If a position player gets dinged up or needs a couple of days to fix his swing in the cage, there is normally at least one other player on the roster capable of taking over his position for a game or two. If a starting pitcher loses a pitch or develops a mechanical flaw, some progress can be made in a side session. A reliever, however, needs to stay available day after day.
Flexibility in the bullpen, therefore, may be more important than anywhere else on the roster. This can often be accomplished through the use of option years, as young relievers who struggle may get the chance to get on track with a minor league team. But teams can also choose to shuffle the major league deck. With three left-handed relievers in the seven-man bullpen, from afar it could look like the Red Sox are as poised to handle this season’s bullpen potholes as capably as your grandparents’ old Buick.
That may not be the case. The 19-inning marathon on Friday night has helped to obscure just how John Farrell will use his lefty trio this season, but last season, he deployed a bullpen lefty for fewer than three batters 47 times (26 for two batters, 21 for one). Of Robbie Ross, Craig Breslow and Tommy Layne, only Layne is likely to be used in a traditional LOOGY match-ups role. Nonetheless, should Layne run into some struggles, either of the two other lefties could be leaned on in a big spot for a big out against the likes of lefty masher like Chris Davis or Brian McCann.
PECOTA is bearish about how Ross (0.2 WARP), Breslow (0.0 WARP) and Layne (-0.2) are likely to perform this year. Ross is probably the least likely to be used for lefty match-ups. A starter until May and then for three more games later in the 2014 season, Ross pitched as a reliever in just 15 games last year, throwing to fewer than three batters just once. Overall, he pitched with the platoon advantage for just 32% of batters, and while he has been more effective against lefties in his career (holding them to a .277 True Average), “more” isn’t the same thing as “much.” His main usefulness to the club is probably as a multi-inning reliever, where his relative success against right-handed hitters (.286 TAv) is also helpful.
Breslow is also a less than ideal fit for a lefty match-ups role, with a similar career platoon split (.274 TAv vs. lefties, .287 vs. righties). Farrell has used him that way occasionally (nine appearances facing one or two batters in 2014), and he did enjoy a slightly more frequent platoon advantage (45% of PA) than you might expect. That certainly didn’t seem to help him last season; en route to his 5.96 ERA, opponents slashed .247/.309/.379, numbers almost identical to league average.
In fact, Layne’s career success against lefties is almost as impressive as Andrew Miller’s from last season (.176 TAv).
It’s Layne who sticks out as a very effective lefty match-ups man, especially as he was deployed with the platoon advantage for 63% of plate appearances last year. In what is a much smaller sample of plate appearances, Layne has held lefties to a .179 True Average, much stronger than Ross or Breslow and much stronger than Layne has been against righties (.313 TAv). In fact, Layne’s career success against lefties is almost as impressive as Andrew Miller’s from last season (.176 TAv), which raises the question: how good is “good” when it comes to matchup men?
Not as good as Layne. Sixty-three lefty relievers pitched in at least 30 games last year, and their stats against lefties for the most part don’t compare to Layne’s:
Among that crew, Layne had the sixth-lowest batting average against, ranked 10th in on base percentage, and had the fifth-best slugging against. Factor everything that matters into the mix, and Layne’s success against lefties last year merited him a .136 True Average — among those 63 relievers, that ranked him second, behind only Sean Doolittle. Ranking better than 2014 standouts Zach Britton and Aroldis Chapman doesn’t mean that Layne will do the same in 2015, but it does at least highlight the gulf between Layne and Breslow, who ranked 57th in this group.
Layne, like every other lefty reliever, will be called on to get multiple outs most of the time, and so his remarkable success against lefties doesn’t guarantee that he’ll thrive. But his LOOGY prowess is an important ingredient in a recipe that may make Layne an important asset in Farrell’s bullpen all season long.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.smugmug.com