2014 Position Previews: Long Relief | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Starter: Tyler Thornburg, Wei-Chung Wang
Secondary: Will Smith, Zach Duke
DL: Tom Gorzelanny
AAA Depth: Everyone. Seriously; the Brewers currently have seven pitchers on the 40-man roster that are in Nashville.
The Future: Jimmy Nelson, Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena, Jed Bradley, Taylor Jungmann, Jorge Lopez

At the risk of copying Curt’s rotation depth post, and Jaymes’s left-handed relief post, I presented a lot of familiar names for the Brewers’ long relief. Yet, just about every single one of the Brewers’ left-handed relievers could also serve as a long-reliever (or even a spot starter, save for Wei-Chung Wang). Similarly, the Brewers’ organizational pitching depth is in some kind of limbo, which means future SP replacements could also be tagged for long relief duties at some point.

It’s good to have these options. Tyler Thornburg is just the type of pitcher that gives Ron Roenicke a full range of options: Thornburg could start, he could work as a high leverage reliever, or he could be a crucial innings saver at the back of the bullpen.

Given his strong 2013 performance, perhaps the last option is most important to the Brewers: if Thornburg is not needed as a starter, Roenicke immediately gains a higher quality arm to use for long outings in the bullpen. Even a chance for high quality 2 IP performances could be the difference between losing when a starter cannot reach the 5th inning, and winning in such starts. (Such a scenario may only happen a few times over 162 games, but again, if we’re hounding the small stuff, a game here or there could be the difference in a tight race).

Despite facing disparate roles, Thornburg has provided valuable service for the 2012 and 2013 Brewers. Ironically, depending on your views on Thornburg, he is probably either best suited to work in the Brewers’ low rotation, or he is best suited to work in short relief. These two areas of the game shine for Thornburg, rather than long relief. Of his 14 runs prevented in 88.7 innings, approximately 10 of those runs prevented came during Thornburg’s stint as a starter (thanks to his excellent swingman campaign in 2013) and approximately 3 occurred in 7.7 IP of short relief. Basically, this means that Thornburg was about a run above average during 24 long relief innings in 2012 and 2013:

Thornburg IP R K / BB / HR FIP* Scoreless Relief
Short (0-1 IP) 7.7 IP 1 R 6 K/1BB/0 HR 2.32 7 of 8
Long1 (1-2 IP) 7.7 IP 3 R 6 K/7 BB/1 HR 6.35 3 of 4
Long2 (2+ IP) 16.3 IP 7 R 11 K/6 BB/2 HR 4.84 1 of 4
Starter 57 IP 17 R 43 K/20 BB/6 HR 4.40 n/a

*FIPConstant calculated with 2011-2013 NL Average

Oddly enough, Thornburg’s FIP as a long reliever is even worse, as Thornburg allowed six fewer runs than expected as a long reliever. Those FIP estimates are terribly inflated by a couple of very bad outings (for this reason, his actual scoreless IP rate is much more meaningful). But, the basic picture is clear: Thornburg’s record thus far does not suggest that he should be the club’s primary long reliever. In fact, even if one believes that Thornburg will not end up as a starting pitcher during his MLB career, there is a good case to be made that his potential value is wasted in long relief. 2014 might be the season where Thornburg gets a chance to overturn his previous record while serving as a crucial arm that can bridge the gap between starters and set-up relievers (or, keep a close game within reach after a starter’s early departure). No MLB pitcher wants to apply for these jobs, but that doesn’t mean they are situations entirely void of value.

If Thornburg does not get to work most of the long relief roles, there is an intriguing argument in favor of employing Wei-Chung Wang primarily as a long man. First and foremost, working as a long reliever typically takes pitchers outside of the highest leverage situations. This means that if the Brewers are serious about keeping Wang in their organization, using him as a longman probably gives him the best chance to work against MLB batters with the least amount of pressure. Secondly, Wang worked 47.3 innings in rookie ball, which means that a season of work as a longman could easily pace him 30-to-50 innings beyond that level. By using a long role to establish a set working pattern for Wang, the Brewers can keep him within their system, use him in the most beneficial way, and keep him on pace to slowly build up his arm for a starting job. At some point or another, the Brewers may need to push Wang’s innings-increase beyond a 30-to-50 IP threshold if he is going to work as a starter by 2017, but there is no reason to push him during his first year of MLB experience.

One might bet that Wang won’t get more than five or six tries at a full-on, 4+ IP long relief outing. In fact, he could probably work a handful of super-long outings, 15 two IP outings, and another 20 one IP outings without pushing his innings development. This type of workload would also give the Ron Roenicke as many chances as necessary to work Wang into ballgames.

A final note: there may be some question about whether the Brewers will find a chance to frequently pitch Wang if the club is in contention. If you have a chance, look through some game logs during the 2011 Brewers’ season. Even during great years by great teams, there are plenty of opportunities to employ a longman. Doubleheaders, extra innings, short starts, and blowouts can be surprisingly frequent, even when a club has a solid rotation (like the 2011 Brewers). The Brewers having a competitive 2014 will not take away the need for a long reliever (it’s especially easy to forget that even when a club wins 90 games, they still have 72 losses to pitch through — not to mention victories with margins of four or more runs).

Best Case Scenario:
Really, a best case scenario for the Brewers’ long relief situation eliminates the need for long relievers whatsoever. A healthy rotation not only starts the majority of 162 games, but they also work relatively deep into games, eliminating the need to stretch the bullpen. In this case, Thornburg can earn a chance to dominate in shorter outings, while Wang can get in his chances as a mop-up reliever. If Wang can work anywhere between 50 and 70 innings at the big league level, and weather any tough outings, this best case scenario gets the Brewers’ newest young organizational lefty on the path to developing in the minors in 2015.

Worst Case Scenario:
Not only do the Brewers starting pitchers suffer injuries and ineffectiveness, but the top replacement depth fails to succeed in starting roles. This stretches the bullpen beyond the organization’s 12th and 13th best pitchers, forcing the Brewers to dig deep into their AAA squad to fill roster spots. While this worst case scenario could allow an unlikely AAA arm to emerge as a hero in 2014, such a scenario would probably not correspond to a successful pennant push.

Most Likely Scenario
Thornburg once against faces a jack-of-all-trades season for the Brewers, dutifully working in any and all roles while others raise questions about his most effective spot on the roster. After a stint of successful spot starts, his role as a reliever is openly questioned by fans and analysts, but the organization continues to work him as a reliever for the long-term. Wang pitches well in some brief stretches, but ultimately struggles, giving the Brewers’ front office a difficult decision during midseason competition. Wang is ultimately traded back to Pittsburgh, in order to work in the minors, and the Brewers use the trading deadline to acquire another veteran for the rotation. Given the typical season’s injuries, one surprise AAA arm emerges to pitch a brief, successful stint in garbagetime appearances.

 

Thornburg ZIPS Projection: 127 IP, 4.82 ERA, 4.93 FIP

Thornburg PECOTA Projection: 124 IP, 3.95 ERA, 4.19 FIP

 

3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position

3/11: Curt previewed first base

3/12: Jonathan previewed second base

3/13: Steve previewed third base

3/14: Vineet previewed short stop

3/17: Adam previewed left field

3/18: Alex previewed center field

3/19: Ryan previewed right field

3/20: Jaymes previewed the top of the  rotation

3/21: Nicholas previewed the back of the rotation

3/22: Curt previewed the team’s rotation depth

3/25: Tim previewed the closer role

3/26: Curt previewed the setup men

3/27: Jaymes previewed left-handed relief

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