Lost in the black cloud over the team recently, and lurking behind the shadow of Rafael Soriano's swagger, Joaquin Benoit has quietly been one of the best non-closing relief pitchers in the American League. When you consider he was a non-roster invitee coming off major arm surgery, the term Friedman'd comes to mind.
Around these parts, we've been championing Benoit since the very first day of the offseason. However, as the leader of the Benoit revolution, even I didn't expect him to be this good. Despite the sample size being just 21 innings of work, the right-hander is putting in his best work to date.
First, we have the strikeouts. For his career, Benoit has struck out nearly a batter per nine innings with a K/9 of 8.36. With the Rays, he has struck out 31 batters in 21 innings - which gives him a robust K/9 of 13.29. A large part of this is swinging strikes. Benoit has always had swing and miss stuff - as evident in his career swinging strike percentage of 11.5%. Meanwhile, this season he has been in Stephen Strasburg territory with a whiff rate of 16.4%.
Behind the success of Benoit 2.0 are a blazing mid 90s fastball, and an elusive pair of secondary offerings. One of the main concerns about Benoit coming off major arm surgery was velocity. Prior to his surgery, Benoit would routinely throw around 92 mph. Thus far, he is average nearly 94 mph on his fastball - 93.7 to be exact. In addition to his heater, Benoit throws a devastating change-up around 83 mph as well as a mid 80s slider. Both pitches have induced a whiff more than 25% of the time in 2010.
In addition to the strikeouts, Benoit has cut down the amount of balls on bases allowed. He has handed out just four walks, and his walks per nine innings of 1.71 is currently a career best (4.20 BB/9 career) as well. The one area where Benoit is near career levels is home runs allowed.
Beyond the gaudy stats, the 32 year-old righty had filled in marvelously for the injured J.P. Howell. Nobody thought one man would be able to fill the void left by Howell, but Benoit has done a more than admirable job. He has faced nearly as many lefties (31) as righties (41) and has held both to an OPS against below .377. Yes, an OPS against below .377.
All is fine and dandy in Benoitland right now. On the other hand, there is plenty of room for regression. That said, it may not be as exaggerated as one might think. Benoit's current batting average on ball in play (BABIP) of .175 is ridiculously low. His career number is .295. He has also stranded every base runner he has allowed. Neither are likely to be sustained over the course of a larger sample size; however, we have seen some one-year wonders at the middle-relief position recently. Some good examples would be Grant Balfour's 2008 and Michael Wuertz in 2009.
When researching Benoit for the initial post on DRB, a former scout told us "bullpen guys are fluky to begin with" and "you can get lucky and catch them in that special year." Looks like not everything has been unlucky this year.