Mike MacDougal and Relief Pitcher Philosophy

Although there has been quite a bit of debate with regards to the true replacement level for relief pitchers, we think we’ve got a pretty good idea of it here in our win value calculations. By these calculations, Mike MacDougal has been performing at the replacement level for relievers for the last three years, making it sound exactly right that the Marlins added him on a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training on Thursday.

MacDougal’s career is basically living off a 21-save season in 2005, in which he was quite productive for a reliever. In 70+ innings, MacDougal posted a 3.23 FIP, good for 1.5 WAR. Although still productive in limited action in 2006, it just hasn’t been there in the three years since. An FIP of 4.72 over those three years has squarely placed him in the replacement level category.

His CHONE projected FIP of 4.57 is consistent with this level of performance. It’s very unlikely that MacDougal will ever strike out a batter per inning again, and his walk rates have been dangerously high, eclipsing 6.00 each of the last three years. He will likely continue to post low HR/9 numbers, as his FB rate is insanely low at 23.6% for his career. Still, that’s not enough to outweigh a K/BB of 1.00 or worse, and that’s why MacDougal is such a fringe-type player after a promising start to a career.

Here’s the question: is MacDougal worth a roster spot? He’s projected to be the prototypical replacement player. At 33 years old and with an injury history, however, upside is minimal. How many 24-28 year old minor league players can offer similar production with the opportunity for upside and/or development? Looking at the Marlins’ bullpen situation, MacDougal has a substantial chance at making the team and kicking in the $700,000 guaranteed ML part of his split contract.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that there can’t be similar players at a younger age with fewer injury red flags to be had. There are also players like Mark DiFelice, who had a fantastic year at age 31. His stellar minor league numbers translated to major league success despite questionable stuff.

We see the DiFelices of the league passed over in favor of the MacDougals time and time again. The Marlins’ pickup of MacDougal isn’t necessarily wrong – for some teams, a replacement level player can be an upgrade due to the uneven distribution of talent – but I think this move represents a philosophy we see too much in the major leagues, and that’s an unwillingness to take a chance in the back of the bullpen.

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11 Responses to “Mike MacDougal and Relief Pitcher Philosophy”

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  1. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    I guess the question really is, how do you define upside.

    The upside for MacDougal, quite rightly, is the 2006 season. I vaguely remember him as “Mac the Ninth”, with the proverbial million dollar arm and 10 cent brain. If the team management thinks he still has something resembling the million dollar arm (he has afterall, not exactly pitched a ton of innings even if you count his stints in the minors, and maybe the Marlins think they can fix a glitch in his mechanics etc), and you also think he has matured mentally, then his upside might well be 1.5 wins, which is not too bad for a reliever.

    The question then becomes, are there minor league pitchers, that might project to replacement level (as Mac does currently), that with the right coaching, maybe a new pitch could also have that upside, that dont have the negative history mac does.

    Either way, in this case i think its a reasonable bet on the Marlins. Someone here earlier pointed out their success at extracting value from relievers on short contracts, and i wouldnt be shocked if this is MacDougals last hoorah.

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  2. Michael says:

    The Marlins snagged MacDougal for competition, so presumably he isn’t guaranteed to make the team. But I would not be surprised if he’s on the short list for the last spot on the pen because of his saves from last year and his fastball. It’s weird, because the Marlins gave up Matt Lindstrom for the same reasons (and the price tag, of course), but MacDougal older and worse.

    I have seen the Fish not go with the veteran reliever in the past, so I’ll hold out hope that the club isn’t hinging on Turnbow or MacDougal to work out. I do dread the possibility that the Marlins have significant innings planned for whichever former closer with high fastball velocity makes the team. That’s scary considering your options are among MacDougal or Seth McClung.

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  3. Nick O says:

    (Mark DeFelice, not Mike)

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  4. Nathaniel Stoltz says:

    If I remember right, DiFelice is hurt, which is why he’s not finding work. That said, I think Scott Strickland is a much better bullpen option for Florida, as 30-something minor league contract/invite to spring training retreads go.

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  5. Nny says:

    What I find interesting is how the Marlins have been hording bullpen arms this offseason.

    Previously, they had been hording the “DFelices.” In 2007 there was Lee Gardner (3.04 FIP) and Justin Miller (3.06 FIP). In 2008 there was Joe Nelson (3.45 FIP). Last year Brian Sanches (4.14 FIP). These players have constantly been doing better than the Jorge Julio’s, Armando Benetiz’s, ect that the Marlins have brought in.

    Scott Strickland, as Stoltz mentioned above, and Chris Schroder are a couple of AAAA arms that the team has brought in, and I have more faith in them than the stockpile of 95+ MPH, no control group that the Fish have signed.

    Of coarse we have to remember that all of those players were only signed to MILB deals. And if one of them can turn it around like David Aardsma, that’s a pretty good win. Of coarse Aardsma has been showing a lot more than Veras, Turnbow, MacDougal, and McClung.

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  6. Rally says:

    MacDougal’s fastball was still in the 95+ range last year. What I find strange, looking at his player page, is that he threw 90% fastballs last year. Previously he threw a slider 40% or so. I wonder why he did that, maybe his control of the slider got so bad he lost confidence in it. Can’t be good for his effectiveness. If hitters know what’s coming and you aren’t Mariano Rivera, they’ll hit it.

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    • Slix says:

      MacDougal throws… one of the heaviest fastballs in baseball. It has a tremendous amount of armside run and sink, as somebody that watched him pitch with the Nationals last year I can tell you the gameplan was basically this: throw 98mph sinker, hope it enters strikezone, hope they hit it on the ground. While he walked a ton of guys, he also got a large amount of groundballs, and somehow managed to stay alive.

      MacDougal’s slider has always been one of the best in baseball – tremendous action and movement on the, the problem is he’s never had any idea where it’s going, hence the reliance on the fastball in 09.

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  7. PhD Brian says:

    I think Macdougy could be proof that the way we analyze relievers is off. He was successful when it mattered last season. Sure it wasn’t always pretty, but the end result was still very good (20-1 on saves). last season, and for his career, his stats with runners already on base were/are much better than his stats with the bases empty. So much better, that one might be inclined to walk a batter just to get a guy on base. Moreover, his stats got/get better the higher the leverage situation dramatically. So Macdougy was/is terrible when the bases were empty and the AB did not matter much (FIP over 6), but with runners on and the game on the line he was very effective (FIP around 3). If that makes him a replacement reliever, then something is off in the way replacement pitchers are analyzed. I get the sample size issue, but his entire career his stats look roughly that way. He is much more effective the higher the leverage situation and the more base runners on (not a typical pitcher).

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    • bobo says:

      Gee, rather than walk a batter just tell him to pitch from the stretch and not the windup…but I’d still chalk this up to sample size.

      Hey Jack Moore are you studying to be an actuary? They’ve got a good program there at Madison…

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    • cpebbles says:

      I can’t remember when exactly they added the split data here at FanGraphs, but I’m guessing it was after February 19, 2010.

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