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B.J. Ryan: relief ace?

B.J. Ryan is off to an outstanding start, making him the subject of a profile by Dan Connolly in Friday's York Daily Record.

Time after time this year, Ryan has overwhelmed batters in crucial situations. He finished April having yielded just a .196 opponents' batting average and having struck out 13.2 batters per nine innings. Out of the gate he had an awesome run of twelve scoreless innings over nine appearances that ended when he gave up his first runs of the season (three of them, two of which were earned) on Thursday against Seattle. (Fortunately, they made no difference to the game's outcome, as the Orioles were up 9-2 when he entered the game.) And his performance with runners on base has been stellar: only one of his nine inherited baserunners has scored.

In his first few seasons in the majors, Ryan typically was used as a LOOGY (lefty one-out guy) by manager Mike Hargrove, who had an almost knee-jerk reflex for lefty-lefty and righty-righty matchups in the late innings of games. New manager Lee Mazzilli has pointedly departed from that approach, allowing his relievers to stay in the game to pitch against both righty and lefty batters. ESPN's Peter Gammons mentioned this tendency in his April 26 column.

Although the percentages generally favor the use of like-handed matchups, there are some drawbacks to this strategy. One is that it creates the need for a large and preferably deep bullpen, as frequent pitching changes use up relievers rapidly and can leave a bullpen short-handed if the game goes past nine innings. Not only is a large bullpen harder to maintain, it also decreases the number of spots for position players on the roster. Using relievers as platoon specialists may also cause them to fall into patterns that are less effective against batters who hit from the other side of the plate. What really irks most fans about the matchup approach, though, is that pitching changes extend the duration of games, since each new pitcher takes a few minutes to walk in from the bullpen and warm up before the game can resume.

Ryan, with his unorthodox motion to the plate—first he turns his back to the batter, then he sort of slings the ball at a three-quarters angle—has always dominated lefty batters, but has struggled somewhat against righties in his career. That is still true this year: lefties are 0 for 16 with eight strikeouts and a walk against Ryan, while righties are 10 for 35 (.286) with an 11/5 K/BB ratio. Ryan has minimized the damage of the hits, having ceded just one extra-base hit, a double to Bret Boone, on the young season. Perhaps he will improve against righties as he gains experience pitching to them, but the jury is still out on whether Ryan can handle right-handed batters well enough to justify Mazzilli's confidence.

One can make the case that Ryan is a better candidate for the closer role than Jorge Julio. Mazzilli "reluctantly admits Ryan has the tools to fill the role," according to Connolly. Ryan unquestionably has the better slider of the two, Julio the better fastball. Some relevant statistics may be helpful here in comparing their performance.

Career statistics through April 30
Pitcher Opp. BA Opp. OBP Opp. SLG K/9 BB/9
B.J. Ryan .227 .335 .337 9.95 5.32
Jorge Julio .237 .322 .387 7.56 4.17

It should be noted before doing any analysis that despite the different roles the two pitchers have assumed—i.e., Ryan a lefty specialist and Julio a closer—they have faced similar proportions of left- and right-handed batters in their careers. Both pitchers have been hard to hit, but Ryan's pitches miss more bats than Julio's: Ryan has averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, Julio only 7.6. Ryan also has kept the ball in the ballpark better, as he has yielded a slugging percentage 50 points lower than Julio has. Looking at some related statistics, Ryan predictably has the higher career ground-to-fly ratio (Ryan: 1.30, Julio: 1.07) and the lower homers-allowed rate at 0.8 HR/9 IP compared to 1.0 for Julio.

On the other hand, Ryan's control betrays him more often: he has yielded 5.3 BB/9 IP for his career, Julio 4.2. The extra walks raise Ryan's opposition OBP to more than ten points higher than Julio's. Both pitchers' walk rates are higher than you would like to see in a relief ace.

Ryan's arsenal makes him a better choice to put out a fire (i.e., end a threat with runners on base) because he can get a strikeout when one is needed and is more likely to induce a ground ball for a double play. Julio is not really a bad choice in such situations, but Ryan is clearly better. If the bases are loaded, however, neither is a great choice because both are susceptible to giving up the base on balls.

The typical closer's assignment has become to start the ninth inning while protecting a lead of three runs or fewer (a lead of more than three runs would not be a save situation). Mazzilli seems to have fallen into this pattern with Julio. I find many faults with this strategy—if pressed, I could list them all, but I'll just state that I fall in line with most sabermetricians on the matter. Save situation or not, if the margin is close in the eighth or ninth innings, I would institute a sort of platoon: when two or more dangerous left-handed batters are due up in the next inning, I would use Ryan; in other situations I would use Julio.

Mazzilli, in general, has used Ryan well to neutralize left-handed batters with the game on the line. Ryan's track record against righties does not seem to justify the confidence the O's braintrust seems to have put in him, though. Julio, who usually has the more forgiving job of starting the ninth inning with the bases empty and a lead to protect, for the most part has been excellent this year, if not as dominating as Ryan. But Ryan's emergence gives the Orioles two fine options in late-game situations, either of which can close games.


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