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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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.