Rays Bullpen: Put Who in the What Now?

This post continues our Depth Chart Discussions. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, rotation, and bullpen) and will continue to break them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find the Depth Chart Discussion posts gathered here.

The Rays bullpen is confusing. It’s not that they don’t have good arms there—they have plenty of them;it’s just not clear whether management will deploy these arms in any predictable way to start the 2015 season. Things are further complicated by the fact that incumbent closer Jake McGee had arthroscopic elbow surgery to remove “loose bodies” in mid-December and projects to miss most of April. (Though he might return sooner than originally expected.)

Who closes in the time that McGee misses—however little time that might end up being—is unclear. The resolution to this issue might not ever come if McGee recovers quickly enough: if it begins to look as though he’s going to miss just a few weeks or less, new Rays manager Kevin Cash could opt to close by committee in the early going, spreading out the high leverage situations between his best available arms in order to get a better feel of what each is capable. But that’s just a hypothetical on my part.

To help illustrate the confusion, here is a table that displays how various online websites view the organization of the Rays bullpen heading into 2015:

Role Roster Resource ESPN.com MLB.com/Rays CBS
Closer Kevin Jepsen Jake McGee Jake McGee Kevin Jepsen
Setup Brad Boxberger Brad Boxberger Grant Balfour Brad Boxberger
Setup Grant Balfour Grant Balfour Brad Boxberger Ernesto Frieri
Mid Jeff Beliveau Kevin Jespsen Kirby Yates Kirby Yates
Mid Ernesto Frieri Jeff Beliveau Ernesto Frieri Grant Balfour
Mid Kirby Yates Burch Smith Jeff Beliveau
Steven Geltz Jeff Beliveau  Brandon Gomes  
Jake McGee (DL) Kevin Jepsen C.J. Riefenhauser
C.J. Riefenhauser (40) Steven Geltz Steven Geltz
Jose Dominguez (40) C.J. Riefenhauser (40) Jake McGee (DL)

Two of these don’t account for McGee being on the disabled list to begin the season, but if you remove McGee from the closer spot in those instances, these lists project three different players to serve as short-term closer: Kevin Jepsen, Brad Boxberger, and Grant Balfour. Conversely, if you want to get a sense of the longer term outlook, shift McGee into the top spot for all of the iterations. You still get some disagreement as two who the top three or four relievers are.

Because of these disagreements, I’ll address these players based their 2014 performance and 2015 projections (per Steamer and ZiPS).

Jake McGee IP Saves K ERA WHIP K% BB% FIP
2014 71.1 19 90 1.89 0.90 32.9% 5.8% 1.73
Steamer 65.0 22 79 2.28 1.20 30.5% 6.8% 2.67
ZiPS 63.2 81 2.40 1.01 31.8% 6.7% 2.15

Barring complications, Jake McGee is very likely to resume the closer role when he returns to the active roster. He won the job in 2014 when Grant Balfour faltered, and performed admirably most of the year before posting a 5.79 ERA in 9.1 September innings (though his xFIP in those innings was a much more acceptable 3.60).

McGee basically throws one pitch: a four-seamer with significant rise. Despite just a single offering, he is equally effective against left- and right-handed hitters—perhaps due to the fact that he appears to throw the pitch in different ways depending on batter handedness. To righties, he throws the four-seamer high and away; to lefties, low and away. He also alters his release point, lowering his arm angle when throwing to left-handed hitters. Whatever the reason, the results are there. In addition to an excellent K%-BB%, he also induced pop-ups at an above average rate, posting a 12.9% IFFB%.

Steamer projects him for 22 Saves. Depending on his return date and the competitiveness of the Rays in general, he could very easily beat that projection. In mock drafts, he’s currently among the last closers being selected. That might be fine given the uncertainty of his return date, but per his performance, he’s not one of the worst closers by any stretch. If he falls in your draft, he could return nice value.

