Just yesterday it was announced that Roberto Osuna, the 21-year old Mexican who single handedly kept the bullpen looking somewhat respectable over the first two months of the 2015 season, would again be acting as the fireman at the back-end of John Gibbons’ bullpen to start the 2016 season. While Osuna did absolutely nothing to lose the job as Joshua Howsam discussed yesterday, I can’t help but feel the Blue Jays took the lesser of two admittedly good options.
Since being acquired from the Nationals for Ben Revere over the winter, many, myself included, had expected that Storen would become the ninth inning guy for a couple of reasons, neither of which involve his salary or proximity to free agency. Over his six year career Storen has made two points quite clear: one, he’s not a pitcher who is capable of throwing multiple innings in an outing, and two, he’s a whole lot better when coming in with a clean slate. To the former point; over his 355 career appearances, Storen has averaged just 2.82 outs and 3.86 batters faced per relief appearance. To the latter; Storen has faced a total of 761 batters with the bases empty, and they’ve hit just .212/.258/.317 against him. That impressive slash line is largely fueled by a terrific strikeout-minus-walk rate of 21.7 percent. Conversely, in the 609 situations with runners on base, Storen has allowed hitters a .238/.329/.341 slash line, due in part to a far less inspiring 9.8 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate.
In his admittedly brief career, Roberto Osuna’s strengths have complemented Storen’s weaknesses, which makes him far better suited for setup duty in the short term. Osuna averaged 3.07 outs and 3.99 batters faced per relief appearance last season, and while both are just modest improvements over Storen’s figures, as I wrote last week, both seem poised to grow considerably in 2016. John Gibbons was quoted in USA Today earlier this spring, saying “Osuna can give you more than one inning. Drew’s probably limited to one inning. That’s kind of who they are.” Multi-inning closers haven’t really been a thing since the eighties and nineties, which was a strong indicator that ol’ Gibbers was leaning the same way as the masses. Conversely, setup men have become more and more flexible in their deployment over recent years, with the Yankees’ Dellin Betances being the poster boy for this creative and modern thinking. The hard throwing converted-starter has averaged 3.63 outs and 4.67 batters faced per appearance over the last two seasons, with 69.4 percent of those batters coming to the plate in medium- or high-leverage situations.
Osuna has been dominant in situations with runners on, in both direct comparison to Storen and to himself. With the bases empty, batters hit .201/.250/.410 against Osuna (including five of the seven home runs he allowed), whereas with runners on, the opposition’s triple slash line fell to an abysmal .174/.230/.277. This difference can be attributed to the two pitchers’ contrasting backgrounds, as Storen was drafted as a reliever and has exclusively been a reliever throughout his professional career. Osuna, on the other hand, was a starting pitcher through-and-through prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery in early 2013, and again pitched in the rotation upon his return to the mound in late 2014. Starting pitchers unquestionably get more practice in trouble situations, as a manager isn’t going to immediately retrieve his starter if they give up a string of hits in the early innings like he would a struggling bullpen arm.
It makes little sense to have Storen working as a setup man with his left-handed twin, Brett Cecil, already back there as a one-and-done pitcher. By allowing Drew Storen to reign over the ninth inning, manager John Gibbons would have instantly created a multitude of options by which to script getting the ball from the hand of his starter into the basket of victory. He would be better able to play matchups in the seventh and eighth inning when opposing managers deploy their bench, before having Storen come in with the bases empty in the ninth to squelch any hope that remains. After correctly naming Aaron Sanchez as the fifth starter on Monday, the front office and coaching staff had given themselves the opportunity to get on a bit of a roll with progressive thinking and fan satisfaction. Instead, we face the possibility of an under-utilized Roberto Osuna in the short term, and a career arc suddenly pointed straight at the back end of the bullpen in the long term. For the sake of the pitching staff, and just as importantly for Osuna’s development and future earning potential, hopefully this decision is only temporary.
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