Post-Petco, Relievers Not As Bad As You Think

Yesterday, the Padres traded reliever Ernesto Frieri to the Angels, in exchange for Minor Leaguers Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach. Frieri has pitched very well thus far this season, with walk and strikeout rates significantly better than he had in 2011, albeit in a much smaller sample. But will the Angels be getting that pitcher? Petco Park seemingly has a way of elevating mediocre pitchers into above-average, or even elite ones. That has never seemed as prevalent as it has this year, as we have watched Heath Bell struggle to put away the likes of Joaquin Arias and Travis Buck.

Plenty of relievers have pitched at Petco since it opened, but in order to get a good sample here we need to make sure that we have pitchers who have pitched significantly at both Petco and somewhere else following their tour of duty in San Diego. 97 relievers have pitched in Petco and then moved on since the park has opened, but 58 of those threw less than 15 innings in their last stint with the Padres, so we’ll knock them out right away. Of the remaining 39, four are those who have just left following the 2011 season — Bell, Frieri, Chad Qualls and Pat Neshek — so we will eliminate them as well. Another 14, Rod Beck, Paul Quantrill and Brian Sweeney among them, either never pitched in the Majors again or didn’t pitch enough to be given consideration (Sweeney is an interesting case, as he went to the Japanese leagues for three years before coming back to the Mariners in 2010, but since that’s not Major League ball we’ll leave him out as well).

That leaves us with 21 pitchers. Of the 21, 14 only pitched in the Majors for one to two more seasons, and of the 21, the only two who stayed with their next teams for three years or more were Scott Linebrink and Dennys Reyes. Since many of the 21 only pitched for the Padres for one season or were in the Majors for one season after leaving San Diego, the comparison will go for one full season after they left the Padres. So for the five players who left during a season — Linebrink, Mike Adams, Sean Gallagher, Glendon Rusch and Royce Ring — it will include the remainder of their season with their new team, as well as the year after. It’s not the best, but it’s what we have. I also amended the rule for Clay Hensley, who after leaving the Padres following the 2008 season, didn’t pitch in the Majors in ’09 but did make it back in ’10.

Last Yr Name IP FIP WAR Yr +1 IP Yr +1 FIP Yr +1 WAR
2007 Doug Brocail 76.7 4.49 -0.2 68.7 3.83 0.5
2010 Edward Mujica 69.7 3.88 0.0 76.0 3.20 1.0
2005 Akinori Otsuka 62.7 3.45 0.6 59.7 2.78 2.0
2004 Jay Witasick 61.7 4.20 0.0 63.3 3.19 1.2
2010 Ryan Webb 59.0 2.82 0.8 50.7 3.62 0.3
2005 Chris Hammond 58.7 4.67 -0.5 28.7 4.33 0.1
2006 Alan Embree 52.3 2.97 0.9 68.0 3.53 1.2
2011 Mike Adams * 48.0 2.09 1.3 36.7 3.14 0.7
2008 Trevor Hoffman 45.3 3.99 0.1 54.0 2.63 1.5
2007 Scott Linebrink * 45.0 5.73 -1.0 71.7 4.19 0.5
2004 Blaine Neal 42.0 4.12 0.0 22.7 5.93 -0.2
2005 Dennys Reyes 39.3 4.29 -0.1 50.7 2.87 1.1
2009 Cla Meredith 36.7 3.59 0.2 43.7 5.38 -0.3
2004 Ricky Stone 32.7 5.19 -0.3 30.7 6.31 -0.5
2010 Sean Gallagher * 23.3 6.76 -0.5 34.3 4.56 -0.1
2008 Glendon Rusch * 19.7 4.91 -0.2 82.7 4.12 1.1
2009 Mike Ekstrom 18.3 4.62 -0.1 16.3 3.87 0.0
2005 Craig Breslow 16.3 4.67 -0.1 12.0 2.90 0.3
2010 Adam Russell 15.7 1.74 0.3 32.7 5.14 -0.3
2007 Royce Ring * 15.0 4.64 -0.1 27.3 4.29 0.1
2008 Clay Hensley 34.0 3.84 0.1 75.0 2.87 1.5
TOTAL 872.0 4.03 1.2 1005.3 3.76 11.7

* Includes remainder of last season after being traded/released from Padres

Well, that wasn’t what we were expecting at all, was it? By and large, this sample of pitchers was significantly better after leaving Petco Park. I’m tempted to remove Rusch from the sample, since he was used as a starter for part of his time in Colorado, but doing so doesn’t materially alter the results (the FIPs change to 4.01 and 3.73, respectively). In fact, it doesn’t seem like the differences are necessarily linked to one player at all. No reliever had better than a 2.0 WAR season after leaving — there’s no 2003 Eric Gagne performance here. The pitchers were simply better elsewhere. 12 threw more innings in their next stop, 14 had a better FIP and 15 had a better WAR.

