Joaquin Benoit: Evolution of a Reliever

MLB: ALDS-Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees

This post will make no further reference to Joaquin Benoit being the Tigers’ closer. I don’t believe in the closer myth and would rather run the bullpen much differently. That said, good relief pitching is important and having and using good relievers is essential to success. One of the key cogs in the current Tigers bullpen, Benoit, is having a great season and deserves some credit.

Let’s start with some particulars from 2013. He’s thrown 47 IP with a 1.53 ERA, 2.15 FIP, and 1.5 WAR. Those three marks are 9th, 14th, and 15th among qualified MLB relievers this year. By our own reliever stat, SOEFA, he ranks 7th among pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched. By all accounts, he’s having a great year and you know he’s had great years in the past.

This isn’t a particularly groundbreaking analysis piece, but rather more a recognition that Benoit was become a very good reliever and has been good for a pretty long time. Let’s start from 2006 when he became a full time relief pitcher and work forward. And let’s start with ERA, FIP (what’s FIP?), and xFIP (what’s xFIP?) and lets park adjust them because he’s played in a few different stadiums that are somewhat extreme. These numbers are easy to understand. 100 is league average during each season and a point below or above is a percent better or worse than average. The lower the better, just like ERA. Note that he missed 2009 with an injury:

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You can see he’s been above average for the most part in his entire relief career. 2010 was his golden season, but 2013 is pretty darn close. For a reliever, strikeouts and walks are key and he’s made some nice gains over time:

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2008 is obviously the outlier, probably due to the coming injury, but overall the BB rate came down in a big way compared to before the injury and the strikeout rate has steadily risen. He’s cut his HR rate quite a bit this year, but that’s mostly a fluky small sample thing which will regress up a bit, but not so much that it will dramatically shift the results. Across the board, there aren’t a ton of other underlying numbers that have my attention except for the one that’s about to come.

Something I noticed in Jose Veras when the Tigers traded for him was that he’s getting ahead of hitters with first pitch strikes. Benoit is working the zone early too:

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Since the rotator cuff injury, he has gotten better. Some of that might be maturity and between his ears, but some could be a health factor. Benoit has taken a step forward as he’s aged despite most relievers having a short shelf life. The ability to throw strikes is critical to a reliever’s success and Benoit is getting better at it early in counts. He’s not hitting the zone more, he’s just doing it earlier. That’s  very valuable thing. His velocity improved after the injury, but it’s been constant since. I’m interested in the movement. The top charts (H/T FanGraphs) are 2008 and the bottom are 2013:

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You can see more consistency and separation in his pitches. He’s better. More first pitch strikes, more consistent pitches, more strikeouts, fewer walks, and better overall results. Benoit’s been a very good reliever for what’s going on quite a few seasons. In over 400 MLB innings since the start of 2006, he has an ERA- of 73 and FIP- of 77.

And he’s heading onto the open market next season with the shine of a big season. He’s done that before and it paid him nicely.

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