Don’t Give Up On Antonio Bastardo

Over at The 700 Level, there is a video of one of Ricky Bottalico’s patented post-game rants for Comcast SportsNet. In a scathing criticism of reliever Antonio Bastardo, Bottalico described the lefty as “pretty much inconsistent” and called for his ouster from the eighth-inning role. It’s a bit premature to bring out the pitchforks for several reasons:

1. Bastardo has pitched fewer than 100 innings since the start of 2011

2. The final two months don’t matter

3. Bastardo hasn’t performed nearly as bad as his results indicate

Points 1 and 2 are self-explanatory. Small sample sizes, especially when we’re talking about 58 innings one year and 36 the next, can yield wildly aberrant results. For instance, if Bastardo allowed one fewer home run this year, his HR/FB rate (currently 13 percent) drops by more than two percent, halfway to his career average at nine percent. To the second point, as mentioned yesterday, we don’t really care what happens in the final two months as long as players iron out their flaws and no one else gets injured, so it’s okay for Bastardo and others to experiment, work on mechanics, and fail in the process.

The third point is the one worth expanding on with regard to Bottalico’s comments. Bastardo has done two things frequently this year: struck out batters and walked batters. He is averaging more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings and more than five walks per nine innings. Both are significant increases compared to last year’s rates (10.9, 4.0) and he is overall worse this year than he was in 2011. However, his 4.01 xFIP and 3.22 SIERA indicate that his 5.45 ERA is misleading. For one, his .280 BABIP is more than 100 points higher than it was last year, creating the illusion that Bastardo has significantly regressed, when in reality his true talent level lies somewhere in-between the two points.

Whenever we talk about pitching, especially when projecting a player going forward, we want to isolate as many of the factors he directly controls. The two biggest factors a pitcher controls are his strikeout and walk rates. The following table shows players similar to Bastardo in terms of K/9 and BB/9. What you’ll notice is that most of them are exceptional relievers.

Parameters: 2011-12 combined, K/9 greater than 10.0, BB/9 greater than 4.0, min. 90 IP, at least 90% of games in relief.

Player ERA+ K/9 BB/9 IP From To Age
David Robertson 264 13.41 4.44 103.1 2011 2012 26-27
Jesse Crain 172 10.11 4.20 94.1 2011 2012 29-30
Aroldis Chapman 168 14.85 4.77 103.2 2011 2012 23-24
Jonny Venters 160 10.50 4.50 126.0 2011 2012 26-27
Ernesto Frieri 151 12.42 5.00 108.0 2011 2012 25-26
Antonio Bastardo 106 11.45 4.48 94.1 2011 2012 25-26
Carlos Marmol 93 11.88 6.65 108.1 2011 2012 28-29
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 8/10/2012.

When it comes to relievers, strikeouts are king. This is for many reasons: good or bad fortune on balls in play (mostly random) has a much greater impact in the eighth inning than it would in the first; a reliever only goes through the lineup once, so he can use his entire arsenal at max effort as opposed to starters who may hold back a pitch or two early and not throw their fastballs as fast as they typically could; and high-strikeout pitchers in general induce weaker contact, leading to a lower BABIP and fewer home runs.

That is why it is foolish to give up on Bastardo so early, and especially right now. His results, which include the impact of bad luck, bad defense, park factors, etc. as well as the pitcher’s skill, don’t match up with his performances, or the factors that only Bastardo himself controls. He isn’t being victimized by right-handed hitters, showing an even platoon split over his career. His pitch selection (61 percent fastball, 36 percent slider) is in line with his normal usage, with neither pitch being meaningfully more victimized than the other. And he uses them in a typical fashion: fastball up, slider down.

As a percentage of batters faced, Bastardo’s strikeout and walk rates haven’t shifted much: just a 0.2 percent increase in strikeouts and a 1.5 percent increase in walks. His batted ball splits are typical. The most obvious flaw is Bastardo’s high walk rate, but as the above table indicates, it isn’t so high as to render him ineffective. There is certainly the possibility that the stats are missing something. For instance, he is noticeably better with the bases empty than with men on base, which could be mechanical, mental, or both. CSN Philly’s Corey Seidman suggests Bastardo’s struggles can be traced to a lack of first-pitch strikes. But in the big picture, Bastardo is the same pitcher in 2012 that he was last year, just with wildly disparate results not unlike Cole Hamels in 2008 and ’09. Bottalico’s call to give up on Bastardo is not only premature, it is quite foolish as well. Bastardo is only 26 years old with plenty of time to make adjustments and blossom into a reliever worthy of the call in high-leverage situations.

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