at Megan’s request to give the site a bit more of an analytical look on things every now and then. I’ll be trying to post about once a week or so, so I hope you enjoy…
In a year where nearly everything has gone wrong for the Mariners, last year’s reliable closer David Aardsma has been no exception. At times it’s seemed like even in games that he comes in and gets the save, he labors to do so and frequently has scares with runners in scoring position. Add that to some of his rather epic meltdowns this season (he’s second on the team to Brandon League in Fangraphs‘ new Meltdown stat with six, and tied for 25th in the league), and it’s been a tough year for the normally lovable Mariner closer.
In fact, his struggles this season have brought to mind the seemingly epic struggles of former Mariner closer Bobby Ayala. Acquired from the Reds in the same trade that brought us iconic franchise catcher Dan Wilson, Ayala spent most of the next five and a half years occasionally wowing but mostly frustrating Mariner fans everywhere. While his career numbers (courtesy of Fangraphs) suggest an overall mediocre reliever, most M’s fans these days can only look back with horror at the memories of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, all thanks to the arm of Ayala.
So how does Aardsma compare to Ayala on a whole? Some of the more telling numbers aren’t available to us as Fangraphs’ databases don’t go that far back yet, but let’s see what we can find with what we do have available.
Both are guys who relied heavily on their fastball for their results. The exact pitch data is not immediately available for Ayala, but if memory serves he ran his up fairly straight and in the mid-90’s, with a hard curveball and a change that he rarely used. Aardsma’s fastball is very similar, and he also has a nice slider and a kind of split-fingered fastball that he pulls out once in awhile, but he rarely ever throws anything but the fastball. Both pitchers tried to overpower batters instead of out-work them, which leaves a tendency for the ball to stay up in the zone. Done right, that sort of makeup can be successful. Done wrong…well, we’re all too familiar with what happens when that’s done wrong.
Ayala’s first season with the Mariners, 1994, was by far his most successful. He rode a ridiculous 12.07 K/9 and a miniscule .208 batting average to 18 saves and a whopping 2.2 WAR in just 56 2/3 IP. Some would suggest that his tiny BAA was a fluke, but his .299 BABIP indicates that it wasn’t that far off. His overall WPA that year (basically how much he adds to or takes away from the team’s chances to win on a whole) stood at a solid 1.57 at the end of the season. Curiously, his Clutch Factor (how much better or worse a player performs in a high-leverage situation) was at -0.3 on the year, and that would be a herald of things to come…
Aardsma enjoyed similar success in 2009, his first year with the organization. He saw career-best marks in both K/9 and BB/9 (10.09 and 4.29, respectively), and held batters to just a .196 batting average (again, somewhat but not completely luck-driven with a .278 BABIP). Aardsma started the year as the setup man to Brandon Morrow, but took over the closer’s gig quickly en route to 38 saves and a 1.9 WAR. His overall WPA of 2.7 was a very nice number to see indeed, though it could have been even higher if not for a somewhat concerning -7.9 -WPA (how much he hurts the team’s chances to win) taking away from his stellar 10.6 +WPA.
For both players, finding continued success was elusive. Ayala struggled his way through the rest of his career, his K/9 hitting 9.76 in 1995, but never again going above 9. He started giving up markedly more home runs as well, his HR/9 rate never falling below 1.08 the rest of his career after being a tiny (and unsustainable) 0.32 in 1994. Combine that higher rate with an increasing number of hits (never had a batting average against below .250 again until getting a .235 mark in his last season in 1999, much of which was with the Cubs), and Ayala became a ticking time bomb. His -WPA numbers became absolutely horrific, never posting numbers below -7.33, except for his throughly mediocre 1996, and even that bore a -5.6 mark. He did have some shining moments to try and balance them out (going as far as posting a 10.52 +WPA in 1997), but he was a horrible sight on a whole, especially in high-leverage situations (career Clutch Rating of -3.29, driven largely by his nightmarish -2.7 mark in 1998).
Aardsma has been an interesting case this season. We have better numbers available for him that just weren’t tracked in Ayala’s day, so it’s a bit easier to break down what’s changed. The biggest of Aardsma’s issues, the big home runs that have plagued him this season, seem mostly driven on luck. He’s actually giving up fewer fly balls this season than he did in 2009 (48.5% this year to 53.9% in ’09), but more of them are leaving the yard, with 12.1% winding up in round trippers in 2010 versus just 4.2% last season. Both of those numbers look to be outliers, as his career HR/FB rate sits at a more reasonable 8.7%. His other major problem is that his fastball that he relies on so much just hasn’t been effective this year. Speaking purely visually, it’s been up in the zone much more this year and has even less movement than normal, which basically amounts to a feast for opposing hitters that can get around on it. The numbers seem to support this, as Aardsma’s fastball has gone from being worth an impressive 19.8 runs above average in 2009 to a paltry 0.9 this year, and what value his slider had has disappeared as well, dropping from 1.1 runs above average to 0.3 below. Put simply: Aardsma’s pitches just aren’t as effective on a whole as they were in 2009, and it’s killing him. (Megan’s note: He’s not the only one.)
Where it gets curious is when you start looking at some of Aardsma’s other peripheral stats. His walk rate has actually improved in 2010, going from 4.29 to 3.76, despite what visual evidence would indicate. Another oddity is that while batters are swinging much more often at pitches outside the strike zone (up over 6% from last year), they’re actually taking more of Aardsma’s pitches that are actually strikes (down the same 6%), leaving his overall swing rate about the same as it was. That can probably be attributed to him leaving the ball up, as I mentioned earlier, giving more hitters the chance to hack at a pitch that lends itself to better power results, especially as the rate batters are swinging and missing at his offerings has dropped markedly (12.1% down to 9.2% this year).
On a whole, Aardsma hasn’t been that bad this season. He has been slightly below average so far for a major-league reliever, but it looks worse when you compare it to his stellar 2009. We won’t quite give him the Bobby Ayala Crown of Awfulness yet, but he’s certainly closer to taking it than any of us are comfortable with. On the plus side, since so many of his peripheral numbers are below where they “should” be, he should in theory perform somewhat better over the course of the rest of the season as regression to the mean starts to show itself. At least, we should hope that’s what happens, because I’m not certain how much more of his more dramatic outings we can take.