Monday, November 26, 2012

Contemplating Josh Roenicke

The Twins come out of the Thanksgiving weekend having accomplished little of their offseason shopping -- which is hardly unusual or worrisome. (It is quite unlikely that the status will remain quo coming out of the Christmas/New Years period; if it is, that will be worrisome.)

One move they have made, which flew rather under the radar, was the waiver-wire pickup earlier this month of Josh Roenicke, a move which seems increasingly curious to me.

Roenicke comes to the Twins off a 2012 season with two significant positives, at least on the surface:

  • He led the major leagues in relief innings (88.2);
  • He had an ERA of 3.25, which is even more impressive given that he was pitching his home games in Coors Field.

I speculated at the time that the Rockies waived Roenicke rather than pay him at the arbitration rate after this breakout season, but he's not arbitration eligible. He's 30, he's out of options, but he's still cheap.

So why did the Rox dump him? For that matter, why did everybody in the National League pass on him when he was waived? And how does he fit into the Twins scheme?

It's probably fair to say that the Rockies (and the rest of the National League) doubt that the ERA is an accurate assessment of Roenicke's talent and skill. He had a poor strikeout to walk rate and a below-average strikeout rate; those are better predictors of future ERAs than ERA itself.

Then there's the Coors Field problem. There's only one thing more difficult than having a good year pitching for the Rockies, and that's having a second. Pick through the two decades or so of the Colorado franchise's records, and you'll find that their few effective pitchers had very short runs of effectiveness, frequently due to injury.

I think the issue of recovery time in the lower-oxygen environment of Denver is part of the problem. To pitch in the major leagues is to damage the arm; to pitch at altitude is to damage the arm with less ability to recover. Eighty-eight innings of relief, as pitchers are used nowadays, is a lot; only five pitchers in the majors threw 80 relief innings last season.

The Rockies may well have figured of Roenicke: He's not as good as his ERA, and he's a good candidate to break down; let's not count on him for 2013. So they waived him to create space on their 40-man roster, and when the Twins claimed him, they figured they weren't losing much.

As for all those innings: Two of the five 80-inning relievers were Rockies, and a third Colorado bullpenner had 79. This stems from an experiment the Rox tried last summer: A four-man starting rotation with a low pitch count limit (75). Roenicke was one of three "piggyback" relievers used to get through the middle innings. This makes Roenicke's workload appear a bit less impressive -- he wasn't pitching so many innings because he was so effective, he was pitching them because it was his turn.

Which brings us to the question of how he fits in the Twins bullpen, which is run more conventionally than Colorado's was last year. Assuming everybody's healthy and at 2012 effectiveness -- never a particularly likely assumption with relief arms, but we have to start somewhere -- Roenicke has to rank under Jared Burton and Casey Fien in the pecking order of right-handed relievers. He's competing for a a role with the likes of Alex Burnett (who also had an ERA that was better than his walk and strikeout rates should support); fellow newcomer Tim Wood; and long man Anthony Swarzak. Odds are that of those six, at least one will have some sort of injury issue this spring.

Roenicke might also be seen as an alternative to LOOGY candidates Tyler Robertson and Caleb Thielbar. Roenicke was notably more effective against lefties than righties in 2012; one should be wary of assigning significance to one season of platoon splits for a reliever, but if he actually does have a pitch that gives lefties fits, all the better.

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