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Expensive Angels in Relief

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim signed closer Brian Fuentes away from the Colorado Rockies following the 2008 season, guaranteeing the left-hander $17.5 million over two years with a $9 million vesting option for 2011. Then, this past offseason, L.A. added former Detroit Tigers closer Fernando Rodney on a two year, $11 million dollar contract. On Monday night against the Tampa Bay Rays, the $28.5 million dollar setup-man and closer duo combined to allow four runs and a -.294 WPA in the 8th and 9th inning. The Angels did manage to come back and win the game 5-4, but their record is still only 15-19 and the bullpen figures to be an issue going forward with Fuentes and Rodney serving as the anchors.

Fernando Rodney is simply not a standout reliever. Over the last three years, he’s walked 92 batters in 165.2 innings, for a rate of 5.00 BB/9. The projection systems all saw him as close to that mark, and as such CHONE and ZiPS projected FIPs of 4.50 and 4.38 respectively – marks that put Rodney at roughly 0.2-0.4 wins above replacement in around 60 innings. He rediscovered himself as a heavy ground-ball pitcher last season, inducing 57.9% ground balls, but his walk rate was still high and the drop in strikeouts actually resulted in a higher FIP at 4.56. Despite throwing 75 innings – quite high for a reliever – Rodney only accrued 0.3 wins above replacement.

Rodney’s numbers have been slightly worse than those of last season. Rodney’s strikeouts are down again and his walks have crept back up to the point that he’s striking out exactly as many as he’s walking, at 10 each, or 6.14 per nine innings. However, he had posted a 2.45 ERA this year prior to last night’s appearance, completely based on a slightly high 80.5% LOB rate and an absurdly low .113 BABIP. Expect him to start allowing more runs as his walk issues will eventually come back to bite him as more hits start falling in.

Fuentes’s season has been odd as well, but in a much different way. The Angels closer blew his second save of the season after allowing his 3rd home run of the season in only 7.2 innings. Unless something has snapped with Fuentes and his stuff is no longer unable to suppress home runs, there is no way that his home run rate remains that high. I don’t believe that is the case – he clearly is still able to induce swings and misses and strikeouts. Fuentes was running a spectacular 12.15 K/9 and an acceptable, albeit high, 4.05 BB/9 entering last night’s appearance.

Fuentes’s poor luck with home runs has been slightly balanced out by a .234 BABIP, leading to a 4.05 ERA entering last night’s blown save. Things should start to even out soon for Fuentes, but don’t be surprised if he arrives at a similar ERA to what he is at now. Fewer fly balls will leave the yard, and more hits will start falling in. Given the fact that we’ve actually seen a drop in velocity from 90.0 to 89.4 on his fastball, Fuentes’s strikeout rate will probably fall as well. It’s highly unlikely that hitters continue to whiff on 30.8% of Fuentes’s offerings in the zone as they have thus far, as his stuff isn’t as good as it was in previous years. He’s never posted an in-zone whiff rate higher than 21.2% in any season where he has pitched a significant amount of innings. Overall, that leaves Fuentes as an unimpressive 4.00 FIP type pitcher, as CHONE and ZiPS projected entering the season.

Between Rodney and Fuentes, the Angels have two pitchers who are merely running on their reputations and save counts from prior years. As a result, more long nights like Monday from that expensive duo could very well be in store for the Angels.