Brad Boxberger IP Saves K ERA WHIP K% BB% FIP
2014 64.2 2 104 2.37 0.84 42.1% 8.1% 2.84
Steamer 65.0 9 84 2.49 1.08 31.7% 8.8% 2.77
ZiPS 74.2 103 2.77 1.14 33.3% 10.4% 3.01

The Boxberger was a fearsome thing in 2014. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched, only Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller struck out a higher percentage of batters faced. His K%-BB% was fourth in the same group, behind Chapman, Miller, and Sean Doolittle. His newfound control and propensity to throw first-pitch strikes were very encouraging gains.

One might take a glance at the Boxberger’s 2014 BABIP (.227) and LOB% (90.3%) and be fearful of huge regression. Probably, he won’t repeat those numbers, though his ability to limit line drives might help him beat the league average BABIP, and his high strikeout rate will help in terms of LOB%. I don’t think he’s going to regress all the way to league averages in either of those metrics.

But what of that high K%, which beat his previous major league best by a wide margin and was also better than his career minor league numbers? There are a few factors that I believe will allow the Boxberger to maintain most of his gains in K%. First, his he posted a pretty high SwStr% (12th in the league, minimum 50 IP). But why was his SwStr% higher than ever before? Well, possibly due to gains in fastball velocity; and as a sub-point, separation between fastball and changeup velocity. Check out his major league career to date in terms of four-seamer/changeup velocity:

Basically, as his four-seamer has crept toward 95MPH, he’s added about 1.5MPH separation between his fastball and his change. These are pretty much the only two pitches he throws, so this is a good thing.

Additionally, the Boxberger changed his horizontal release point in 2014, moving back towards the center of the pitching rubber when he’d been much more towards the third-base side throughout 2012-2013:

I’m not expert enough to test if there’s any sign of causal relationship between release point and strike-throwing or any other outcome. But both the shift in release point and the improvement in outcomes was dramatic for the Boxberger in 2014.

If there’s a real cause for concern with the Boxberger, it’s his HR/FB rate, which was a very high 18.8%, leading to a 1.25 HR/9. When he made a mistake, it was hit very hard, as all but two of his home runs allowed in 2014 were classified as “Plenty” or “No Doubt” and would have been homers in 26 or more MLB parks (per ESPN’s Home Run Tracker). But his HR+FB distance was not very alarming. He had about the same average HR+FB distance (275.9ft) as Jake Peavy, who ranked 125th amongst qualified starters in that category in 2014. Some positive regression should be due there, too.

If I were the Rays, I’d give the Boxberger first chance to close in the absence of McGee. Beyond that, given his strikeout potential, his improvements in control, and the likelihood that he’ll be the Rays’ top setup man in 2015, Boxberger should be one of the first non-closers off the board in leagues that value Holds. In fact, I might take him over some closers who project to have lower strikeout totals.

Kevin Jepsen IP Saves K ERA WHIP K% BB% FIP
2014 65.0 2 75 2.63 1.05 28.9% 8.9% 2.78
Steamer 55.0 3 59 3.01 1.16 25.8% 7.9% 3.18
ZiPS* 56.0 59 3.37 1.23 24.9% 8.9% 3.31


Grant Balfour IP Saves K ERA WHIP K% BB% FIP
2014 62.1 12 57 4.91 1.44 21.1% 15.2% 3.95
Steamer 55.0 4 50 3.75 1.33 21.3% 10.1% 4.01
ZiPS 56.2 58 3.49 1.31 23.8% 11.5% 3.50

I’m not entirely sure how the depth charts at MLB.com or ESPN.com work, but neither have much love for Kevin Jepsen despite his very good 2014 and solid projections for 2015. He doesn’t walk a ton of guys and has generally kept batted balls on the ground and in the park throughout his career. In 2014 he achieved the highest strikeout rate of his career. This might be partially due to scrapping his cutter in favor of greater use of his curveball (especially late in 2014) and adding a changeup. Both the curve and changeup have better ground ball, line drive, and whiff rates than the cutter ever did. Neither Steamer nor ZiPS sees him repeating his 2014 performance, but both see him besting his previously established career levels.

