Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 4, 2005
BASEBALL: Lightenberg For A Song
With today's bullpen implosion, perhaps the first of many (although I wouldn't have expected Looper to be the culprit), I thought it might be worthwhile to wrap up a post I'd started and not finished this morning . . . I was very disappointed to see the Blue Jays release Kerry Ligtenberg last week. We hear a lot of talk among analysts about how important it is to get decent relief pitchers for a song these days. Well, the Jays are eating Ligtenberg's $2.5 million contract; anybody else can have him for the league minimum. A team like the Mets, desperate to shore up their bullpen, ought to jump on Ligtenberg with both feet.
Entering last season, Ligtenberg was one of baseball's more reliable relievers, with a 3.06 career ERA since 1997 and four straight years of 52 or more appearances since missing 1999 to injury. Let's look at Ligtenberg's core performance numbers last season, compared to his career:
UIBB/9 is unintentional walks/9 IP. As you can easily see, Ligtenberg was basically the same pitcher as ever last season, notching a slightly lower strikeout rate but otherwise doing all the same old things. So why did he get the boot? Well, you know where this is going: balls in play. It wasn't that the balls in play against him were hit particularly hard; according to the Hardball Times, Ligtenberg's LD% - the percent of balls in play that were line drives - was .152 compared to an AL average of .177. His Fielding Independent Pitching ERA was 4.39, and his DIPS ERA was 3.77.
So how did Ligtenberg end up with a 6.38 ERA and a pink slip? Four things:
*A rough calculation indicates that the batting average on balls in play against Ligtenberg shot up from .284 to .386 (I'd use the more sophisticated comparisons done by Jay Jaffe and the Hardball Times guys, but I needed to be able to compare to the 1997-2003 edition of Ligtenberg). That could easily be bad luck and bad defense at work, and it goes a long way to explaining why his H/9 jumped from 7.40 to 11.95.
*The percentage of balls in play against Ligtenberg going for doubles rose from 5.3% to 8.5%. That can also be partly explained by the Blue Jays' outfield defense, although it's possible that some of it is also Ligtenberg getting hit harder. Still, you don't expect to see a guy getting smacked for a lot more doubles if he's surrendering the same old number of fly balls and home runs and has a good record allowing line drives.
*The number of GIDP against Ligtenberg dropped from 1 per 43 at bats to 1 per 189 at bats. This may well be attributable to the defense, in combination with a slightly elevated number of stolen bases.
*His rate of intentional walks doubled, from 0.61/9 IP to 1.15/9 IP. As I've noted before, intentional walks tend to be an occupational hazard of middle relief work, and Ligtenberg got stuck with an awful lot of them last season. The intentional passes were solely responsible for the rise in his walk rate, and it's not his fault.
Anyway, even if you accept that Ligtenberg was somewhat responsible for his poor performance last season, there was a reason:
Health-wise, Ligtenberg says there's no lingering effects from the inflammation in his left hip that pretty much crippled his season last year when he was 1-6 with a 6.38 ERA.
Of course, he's going to say that. And maybe he'll have another rotten year this year, or have injury troubles, if someone gives him a shot. But I wouldn't be even mildly surprised if he threw 60 appearances with an ERA around 3.00. Wouldn't you rather see him do that for the Mets than for the Braves?