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Blue Jays: Analytics could be key to delayed bullpen search

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The Toronto Blue Jays have not been ones to shy away from analytic-based decisions over the past several years, and that branch of the organization seems poised for growth under Tony LaCava and Mark Shapiro. LaCava’s scouting background and analytics experience go hand in hand, while Shapiro’s analytics days in Cleveland date back to the DiamondView system.

With starting pitching still the clear hole on Toronto’s roster, Blue Jays management is content to hold off on any bullpen decisions. For now. “It’s not on the back burner, but it’s secondary, the primary being starters,” LaCava tells Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet. “We may let the bullpen come to us a little bit.”

Bullpen construction, despite its limited scale or offseason wow-factor, is a fascinating task as general managers look to build a seven-man group that is stronger than the sum of its parts, made up entirely of one of baseball’s least predictable positions year-to-year. Each season, teams strike gold with minor league free agents at excellent value, or hamstring their payroll with an overpaid-yet-underperforming veteran closer.

Enter the analytics department, now directed by the recently-promoted Joe Sheehan. With bullpen arms being one of the cloudier talent groups, it’s possible to successfully address the position without spending big or jumping early. This is if, and only if, a team does so very intelligently.

While the Rogers Centre is an unwelcoming environment for certain types of pitchers, thus lowering their value to Toronto, the stadium and current roster construction should allow for the analytics department to identify arms that are more valuable to the Jays than other clubs. For example, a fringe reliever that could keep the ball on the ground for Toronto’s excellent defense may be graded as a C- arm elsewhere, but a C+ arm to the Jays. Finding those fits within the nuances of environment and roster are where the analytics department shows its truest value.

Toronto could also target an arm based on physical talents alone, hoping to harness velocity and movement numbers into a more controlled pitcher. After a career marred with inconsistency, this is what happened with Mark Lowe last season. Keep in mind that bullpen signings are rarely made with three-to-five years in mind, so if Toronto’s analytics can project and capture a six-month flash, that’s found money.

The department could also help to identify ideal buy-low candidates, whose peripheral statistics suggest that simplified 2015 numbers such as ERA and WHIP were inflated. Just looking at Toronto’s roster, Aaron Loup‘s season is an example worth considering. An opponent BABIP of .339 rested well above his career average of .287, while a 3.72 FIP and 2.89 xFIP suggest his 4.46 ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. Loup’s home run to fly ball ratio also sat at a gaudy 20.7%, well north of his career 10.1%. The issues with Loup ran deeper than bad luck, of course, but this represents the bounce-back candidate that the Jays will be hoping to hit big on.

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Waiting into the offseason for bullpen help backfired in 2014-15, leaving the back end in a state of flux until mid-summer. Placing a secondary level of importance on the position is understandable given the rotation needs, but if the Blue Jays truly do wait until later in the winter to make bullpen moves, the pressure to succeed begins to shift towards the analytics department. When forced to pick from the leftovers, talent still remains, but the organization must be much more selective.

So when the Jays sign a reliever from the bargain bin sometime after Christmas with a career big league ERA of 5.18, don’t panic. Trust the men with calculators.

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