Friday, February 6, 2009

Guerrier Battles On

Yesterday, the Twins announced that they had come to terms with reliever Matt Guerrier on a 1-year, $1.475 million contract for 2009, the mid-point between their respective arbitration figures. Must be nice to get a 50% raise following your worst-ever year on the job. However, the good things in Guerrier's recent past suggest that he'll be well worth the investment.

The main theory behind why Guerrier was suddenly so bad at the end of last season has to with his overuse after Pat Neshek was hurt in early May. There is some truth in that, but I would argue that Guerrier's overuse had as much to do with him as his manager, and that there was nothing sudden about his poor performance in August.

First off, the usage. While Guerrier was called upon to pitch in numerous high-leverage situations last year, it wasn't the first time he'd been asked to do that. In 2007, he set career highs in appearances (73) and IP (88.0), along with his best ever K/9 and BB/9. That strong performance earned him a promotion from long-relief to the 7th inning role by mid-season. After Neshek's innings were limited over the final 2 months of that season, Guerrier assumed the role of primary setup man. While his numbers over those last 2 months declined as well - he allowed 6 of his 9 HR and 11 of his 23 ER in August and September - the decline was back toward his career norms, with a 3.58 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. That still left him with a season ERA of 2.35 and WHIP of 1.05, thanks to the improved K/BB numbers and an abnormally low .271 BABIP. That was not likely to be repeated in 2008, and it sure wasn't.

Guerrier was typically used 12-13 times a month in 2007, and that trend continued in 2008 - the only time he exceeded that was with the 15 appearances he made in May, but 3 of those were only to face 1 batter - something he did only once at any other time in the season. So, while he was certainly busy in 2008 (among the top 20 relievers in MLB in G and IP), he wasn't much more so than he was in 2007 when he was superb. In fact, the 344 batters Guerrier faced in 2008 were 7 fewer than he faced the previous year.

By the beginning of August last year, just before things went to crap for him, Guerrier had made 51 appearances (4 more than 2007) but had thrown 57.1 IP (4 fewer than 2007). The trouble was inefficiency: he needed 924 pitches to complete those 57.1 IP, where he'd only needed 854 pitches to get through his first 61.1 IP in 2007. Over the course of the season, Guerrier threw about 2 more pitches per inning than he had in 2005 & 2006, and 2.6 more pitches per inning than in his stellar 2007. And those 2 extra pitches were almost always balls.

I looked back over my archives to see if I could find any references to support my impression that Guerrier had been wild from the get-go last year. Sure enough, from the first week of the season I was mentioning that he needed to start throwing more strikes or he was going to get hurt. His career K/BB ratio had been a little better than 2/1 entering the season, but other than July, he never came close to that. 9 of his BB were intentional, but a lot of those were the result of trouble he'd gotten himself into. Throw in the inevitable rise in BABIP (up to .331) and you've got yourself a ton of baserunners.

So what happened in the last 2 months? Well, in 2007, Guerrier gave up 6 of his 9 HR, 11 of his 23 ER and 6 of his 21 BB after he'd reached the 900 pitch mark for the season. Last year he arrived at 900 pitches on July 29, and from there his ERA ballooned from 3.23 to its final mark of 5.19. 7 of his 12 HR and 24 of his 44 ER allowed came after that point, and his K/BB ratio was 15/14. Surely, there was some physical fatigue. There was probably also some mental fatigue from having to constantly pitch from behind in the count to escape jams in high-pressure situations. And I imagine scouting reports were adjusted, preparing opposing hitters to take a few pitches and work the count rather than try to hit the first strike they saw. Eventually, Guerrier's spiral must have fed itself: I knew he was going to get torched every time he went out there, and he probably knew it, too.

Tired arm, tired mind, patient hitters, timid pitching. A perfect storm of negative factors - some of his own making - that led to disastrous results. The Twins went 6-19 in games in which Guerrier allowed a run, including 3-10 over the final 2 months of the season. Needless to say, had he been the pitcher he was from 2005-2007, the Twins would have won the division.

Luckily, things are apt to be much better for Guerrier in 2009. First of all, his BABIP will probably swing back towards where it was after 2006 (.314). That will be especially likely if he regains the strike-throwing form he had prior to 2008 - something which is very much within his control. And the Twins' professed interest in acquiring setup help this offseason implies that Guerrier is no longer expected to fill that role. That should enable him to be used less often and in lower-pressure situations. Given all that, there's reason to expect that Guerrier will once again be a reliable member of the bullpen in 2009.

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