Who Are You: Joaquin Benoit
This post is part of a weekly series which will run each Thursday. Over the next several weeks, I’ll take a deep dive look at new members of the Phillies roster. We’re just a couple months away from settling down to watch these guys day-in and day-out for half a year, so let’s try to find out who they are and what to expect from them in 2017.
Joaquin Benoit – RHP
Born: 7/26/1977 – entering age-39 season
Height: 6’4” Weight: 250 lb.
2016: 48 IP, 3.90 ERA, 25.5 K%, 11.8 BB%, 150 ERA+
MLB Career: 1018.1 IP, 3.79 ERA, 23.6 K%, 9.7 BB%, 117 ERA+
Contract Status: Signed to one-year, $7.5 million contract
Joaquin Benoit is a well-traveled veteran reliever who, when he takes the mound for the Phillies this spring, will have suited up for his seventh MLB team in his 15-year career. Don’t let those seven team changes convince you that Benoit is a middling reliever unable to hold down a job, though. The reality is quite the opposite in fact. Over the last seven years he has been one of the 10 best relievers in baseball. He doesn’t get the credit or have the name recognition the other stud relievers possess because he has rarely served as a closer. But what he does–working as a seventh- and eight-inning set-up man–he does extremely well.
Now, nothing is set in stone for a pitcher, even a reliever, nearing his fourth full decade roaming the earth. But Benoit gives very few reasons to worry about his performance. So, where’s Benoit been for the last 15 years?
The 6’4” Dominican right-hander signed with the Rangers at the age of 18 in 1996 and didn’t truly break into the bigs until his sixth season with Texas. That extended stay in the minors is likely due to management’s inability to crack the Benoit-enigma, something they still would not accomplish for three more MLB seasons after his call-up. It took those three major league seasons as a starter, when he could not break the 5.00-ERA mark, for the Rangers to transition their former top-10 prospect into a reliever.
In 2005 the Rangers moved him to the bullpen where he began the season with a 0.69 ERA in his first 11 appearances. Having gained some confidence that their 27-year-old pitcher could get outs, they gave him one last shot in the rotation. He made nine starts posting a 5.69 ERA, striking out 36 hitters and walking 20; They would be the last games Benoit would start in his career. It took 55 starts, but the Rangers finally cracked the code: Benoit was no starter, he was a shutdown reliever.
He spent the remainder of that season and the following three in the Rangers bullpen, posting a 3.97 ERA and allowing a .221/.314/.339 slashline. The slashline looks a bit high for the near-four ERA, but his 3.62 FIP suggests he may have gotten a tad unlucky. What he did establish in that time, however, was a 24.1 K% and 11.3 BB% that have remained very similar throughout his career (25.5 K% and 11.8 BB%).
Benoit missed the 2009 season after undergoing rotator cuff surgery and 2008 wound up being his last in Texas. The Tampa Bay Rays took a flyer on Benoit and signed him to a minor league contract and extended him a spring training invite for 2010. His season with the Rays was the best of his career and sparked his dominance as a reliever for the next seven seasons leading up to his signing in Philadelphia this offseason.
Benoit posted the best WHIP (0.68) in baseball and held hitters to a paltry .146 batting average (second-best in the majors) that season as the set-up man behind Rafael Soriano. Only Hung-Chih Kuo had a better ERA than Benoit’s 1.34, a career low for him that still stands to this day. That low opponent average was made possible by a league-low .192 BABIP. (We’ve typically come to think of BABIP as a luck indicator, something that will even out over time in most cases. Keep this in mind for when I dig into his current profile in the following section.) That 2010 season, fresh off shoulder surgery, also saw Benoit post his best strikeout-inducing and walk-avoiding numbers of his 15 years in the bigs. His 29.5 K-BB%, a metric that measures the difference between a strikeout-rate and walk-rate (which is ideally as high as possible) was third-highest for any pitcher.
Benoit then signed a three-year contract with Detroit after his breakout season in Tampa. While he technically “didn’t live up to expectations,” it’s quite a privilege to have a reliever “underperform” with a 2.89 ERA over 199 innings in relief. Just as the Rangers tested Benoit as a starter, the Tigers tried Benoit’s hand as closer sparingly in 2011 and 2012. He blew nine of his 13 save opportunities those two years. But with a declining Jose Valverde, the Tigers moved Benoit to the full-time closer in 2013 despite his recent struggles in the ninth inning. He converted 24 of 26 saves that year after blowing nine of 13 in two years prior, with a 1.73 ERA in save situations and a 3:1 K:BB ratio.
