Was the Grant Balfour Signing as Good as Advertised?
Following the trade of incumbent closer Jim Johnson, the Orioles had a hole at the back of their bullpen which they filled by signing former Athletics' closer Grant Balfour. Unlike most multiyear deals for relief pitchers, the Orioles’ two-year, $15-million one with Grant Balfour was met with almost entirely positive reactions.
There are many aspects of this agreement to address. Balfour is old, has poor DIPS (defensive independent pitching statistics) and poor batted ball data. His contract seems team-friendly in this current players’ market, but is it significantly better than other deals signed by relief pitchers?
Age and Velocity
This contract covers Balfour’s age 36 and 37 seasons, typically part of the decline phase in a players’ career, and it seems likely that Balfour’s numbers over the course of this contract will be inferior to his recent numbers with the Athletics. This will not necessarily be the case. Velocity traditionally peaks very early in a pitcher’s career, but Balfour has experienced a recent resurgence on the radar gun. After his average fastball velocity fell from 93.3 MPH in 2009 to 92.7 MPH in 2010, his velocity has either remained consistent or improved in three straight seasons, peaking at a 93.4 MPH mark in 2013.
Pitch Selection and Pitch Value
Balfour’s reliance on his heater was once very high, but has steadily declined in the past few seasons. Though the change in pitch selection is not nearly as significant as fellow aging reliever Brian Wilson (who now throws 75.4% cutter/sliders), Balfour’s usage of the pitch has declined from 91.3% in 2008 to 64.6% in 2013. Correspondingly, his usage of his slider has risen from a mere 6.6% to 27.4% over the same timeframe.
It may be best for Balfour to buck the trend of increased reliance on his slider, as it was a below average pitch in 2013 while his fastball was above average. His wFB/C (fastball runs above average per 100 fastballs) was a solid but unspectacular 0.47, while his wSL/C was below average, albeit only slightly at -0.06.
This has not always been the case. Both pitches were extremely valuable in 2012 with the fastball posting a 1.48 mark, while the slider bordered on elite status with a 2.57 wSL/C. If Balfour continues to defy age with regard to his fastball velocity, it's conceivable that his heater’s effectiveness will revert to his career norm of 1.04 wFB/C. As Carlos Marmol will tell us, mere velocity does not necessarily lead to a more effective fastball, but if Balfour can maintain (or at least not sacrifice) his command while increasing velocity, the result will be positive.
Balfour also throws a curveball roughly seven percent of the time. This pitch was extremely effective in 2013, garnering a 3.69 wCB/C, which leads one to question his sparing usage of the pitch. There are two possible explanations for this. First, since Balfour’s curveball has been below average throughout his career, the newfound success with the pitch is either an aberration or it took him the entire season to realize the effectiveness of the pitch. Alternatively, this could be a flaw in pitch recognition software as the pitches being categorized as curveballs are instead the sliders with the lowest velocity and biggest break. Not all of Balfour’s sliders (or any pitch from any pitcher) have the same velocity or break, which leads to difficulty in pitch classification.
DIPS and Batted Ball Data
Just as Adam Dunn is the definition of a three true result hitter, Balfour is the definition of a three true result pitcher. Balfour’s 2013 rates of a 10.34 K/9, a 3.88 BB/9, and a 1.01 HR/9 are all extremely high, though high marks in all but the latter are not unusual for a closer. FIP is the best way to calculate the relation between these three ratios, and Balfour’s 2013 FIP of 3.49 is far from elite but in line with his career 3.44 mark.
FIP is far from a perfect statistic because pitchers do exhibit a degree of control over the types of batted balls hit against them, such as a pitcher with an elite sinker generating a high rate of ground balls. Balfour is a fly ball pitcher, forcing them 39.1% of the time, which is slightly lower than his career average of 43.6%. Perhaps Balfour has discovered a way to limit the fly balls against him, but with a league average of 34.3%, Balfour is certainly deserving of his reputation as a fly ball pitcher.
Moving from the spacious O.co Colosseum to the much smaller Oriole Park at Camden Yards will not benefit his already high home run rate. The park factor for the Colosseum in home runs is 92, one of the most pitcher friendly in the league while Camden’s park factor is 110, one of the most hitter friendly in the league (100 is average). Totaling all offense, the respective difference of 97 for Oakland to 103 in Baltimore is not as significant but a continued poor fly ball rate will hinder Balfour’s opportunity for success with the Birds.
Balfour’s unsightly 1.01 HR/9 ratio is not a result of an extremely unlucky HR/FB rate since his mark is only slightly above average at 11.1%. Allowing a high number of fly balls with a league average rate of them leaving the yard obviously leads to a high number of home runs, even at the spacious Colosseum.
Single-season home run data for relief pitchers throwing roughly 60 innings leads us to the statisticians nightmare of small sample sizes. Balfour allowed 7 total home runs in 62.2 innings in 2013, which is simply not enough data from which to draw a firm conclusion. Instead, we can examine Balfour’s career HR/9 rate of 0.82 and conclude that, despite a poor 2013 season in this department, he should be expected to surrender home runs at approximately a league average rate (0.96 HR/9) when park factors are considered. A league average home run rate not ideal for a closer, especially a closer who surrenders walks at a high rate.
Balfour also allows line drives at a 23% rate, which consequently means that he generates very few ground balls. Balfour can still succeed with a 37.9% GB rate, but he must counter this in other areas, such as maintaining his elite strikeout rate.
Thus far we have concluded that the value of Balfour’s high strikeout rate is outweighed by his high walk and home run rates while every facet of his batted ball data is below league average. How does such a pitcher manage to post an ERA between 2.28 and 2.59 four years in a row?