Yes, Grant Balfour has a bigger contract than Jepsen and experience as a closer, but his peripherals have never been significantly better than Jepsen’s, and Balfour’s control problems from earlier in his career returned in a major way in 2014. Balfour’s troubles at least coincided with a drop in velocity across his pitch types. He’ll probably have to regain some velocity and control (or compensate in other ways) in order to be a late-inning asset to the Rays. Keep an eye on him during spring training regarding these factors. He could be a decent set-up man again and have some value in Holds leagues, but in spite of what the MLB.com depth chart shows, I’m bearish on his chances of closing [effectively] again.

Steamer and ZiPS agree: Jepsen will be better than Balfour in 2015. If your league is deep enough to consider the second-best setup man on a team, go with Jepsen.

Ernesto Frieri IP Saves K ERA WHIP K% BB% FIP
2014 41.2 11 48 7.34 1.46 26.1% 7.6% 5.41
Steamer 40.0 2 44 2.99 1.18 26.1% 8.5% 3.71
ZiPS 58.1 75 3.86 1.25 30.3% 10.1% 3.74

If betting on a bounce back candidate in the Rays bullpen, I’d take Ernesto Frieri over Balfour. Frieri posted the best walk rate of his career in 2014 (by far) while still striking out batters at a nice clip, even if his K% was the lowest of his career. To boot, he’s had a knack for inducing pop-ups, a skill on which he continued to make good in 2014. He looks to have been the victim of some bad luck, with a very low strand rate (60.9%) and a very high BABIP (.330). Steamer sees regression to the mean in both cases, and rate stats that follow suit with a 2.99 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP projected for 2015.

The more concerning problem with Frieri’s 2014 was an insane propensity for gopher balls; his 2014 HR/FB rate was nearly double his career mark and more than double the league average. The behind-the-scenes indicators aren’t necessarily positive on the home run front: none of the homer he surrendered in 2014 could be considered lucky, and his HR+FB distances have been trending upwards the last few years, all the way to a 283.3-foot average in 2014, which would have placed him 53rd highest among qualified pitchers. Also of note: it used to be that Frieri had reverse platoon splits, retiring lefties with ease. Conversely, in 2014, left-handed hitters were able to pull Frieri’s offerings with ease and put up big numbers against him for the first time.

Still, Frieri’s 2014 xFIP came in at 3.60, and SIERA liked him even more (2.96). Given some regression in his homer rate and BABIP, along with fewer walks, he could be a nice addition to the Rays’ bullpen. But he will have to prove himself cured of gopheritis before he’ll get high leverage situations and become even peripherally relevant in deeper fantasy leagues.

Jeff Beliveau IP Saves K ERA WHIP K% BB% FIP
2014 24.0 1 28 2.63 1.08 28.0% 7.0% 2.47
Steamer 35.0 0 35 3.26 1.25 24.0% 9.4% 3.60
ZiPS 56.1 60 3.51 1.35 24.5% 11.4% 3.64

Jeff Bell-Biv-DeVoe is a pretty good guy to have as the sixth member of your bullpen. He’s put up decent numbers in the minors since being an 18th-round draft pick by the Cubs in 2008 (including some very high strikeout rates), but he never really got a shot in the majors until last year. FIP, xFIP, and SIERA didn’t think his 2.63 ERA was out of line at all, and Steamer especially sees a quality year ahead of him. In that he projects to be pretty low on the depth chart at this point, he’s not much use in fantasy leagues. But he could be in the future.

Hire Robert J. Baumann to live-blog your next birthday party, family reunion, or corporate event. You will not want to forget it soon.

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Emcee Peepants
Emcee Peepants

Fun fact, my high school yearbook senior quote was, “You shot who in the what now?” I was super cool in high school.