He quietly spent 2014-15 in San Diego posting his second- and fourth-best ERA+ seasons. His 1.96 ERA in those two seasons ranked eighth in the majors for a reliever, just 16 points worse than Aroldis Chapman and 19 points lower than Zach Britton. After 2015, he was traded to the Mariners where he posted one of, if not the worst half-season of his career. He was promptly sent to Toronto for Drew Storen and cash where he quickly righted the ship with a 0.38 ERA in 23.2 innings, nearly five runs lower than his 5.18 ERA in 24.1 innings in Seattle.
As I said in regards to his 2010 breakout season, Benoit’s low BABIP (teamed with a low walk percentage) was a huge factor in his ability to keep runners off the bases and runs off the board. While this is something you may expect to stabilize over time, Benoit’s batted ball profile proves that this is no fluke.
While many relievers now rely on inducing high groundball rates–think Britton or Brad Ziegler–Benoit specializes in getting fly balls. Lots and lots of fly balls.
Here is every year Benoit has pitched in the majors: 2002-2016
Here is every year he produced above league-average fly ball rates: 2002-2016
His average season sees him force nearly nine percent more fly balls than the average pitcher. And, just as importantly, he is great at minimizing risk on fly balls that could otherwise go for extra bases or become fan’s souvenirs. He’s been league-average or better both in inducing infield fly balls (IFFB%) and keeping them in the yard (HR/FB%) in 11 of his 14 full seasons (his first season was a lone start in 2001).
And in the case of line drives that are commonly detrimental to run prevention, he has only been worse than league average twice and never since 2007.
Attempting to color code the below chart is difficult as there are conflicting preconceptions about whether or not it is inherently good/bad to be above/below average in allowing different batted ball types. For our purposes, green is anything above average and red is below average. Try not to think of them as “good” or “bad.”
These tendencies are a good marker for what makes Benoit so effective: lots of fly balls, whose run-scoring potential he negates with lots of infield pop ups and few home runs, and few line drives.
While a fly ball heavy pitcher entering Citizens Bank Park isn’t the most comfortable idea to entertain, I don’t think it is cause for panic. Benoit is, after all, likely a one-year plug with a phenomenal track record bringing much-needed stability to the bullpen.
Beginning with his 2010 season with Tampa when he introduced himself as a seriously effective relief candidate, Benoit has found himself in some highly esteemed company.
The following are Benoit’s ERA+ figures for each season since 2010 (again, 100 is league average, higher is better):
In that same time frame, his WHIP has never risen above 1.271:
And only six relievers, besides Benoit, have struck out at least 24 percent of all batters they faced in each of the last seven years:
So to recap, the full list of relievers who have had a 116 ERA+ or better, a strikeout-rate of 24 percent or better and a sub-1.271 WHIP in each of the last seven seasons is Craig Kimbrel in 401.1 innings, Kenley Jansen in 408.2 innings, Koji Uehara in 371 innings and Joaquin Benoit in 427 innings. Yes, those are relatively arbitrary figures based on Benoit’s “worst” seasons in that span, but they tell the story of highly effective reliever who not only has comparable statistics to those relief studs, but has done so with a slightly higher workload. To the extent that the term “workhorse” is used to describe relievers, which is almost never, Benoit fits the bill.
While his 2016 second-half is by no means trivial (it showed his first-half skid was likely no more than a blip on the radar), it’s always fun to see absurd, four-digit marks in stats normalized to league average like ERA+. In that second half with Toronto, Benoit’s ERA+ was 1146…one thousand one hundred and forty-six. In terms of good ol’ fashioned ERA, his 0.38 ERA in that span (minimum 16 IP) was higher than only Britton’s 0.37.
It’s rare that a pitcher with Benoit’s shutdown ability has stayed clear of the closer role for almost his entire career. He seems particularly well suited for seventh and eight innings and could even threaten for the closer role in Philadelphia. I don’t think that’s likely however. I think, especially given Mackanin’s insistence that the job is Gomez’s to lose, skip won’t see much benefit in depriving Gomez or Hector Neris from gaining valuable ninth-inning experience.
Benoit isn’t Kimbrel and he’s not Jansen, but his inclusion in the top tier of the game’s relievers can not and should not be scoffed at just because he doesn’t pitch the ninth. As we learned this offseason (and as many sabermetricians have been postulating for years), the highest leverage scenarios rarely do come in the game’s final frame. Having Benoit and Pat Neshek (last week’s Who Are You subject) bolster the Phillies pen has strengthened it beyond what it was last season. Benoit is a talent, plain and simple. Yes he’s in his age-39 season, but there are no indications that his fastball-slider-changeup combo will give out this season. And even if it were to fail him, he’s been so good that even a significant decline looks to leave him above league average.
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