Now that Bobby Jenks has passed his physical and has officially joined the revamped Red Sox bullpen, there is something I want to get off my chest. This is directed to all those unequivocally anointing Daniel Bard as the closer-to-be in the event Jonathan Papelbon is traded. You may very well be right, but it is not due to the reasons most often cited. Simply put, Bard is not a better pitcher than Jenks, and an argument can be offered that he is not that much, if at all better than Dan Wheeler, either.
While talking about how a pitcher’s performance is due to good or bad luck has become cliché if not trite, in this instance, it is quite apropos. It is necessary to realize that in the small sample of innings a reliever throws each season; it does not take much to skew the surface stats such as ERA and WHIP. It is much better to analyze the skills, and look for an anomaly in one of the luck-based stats.
Last season, Jenks sported a rather unsightly ERA of 4.44. But he had outstanding K/9 of 10.4 and a very respectable BB/9 of 3.1. His HR/9 of 5.1 was also quite good. So what led to so many runners crossing the plate? His BABIP was a whopping .368, well above league norm. And the fact is, most often this is more due to bad luck than bad pitching. This is especially likely in light of his other outstanding peripherals. For those wanting to suggest 2010 was the second consecutive down year for Jenks, in 2009, his strikeout and walk rates were well above average and his BABIP was as expected. However, his HR/9 was a bloated 1.5, suggesting some misfortune on the percentage of fly balls allowed that cleared the fence. And since this rate dropped considerably this past season, that points to bad luck. All it will take for Jenks to return to dominance is if his BABIP also regresses while everything else stays the same.
Looking at Bard, the opposite can be seen with respect to BABIP. His BABIP was a very fortunate .225. And while an argument can be made that relievers seem to have a measure of ability to control their BABIP, Bard’s was so extremely low that he was the beneficiary of Lady Luck. This is not to say he is not a fine pitcher, as evidenced by his K/9 of 9.2, though his BB/9 of 3.6 needs to come down to compensate for his correcting hit rate. Comparing Jenks to Bard, the former White Sox closer has the superior strikeout and walk rates, hence the initial contention that Bard is presently not better than Jenks.
Quickly looking at Wheeler, historically, his K/9 is not as strong as his new bullpen mates, but he walks significantly fewer hitters. Wheeler’s Achilles Heel has always been gopheritis. Believe it or not, it is harder to hit a homer in Fenway than The Trop, so if deployed properly as a righty specialist, Wheeler’s HR/9 could drop a tick.
Obviously, the part being omitted is Bard is going to improve while Jenks has likely peaked and is likely heading for a decline. So sure, long term, Bard is the better option to take over for Papelbon when he exits. It is just not a no-brainer that Bard will get the gig immediately if Theo Epstein manages to find a taker for his volatile closer before he lets him walk after the 2011 season.