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Is Ernesto Frieri worthwhile in high leverage?

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Brian Blanco/Getty Images

With ten men on the disabled list, the Rays have reached their limit on the depth chart, but this weekend they took it even further by releasing Grant Balfour.

The former Rays closer is in the twilight of his career, and deserves much admiration as the second-most used reliever in Tampa Bay history. He has had some incredible moments, and stands as an Australian Hall-of-Famer.

And now the cash-strapped Rays are willing to pay out the rest of his $7M owed for Balfour to leave the team.

That is how bad the bullpen has become.

The Depth Chart

Including two relievers on the disabled list, here is the full depth chart for the current Rays bullpen. How many names do you have faith in from this list?

Jake McGee (L) - DL
Brad Boxberger
Kevin Jepsen
Ernesto Frieri
Steve Geltz
Jeff Beliveau (L) - DL
Erasmo Ramirez
Kirby Yates
Jose Dominguez
C.J. Riefenhauser (L)
Brandon Gomes

Honestly, my answer is only the top three names, and of course, that includes the rehabbing Jake McGee. He is slated for a return somewhere around May 1st, but that is late in the AL East showdown that carries through this month and into the first week of May. He's needed now, the rotation is in shambles, but McGee is not on the other end of that phone.

Instead, the Rays must trot out a combination of the men above on every fifth starter's day, and that has yet to earn a win for the 6-7 Rays.

If the Rays cannot have Jake McGee, they are fortunate to have Brad Boxberger (acquired with Logan Forsythe among others for Jesse Hahn and Alex Torres), and Kevin Jepsen (acquired for Matt Joyce). Using rule-of-thumb, they have combined for half a win this month, over 11.1 innings and only three earned runs.

Boxberger has allowed some bases in his six games, including four hits and three walks, but that is balanced by eight strikeouts. He has been credited with four saves and one loss. Jepsen, meanwhile, has been assigned one save and three holds. These two have been effective in limited appearances, and over the season should provide the Rays with continued success.

I am not here to poke holes in their use.

Problems arise when we start to consider the continued use of the ilk who were supposed to be high leverage along with them. The first was Grant Balfour, and he is dearly departed.

The other is Ernesto Frieri, who chose the Rays early in the off-season for the opportunity to work with Jim Hickey and fix his approach.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement - USA Today

Ernesto Frieri

To start, here is what Frieri looked like in peak form, using a clip from an appearance at the Trop in 2013:

Last season, when things went awry, his stride went diagonal and his arm slot began to raise, observations made well by R.J. Anderson over at The Process Report.

In the above GIF, you can see that while Frieri's delivery has a lot of movement toward the third base side of the mound, it is still a stride forward. Hickey seems to have brought the forward stride back into his delivery.

Through the Spring it seemed like Frieri struggled with the release point, often losing his posture as he tinkered. So to start the season, it seems the Rays have allowed him to continue with a high release point.

It seems like Frieri got away with one here. The pitch above should have been crushed, but he got it past Didi Gregorius in a game the Rays would ultimately lose anyway. I am grateful for the whiff, but it simply was not a product of deception, which Frieri benefited from in the past.

This is what R.J. refers to as "crossfire" - or the ability to make the hitter wait until the last moment to see the pitch. If anything, the simplified Frieri delivery is more traditional, and combined with less speed, it is consequentially less effective.

A fastball that is losing life and deception is not going to survive in high leverage situations simply because the Rays have increased the use of his change.

Through six games we have not gotten the strikeouts one would like to see, but he is stranding guys. The ERA is a 6.75, but he also has left 89.7% on base. He is topping out at 94 with the fastball, which he managed on his 30th pitch in yesterday's game after sitting on the bench through the home half and then returning for one more out, but the average is a step down overall thus far:

FOURSEAM CHANGE SLIDER
Year Speed Use Speed Use Speed Use
2011 92.7 76% 84.5 1% - -
2012 94.8 85% - - 82.8 6%
2013 95.0 87% 87.5 2% - -
2014 94.8 79% 87.3 4% 82.9 16%
2015 92.6 52% 84.3 14% 82.0 32%

Early in the season, we throw our hands up and claim small sample size, because I am not sure what the way forward is with Frieri. He has had some poor results (five runs allowed in six appearances) and seems to still be experimenting with his pitch mix.

The sinker has made an appearance this season, the cutter and curve eliminated entirely, and the slider doubled in use. If hitters are reading the change, and if the fastball has lost its edge, things are not likely to improve for Frieri.

For now, we will have to see what the Rays try next the get him from point B (middle reliever) back to point A (high leverage).