Here's the deal, I like me some Grant Balfour. He's firey. He's Australian. He's a feel good story -- an unwanted 29-year-old journeyman reliever turned All-Star closer. And, perhaps most importantly, he's a key figure in Rays history:
But the bad news: He had an awful 2014. He had 62.1 IP with a 4.91 ERA and a 3.95 FIP. The FIP doesn't look so bad, but getting a 135 ERA- and a 105 FIP- from a guy signed for his recent mid-60s ERA- and 80s-ish FIP- is unacceptable.
Sadly, I'm not sure the bad year was much more than aging.
And aging -- presently -- is irreversible. It's degenerative. It's the Big Downslope. It's when a body gets weaker, but it's also the cumulative sum of all the thousands and thousands of aches, pains, and injuries in an athlete's career.
Took a gander at Balfour's dipping fastball speed:
Of course, if we looked at just 2010 through 2012, we might think: "Oh, look, his fastball is getting even fast!" But when we take the dataset as a whole, we see a general downslope towards the expected.
Relievers don't throw harder as they age. The best relievers find ways to work with less velocity. The great Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman was specifically excellent despite a mid-80s fastball. He pitched dominantly until he was 42, and then awfully for one final season. Mariano Rivera was throwing in the mid-90s at the beginning of his career, but ended -- successfully -- while throwing only 91.9 mph.
The issue is finding success with a changing ability level. Grant Balfour never found a consistent degree of success in 2014. But in 2013, he had several periods where he was near untouchable:
Is it possible that much really changed in Balfour's body that he would have lost not only a good deal of speed on his fastball, but also the ability to deceive hitters? Well, it's important to remember the Rays weren't the first team to come to terms with Balfour after the 2013 season. The Orioles were on track to sign Balfour when they decided his knee and wrist were too scary to put $15MM on.
Balfour never went to the DL in 2014, and he managed to play in 65 games -- his same total from 2013. But his results weren't there. The Orioles might have rightly detected areas of concern, whether injury or aging related. All we know is that Balfour is in Tampa Bay this season and is getting paid $7MM. What can we hope to see from him?
ZiPS foresees a 3.49 ERA, and Steamer (which tends to be the best projection system for pitchers) expects a 3.87 ERA. According to ZiPS, Balfour will be the 5th best regular reliever for the Rays in 2015. Steamer says he will be the 8th best, assuming we count Nate Karns as a starter (and he probably will be). Take out an injured Jake McGee and the likely LOOGY-types Jeff Beliveau and Adam Liberatore. Then Balfour is No. 3 in ZiPS and No. 6 in Steamer.
Grant Balfour is likely to get meaningful innings this year. Because manager Kevin Cash is not naming a closer -- at least in the absence of McGee -- Balfour should get a few game enders under his belt. That said, Brad Boxberger has been an absolute revelation since the Rays acquired him for Alex Torres and co. So don't be surprised to see stuff like this:
#Rays Cash says they are "not going to name a closer" and will use several pitchers; I still would think Boxberger is top choice— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) March 30, 2015
Atta boy pic.twitter.com/ZnmQwkuzt8— DRaysBay (@draysbay) March 30, 2015
Boxberger is the name whispered with baited breath. Balfour, the $7MM closer, is low on the totem pole and expectations are tempered.
He, Baflour, has looked fine this spring, striking out 2 and walking 1 through 3.0 innings. But that's about as useful to know as something like: Balfour drives his truck with confidence and certainty. Those two bits of information have about equal forecasting power with regards to Balfour's 2015 season.
Perhaps more pertinent is that Grant missed a good chunk of Spring Training.
Grant Balfour had a rough year in 2014, and that extended beyond the mound as his father was dying of cancer in Australia. Life is life -- it can get messy and awful, and you have to wonder how his father's illness might have impacted that bad stuff in 2014. That doesn't necessarily explain a slowing fastball, but it certainly gives context to an otherwise cold analysis. Above all else, Grant Balfour is human.
A rough life situation can affect off-season workouts, training schedules, or eating and drinking habits. But like Spring Training stats, our estimations of Balfour's personal life are far more noise than signal. So unfortunately, we have to assume away a lot of the "real" stuff and stick with the data we have.
Like this other element to Balfour's spring: He has also been playing with some two-seam fastballs. This could be an interesting wrinkle, namely because Balfour is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and the two-seamer is a groundball pitch. But like most Spring Training stories, this likely amounts to very little. Most, if not all, pitchers toy with their repertoire in Spring Training.
So where are we on Grant Balfour? Where to we land? What do we expect?
I expect Balfour will have a decent year, maybe an ERA close to league average. Maybe his fastball will rebound a little bit, and maybe he'll save a few games. I think he'll blow a few saves too, though, and by the end of the season, he'll be our expensive, yet mostly effective middle reliever.
But I'd like to end with what I hope. I hope he dominates. I hope 2014 looks like a blip in an otherwise stellar career. I hope he doesn't just close a few games, but that he pitches so well that Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee become the game's best 7th-8th inning duo. I hope Balfour does the memory of his father proud two times over, and he closes 40+ games for the Rays and makes every game three outs shorter.
And I hope 2014 wasn't just the beginning of the end -- like last year with Heath Bell, or Troy Percival and Al Reyes before him. I hope 2015 is just the beginning of a second career renaissance. And I hope Balfour will get back up there and tell some hitters where and how to sit down.