Slower and Steady: Grant Balfour's Changes From 2008 to 2009.

Not as dominating as he was in 2008, Grant Balfour remains one of the better relief pitchers in the American League. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Much has been made of J.P. Howell's emergence as the 2009 Rays Bullpen Ace. However, lost in the shuffle is the 2008 bullpen ace, Grant Balfour. Much like Howell this year, Balfour was the Rays go to guy in the toughest situations last season. No, Balfour didn't lead the team in saves, but nobody saved the Rays collective ass more than he did. Whether he was a getting a tough out in the sixth or ninth inning of a game, or telling Orlando Cabrera STFD in the ALDS, when Balfour entered the game last year it was "chilled."

Even though I am a Balfour supporter, I'll admit 2008 did not get off to a good start. Nonetheless since then, Balfour has pitched pretty much to expectations. Anybody who expected a repeat of 2008's performance either doesn't understand regression or is related to Balfour. Grant did a lot of things well in '08, but he also was very lucky with a .233 BABIP. In the DRB's season preview, we said that Balfour will regress, but even with the expected regression he could still be an above average relief pitcher. Despite the perception of some readers and Willy Aybar being a butcher at second base, that is exactly what Balfour is.

After a horrible April, Balfour has lowered his FIP each month. Here are some numbers broken down month to month:

 Month

G

IP

ERA

FIP

K/9

BB/9

K/BB

April

10

7.1

6.14

4.41

8.59

9.82

0.88

May

13

15.2

5.17

3.49

8.62

4.02

2.14

June

11

12.1

2.92

2.96

9.49

2.92

3.25

July

9

9.0

4.00

2.60

8.00

4.00

2.00

As you can see even though Balfour had an ERA of over six in April, his FIP suggested he wasn't 6.14 ERA bad. What was terrible in that first month was his control. However, after walking eight batters in his first 7.1 innings (9.82 BB/9), Balfour has walked just 15 batters in his last 37 innings. His May-July BB/9 of 3.64 is actually better than his BB/9 of 3.70 in 2008. His walks are a bit up in July, but there still plenty of baseball left for him to lower that.

Many were concerned with the lack of velocity on Balfour's fastball early on. While it isn't back to the near 95 mph we saw consistently in 2008, Balfour's fastball is sitting at 93 which is in line with his pre 2008 seasons. Coupled with the loss in velocity, has come a loss of nearly three K's per nine innings. After leading the league with a K/9 of 12.65 in 2008, Balfour has settled down to nearly a strikeout per inning at 8.73 per nine.

Despite the loss in strikeouts, Balfour has picked up a new trick; getting groundballs. After getting less than 30% groundballs last season, Balfour is inducing 36.9% grounders in 2009. I'm sure this has a bit to do with the increase in sliders he has thrown, but that's later in the article. No, he's not Chad Bradford, but anytime you can up your groundball output by nearly 8% while reducing your fly balls by more than the same amount that is a good thing. Less fly balls equal less home runs and that has been true for Balfour. His HR/9 of 0.41 is slightly better than last year's 0.46, and ranks fifth best in the AL amongst relievers with at least 40 innings pitched.

Another concern many people had with Balfour coming into the season was his fastball usage. He used the ol' heater 91.3% of the time last year and rarely threw his slider. However in 2009, his fastball usage is around 80% for the season and he is throwing his slider more and more as we go along. Here is the usage breakdown by month

 Month

FB%

SL%

CB%

CH%

April

88

8.0

3.3

0.7

May

82.3

10.5

5.7

1.2

June

76.7

17.3

5.0

1.0

July

75.5

22.5

2.0

N/A

In conclusion, Grant Balfour has not been as good as he was in 2008, but he didn't need to be. His 3.32 FIP is 13th best in the AL for relief pitchers with 30+ innings. That is better than Jonathan Papelbon, Justin Masterson, Bobby Jenks, Rafael Betancourt and George Sherrill. While Howell has assumed the role of relief ace, Balfour has continued the role of really good relief pitcher. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Seth McClung continues the role of...well...Seth McClung.

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