The Indians expect to have over $25 million devoted to their 2017 bullpen. This is a substantial investment for a club routinely in the bottom third of payroll totals across the league.
Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are expected to account for over $16 million of that total, which is great value in today’s inflated reliever market. Beyond those two, you have Bryan Shaw, Zach McAllister, and Dan Otero headed to arbitration, where those three are expected to accrue in excess of $7 million for next season.
Given those money totals, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Antonetti and Chernoff to decide not to invest any more resources in that bullpen, especially with unknowns like Joe Colon and Perci Garner ready to inherit bigger roles. However, there is an interesting name out there for Tribe brass to consider if they do choose to invest further, and his name is Junichi Tazawa.
Tazawa, most recently a member of the Boston Red Sox, had a seemingly shaky 2016. He saw his ERA and FIP totals jump to levels he had not experienced since his 2009 rookie campaign. Accompanying this jump in ERA and FIP was an inflated home run to fly ball percentage of 15.8%, a significant increase from the 7.8% and 7% figures of 2014 and 2015. As a result of this increase, Tazawa allowed a career high 1.63 home runs per 9 innings.
Why did Junichi give up more long balls?
Some of this can likely be attributed to chance, but there are other indicators for his struggles. Decreased effectiveness on his fastball and curveball are likely culprits, as well. In 2016, he opted to throw fewer fastballs and more curveballs, limiting the effectiveness of each. Throughout his career, he had thrown around 60% fastballs but only threw 50% fastballs in 2016. On the curveball front, he previously had thrown approximately 7-10% curveballs but threw 15% in 2016.
Below are two spray charts indicating the results of curveballs and fastballs put into play off Tazawa in 2015 and 2016. You can see in 2015, most of the fly balls Tazawa allowed did not carry into home run territory. On the other hand, 2016 saw a majority of the fly balls allowed by Tazawa reach dangerous depths.
The inflated home run to fly ball ratio well exceeds Tazawa’s own career trajectory and averages across the major leagues. This seems like it could be more fluke than substance, on the condition that Tazawa can get back to usage figures that made him extremely effective in previous years. Regression to the mean should play a role in mitigating the home run to fly ball ratio, as well.
It is imperative to look for value in today’s reliever market. With elite relievers getting $90 million deals, bargain shopping for the bullpen seems like a wise move, especially considering the Tribe’s bullpen is already anchored by two elite arms.
Finding 2017’s Dan Otero could help the Indians immensely. That person could be Junichi Tazawa. In fact, Otero’s 2015 struggles in Oakland followed a similar path to Tazawa’s 2016 turbulence in terms of an outlier fly ball to home run ratio. If Antonetti and Chernoff decide to invest further in an already dominant bullpen, it would behoove them to take a diligent look at Junichi Tazawa.
Graphs courtesy of Statcast