Last night marked another tough loss for the Jays, and for the second time in five games another loss that can be directly blamed on the bullpen.
Just four days after the combo of Rauch and Francisco blew a 2-0 lead in the 8th against Houston, Rzepczynski and Francisco teamed up to ruin a 4-1 lead in the 8th against the Yankees.
This isn’t meant to be a condemnation of Toronto’s bullpen. They have been for the most part lights out this season. Rzep especially has been brilliant, and his slip-up last night doesn’t bother me. He was probably due for a bit of a blip anyways.
What bothers me the most from last night is the performance from Frank Francisco.
Baseball fans all have different points of view and different philosophies about how to manage a game, from batting orders, to defensive positioning, to baserunning, to bullpen use. Many believe that a closer is the most important man in the ‘pen, while many contrarily believe that anybody can be a closer. It is a debate that is constantly raging, and there is no right answer.
But I think that everybody should be able to agree on thing – the closer, more often than not, pitches in the most important situations, typically when the game is on the line. A quick perusal of Frank Francisco’s stats this season shows that he not performing well at all when the game is on the line.
The overall stat line looks like this: 15 appearances, 13 IP, 6.23 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 4 HR allowed, 1.88 K/BB ratio, and 5 / 7 in save opportunities. Not great.
But when you look deeper into the numbers, the story gets bleaker.
When I think of a solid closer, I want him be able to do the following:
1. Strike batters out
2. Not walk anybody and keep runners off base
3. Be able to pitch on back-to-back days
4. Be able to retire both left and right handed hitters
5. Be equally effective in high and low leverage situations
6. Keep the ball in the park
Let’s look at how Francisco performs in each of those criteria.
1. The strikeouts are there, 15 in 13 IP. His 10.4 K/9 is right around his career norms, which is good news.
2. Here is where the trouble starts. He has issued 8 free passes in 13 IP. The resulting 5.5 BB/9 rate is substantially higher than it has been in each of the past three years, and well above his career average. Same for his K/BB ratio. Similarly his 1.54 WHIP is far above normal, meaning he is allowing far too many baserunners.
3. John Farrell has asked Frank to pitch back-to-back days on three separate occassions. The results have been terrible: 2 IP, 0 – 2 record, 1 blown save, 22.50 ERA, 4.00 WHIP, 1.515 OPS against. In other words, he has been rocked. As a fan, knowing that my closer can’t pitch two games in a row is tough to swallow, especially seeing how the Jays play so many close games (35 of Toronto’s 48 games have been decided by 3 runs or less).
4. Lefties are hitting Francisco hard. Really hard. While the numbers against righties look great (4.0 K/BB, .150 AVG, .677 OPS), the numbers against lefties do not (1.17 K/BB, .290 AVG, .922 OPS). Last night he failed to retire Posada, Granderson, and Teixeira, all hitting from the left side. In a division that also boasts Robinson Cano, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, and Nick Markakis, that could be a problem.
5. Baseball Reference defines a high leverage situation as one where the leverage index is 1.5 or higher. In simpler terms it is when a reliever faces a difficult situation, like two runners on with one out in the ninth trying to protect a one-run lead. Obviously, it is much more difficult to pitch in a high leverage situation than a low leverage (say bases empty with a three run lead). One would hope that a closer would thrive in high leverage situations because that is when the game is truly on the line. Francisco’s numbers in high leverage situations? 24 batters faced, 6 runs allowed, .924 OPS against.
6. Obviously, a home run is the most damaging play a pitcher can surrender, especially in a one-run game. Francisco has allowed 4 HR already this season, in only 13 IP. Last year he surrendered 5 in 52.2 IP. In fact, in the past four seasons he has allowed 21 in 224.2 IP, or 0.84 per 9 innings, as compared to 2.77 per 9 in 2011.
So the bottom line is this: Frank Francisco is struggling. In the title of this post I asked is Francisco the right answer? At this point, though all the data screams no, I will give him a tentative yes, for three reasons. The first is that other than Octavio Dotel (who has even worse splits), Francisco has the most experience closing. The second is that he missed all of spring training, meaning he is dozens of innings behind where he would normally be. And third, and most importantly, the numbers he has put up thus far are far worse than his career numbers. The home runs, the walks, the WHIP, and the ERA are crazy high compared to his previous four seasons.
If baseball is a game of averages, and it has proven over the past 100 years that it is, I expect Francisco’s numbers to grow closer to his career numbers.
And if that happens, he’ll be fine.