Defense Dependent Pitching Statistics
As much as I love DIPS, there is value in traditional statistics that are subject to defense. The most significant among these are ERA and WHIP, the latter category of which Balfour posted an above average but unspectacular mark of 1.20 in 2013. Much of that total comes from his inflated walk rate, as he has been able to minimize the number of hits he has surrendered in his career. During the past two seasons as closer in Oakland, Balfour has posted Hits/9 totals of 4.94 and 6.89 respectively. How has he managed such success in limiting hits when he surrenders a high rate of line drives?
Balfour’s success limiting hits is something under his control for two reasons. First, he does not allow the opposition to put the ball in play very frequently. In 2013, 37.8% of plate appearances against Balfour ended in either a strikeout or a walk. The consequence of this is opponents putting the ball in play less than two-thirds of the time, thus opponents have less opportunities for hits against Balfour than other pitchers with lower strikeout rates. Despite this, other factors must be in play as his BABIP is also extremely low.
One explanation for this is through Balfour’s batted ball data, specifically his high fly ball rate. Non-HR fly balls traditionally result in the lowest batting average, followed by ground balls and then line drives. Thus, a fly ball pitcher should have a lower BABIP than a ground ball specialist. This statistic is somewhat deceiving as holding an opponent to a low batting average at the cost of a high slugging percentage (as fly ball hits are likely to be extra base hits) is not necessarily an ideal scenario.
On a pure runs per out scale of the three batted ball types, line drives result in 1.26 Runs/Out, fly balls result in 0.13 R/O and ground balls result in a meager 0.05 R/O, confirming that, despite falling for hits more frequently, grounders are the ideal result for a pitcher. Fly ball pitchers like Balfour are likely to have a low BABIP, but a low BABIP does not always correlate to effective run prevention for the same reason that hitters with the highest average are not always the best run producers.
Since these are defense-dependent statistics, it seems necessary to show the influence of the Athletics defense. We have already established that Balfour is moving from one of the most pitcher friendly to one of the most hitter friendly parks in the league, but how will the change in the men behind him influence his numbers? Judging by UZR/150, the Orioles’ team defense was significantly better than the Athletics’ team defense in 2013 and Balfour figures to benefit by the move.
Manny Machado at third base, J.J. Hardy at shortstop, Matt Wieters catching, and Adam Jones in centerfield comprise a group that any pitcher would want on the field with them. The Athletics’ defense ranked tied for 17th in UZR/150 while the Orioles came in third. UZR does not tell the entire story, as defense is composed of multiple components such as range factors and the ability to not commit errors. In the former category the Athletics excelled and came in second while the Orioles were 12th.
The elite range displayed by the Athletics’ defense was countered by their propensity for errors, where they ranked 27th, while the Orioles were 8th. It seems likely that the move to Baltimore will result in very few unearned runs as the Orioles rarely make errors but also potentially more earned runs as the Orioles do not get to as many balls as the Athletics.
The extreme range of the Athletics defense is also partially a result of their spacious outfield and large amount of foul territory, meaning that A’s defenders are able to catch balls in their home park that are not possible to catch in any other park. Park aided or not, Balfour’s low BABIP was certainly aided by the great range displayed by his defenders in Oakland. The move to the less spacious Camden Yards will eliminate this phenomenon, but overall, Balfour figures to benefit from the third ranked Orioles defense.
Finances and Projections
When considering some of the large contracts that relief pitchers have signed recently, $15 million for two years of Balfour’s services seems reasonable. The market value of one WAR on the free agent market this offseason is approaching $7 million, which means the Orioles are paying Balfour to provide slightly more than 2 WAR over the next two seasons.
While WAR is a phenomenal statistic, it's somewhat ineffective for judging relief pitchers. Not only does it devalue their contributions as a whole, it fails to measure experience in closing, which is something valuable to teams.
Balfour is projected to post respective WAR totals of 0.5 and 0.2 by the Steamer and Oliver projection systems. More importantly, these projection systems forecast a K/9 of 9.68 and 8.96 and a BB/9 of 3.65 and 3.56, leading to a K/BB ratio slightly worse than his 2013 mark. Balfour is also projected to maintain his high HR rate and low BABIP, but is also projected to see his ERA rise to the Steamer’s 3.17 number or Oliver’s 3.29 mark. He does have a history of posting ERAs significantly lower than his FIP, xFIP, or SIERA (which includes batted ball data) say he deserves, thus it's reasonable to suggest that Balfour will continue that trend and post an ERA lower than indicated by these projection systems.
When compared to other relief pitchers receiving multiyear deals this offseason, Balfour’s deal looks even better. Setup man Joe Smith commanded $15.75 million for three years of his services, while lefthanders Boone Logan and Javier Lopez also received three year deals with respective AAV’s of $5.5 million and $4.3 million.
As for closers, Edward Mujica signed a two-year, $9.5-million deal following his 0.0 WAR campaign. Of those receiving a higher AAV than Balfour, Joe Nathan will make $10 million per season and Joaquin Benoit will receive $7.75 million per year. It seems appropriate that Balfour’s AAV is slightly less than Benoit’s and Nathan’s but ahead of the setup men.
Final Thought and Rage Gnomes
As a midrange closer on a contending team, this is a fair but unspectacular signing. Balfour will provide stability to the back end of the Orioles’ bullpen, but Orioles’ fans should temper their expectations.
Baltimore fans can expect an electric atmosphere in Camden when “The Rage” enters the game. Balfour brings a great deal of passion and emotion to the mound in every appearance, which should be contagious in the Orioles’ clubhouse.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly for fans, this signing allows the Birds to create a Grant Balfour rage gnome. The Athletics executed this to perfection as demonstrated by this picture, and if the Orioles PR team follows through on this great opportunity, I will certainly be purchasing one of these beautiful gnomes.