Now, this is by no means conclusive. For starters, it’s only 21 pitchers. Second, the samples are small on both sides of the ledger, and that is compounded by the fact that relievers in general can have wildly varying performances from year to year. Second, I’m not looking actually isolating their home and road splits to isolate exactly how good they were at Petco, just their overall lines (boiling it down to splits would dilute these already small samples even more). In addition, by filtering out pitchers who didn’t throw a lot of innings, the sample is more likely to contain good pitchers. Furthermore, these pitchers were either getting on in age (i.e. Embree, Hoffman) or weren’t that great to begin with, since most weren’t in the Majors for that much longer after their year-plus-one season, and intuitively, that should tell us that maybe these guys weren’t as good as these numbers indicate — at least not long-term.

This sample of pitchers doesn’t necessarily take a chainsaw to the old adage that pitchers are awful once they leave Petco, it certainly plants an axe firmly in its base. Ernesto Frieri might not end up being a great long-term investment for the Angels, but Heath Bell’s continual meltdown aside, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that he will be useless for them either — particularly this season.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

10 Responses to “Post-Petco, Relievers Not As Bad As You Think”

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  1. Chris says:

    Also on Frieri: His career splits away from Petco are nearly identical to his home stats. First thing I checked when I heard of the trade, being an Angel fan and concerned after the Heath Bell debacle thus far.

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  2. Marver says:

    I think you may be looking at a statistical artifact: clear selection bias.

    There is a process in place by which teams retain / allow players to leave. Presumably, players most likely to be let go are those who have had a poor season, not those who have had a good season. It’d be interesting to see the selected players’ average season in comparison to that year+1 season to see if you’re staring at nothing except a small selection of data filtered out by the Padres’s way of selecting who stays and who goes.

    Additionally, I caution against using FIP for performances at PETCO. Batted ball outs are easier to come by, which alters all three per-inning values of HR, K, BB in a way that may distort the data. Theoretically, the per-PA BB% and K% should be more stable between stadium extremes than the per-IP factors; and until xFIP uses a by-input-metric adjustment to account for this (as in, it adjusts both HR and BB with the ballpark’s park factor on that particular metric), by plate appearance, you’ll see some weird things.

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    • Elias says:

      Posted below before I saw this. Totally agree.

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    • evo34 says:

      I agree in general with what you say, but in this case the fact that FIP is influenced by park makes the author’s point more, not less likely to be accurate. The act of leaving Petco should cause one’s FIP to rise. Take a look at all Padres pitchers’ home/road FIP splits and it shows that Petco reduces FIP. So if the author finds that pitchers leaving the Padres do not see their FIPs rise, it is an unexpected finding. However, as several people have pointed out, it may very well be explained by selection bias.

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    • novaether says:

      These were my thoughts exactly.

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  3. Elias says:

    Regression? Weren’t some of these guys likely sent packing because of performance? I think this would be more convincing if you compared the “Petco” effect to the performance differences of RP leaving a more neutral stadium. Probably you’ll see those guys look to have become even better than the RP in the Petco table.

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    • mikesavino85 says:

      I think quite a few of those were trades…so the selection bias may be negated by that (you can’t trade a poor-performing reliever mid-season). I’d probably expect to see regression in both directions.

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  4. Slats says:

    It wouldn’t matter where Heath Bell pitches now, he is just horrible.

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    • Pat G says:

      right now i agree with you, something is wrong with bell…. but all his stuff his there (per fangraphs velo, admittedly that is only one piece of the puzzle) His real issue (and this is kinda scary), his swing% against is down (likely a direct result of his pitching out of the zone more), another negative stat is his contact precentage which is up in both in and out of zone #s, compound that with career worst first pitch strike % and we got serious issues…

      to recap, less stuff in the zone, low first strike % and increased contact when in the zone…. when i read that i see a guy who is falling behind too often and then catching too much plate to make up fir the bad pitches… from here i would like to watch some film, but id expect to see one of two things, 1) he’s really having trouble with command and is a radically different pitcher than before, or more likely 2) he’s not pitching with the same mindset (possibly lacking of petco safety), resulting in a guy trying to throw darts that wont yield hits only to fall into holes and then be forced to go into dangerous territory…. just my take looking at his fangraphs page though, someone who has watched the marlins may be able to provide more informed observations than I, but i would look at him as a solid 2nd buy low and a super sleeper at CP for 2013

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  5. jirish says:

    Can I just say something here- When you talk about Padre pitchers in the future, can you somehow consider that they are extremely well coached? If there’s a better tandem out there than Darren Balsley and Bud Black that get more out of less, I’d like to know who they are. Those two never get credit. Every time a Padre pitcher is evaluated it’s always ‘anyone can pitch at Petco,’ which has some validity. I’d like you to say ‘anyone can pitch at Petco under the guidance of Balsley and Black’ because they DO have a knack for getting the most out of the least.

    Now I’ll pack up my soapbox….

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