So, this stuff doesn’t really need to be reviewed, because you’re baseball fans, and you’re baseball fans who read FanGraphs, but recently, of course, the Angels lost Garrett Richards for the year. Meanwhile, Anibal Sanchez experienced a setback in his injury rehab, and now it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to return in the regular season. Not coincidentally, trade rumors have popped up, as the Angels are fighting for the AL West, and the Tigers are fighting for the AL Central or a wild-card slot. Losing guys like Richards and Sanchez aren’t easy injuries to overcome.
A disadvantage for both teams is that the injuries have taken place after the non-waiver trade deadline, so moves now are limited and difficult. Really good players just aren’t available, so the guys who are are mediocre or expensive. But, you’ll notice the calendar’s almost turned to September. That presents an advantage. That greatly reduces the need to go out and get a new pitcher for the short-term.
This is about two very simple points:
- in September, rosters expand
- on a per-inning basis, relievers are more effective than starters
Right now, the Tigers are in position to replace Sanchez with Kyle Lobstein. The Angels are thinking about internal names like Randy Wolf and Michael Roth, plus they’ve thought about trade targets. The Tigers seem like they’ll have enough starters should they qualify for a playoff series. The Angels might or might not, depending on how they feel about Hector Santiago. But the way things work in September isn’t the way things work the rest of the season, and if they want to, these two teams can unconventionally patch up their untimely problems.
Let’s wade through the depths of the FanGraphs leaderboards. This year, replacement-level starting pitchers have averaged an ERA close to 5, and an FIP close to 5. Meanwhile, replacement-level relief pitchers have averaged an ERA a little under 4, and an FIP a little under 4. This is very basic stuff. This is why, for one-game playoffs, you’ll often see it suggested that teams try bullpen games. Or at least, that teams be more aggressive with their bullpens. This isn’t something you can do feasibly during much of the regular season, because you’d wear your relievers down, and you’d have to be constantly shuttling guys back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. But in September, teams are free to roster much bigger pitching staffs, which allows for greater flexibility. Precisely the sort of flexibility that could work to Anaheim and Detroit’s benefit.
They don’t need fill-in starting pitchers. They just need fill-in pitchers, and they’ll have plenty to choose from. Guys can be assigned situational or one- or two-inning stints, and fatigue shouldn’t be much of an issue, because there would be so many arms available. Beyond their current active bullpens, both the Angels and Tigers have several other pitchers on the 40-man rosters. Without getting bogged down in their specific identities, I think we can agree on one general idea: a 40-man-rostered player who isn’t on the 25-man roster is probably somewhere in the vicinity of replacement-level. That doesn’t apply to everybody, but on the whole, we’re talking about players too talented to let go for nothing. Replacement-level pitchers, over short stints, can be just as effective as decent starting pitchers over longer stints.
The Angels, for example, could bring up Cam Bedrosian, and Vinnie Pestano, and Roth, among others. The Tigers have Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray, and Justin Miller. If you turn the vacant starts into bullpen starts, you can play the matchups and ask a guy like Ray to go 100% without pacing himself. The Tigers could keep Lobstein in there, but limit him to one turn through the lineup or so. There’s no need for the Angels to realistically hand important baseballs to Randy Wolf. And if you figure that bullpen starts would be projected for an ERA a little south of 4, how much better could you really do on the waiver wire? What would Bartolo Colon project for in the American League? He’s a better-than-replacement starting pitcher, but with rosters so big, managers are free to think inning-to-inning.
The Tigers probably don’t have a longer-term issue. If Sanchez is back for the playoffs, and if they’re in the playoffs, they’d have too many starters, and maybe Justin Verlander would be bullpen-bound. The Angels are a different story, because their fourth starter in a playoff series would be Santiago. So trading for someone now wouldn’t just be about now — it would also be about the upcoming future. But then, again, there’s only so much talent available at the end of August, and how much better than Santiago are the available names? How many playoff opportunities do you project for the fourth starter? In those starts, you could also just be aggressive with the bullpen, so Santiago wouldn’t have to go through more than two turns. The August market isn’t going to bear a Garrett Richards. It bears decent pitchers at elevated costs.
It’s not that picking up help would be a bad idea. It’s just almost an unnecessary idea, one that would presumably cost either millions of dollars or an exchange of longer-term talent. Given where these teams are in the playoff race, every run comes extra leveraged, and everything’s important. But with so many pitchers available in just a few days, there’s a lot to be gained just from making use of them. Maybe, in a sense, it’s unfair that the Angels could patch up a rotation hole in this way. But maybe, in another sense, it’s unfair that the Angels weren’t left with many options to patch up the hole when it opened. As long as the September rules are what they are, teams might as well try to take advantage of them. A few teams in contention are positioned to do just that.
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