Leveraging Todd Jones
Last week Dave Dombrowski indicated that the club would like to have Todd Jones back, but under the condition that he may be moved out of the closer’s role at some point during the season. Right now the ball is in Todd Jones court as he evaluates his options, and tries for a gig closer to his Alabama home. But is a set up role better for Jones than as the 9th inning man?
Not your typical closer
Jones doesn’t possess one trait that is common among closers, an ability to strike hitters out. In 2007 Todd Jones was dead last, by a considerable margin, among closers (or people who finished at least 35 games). His 4.84 was considerably behind David Weathers 5.56. What’s more is that there were 12 closers who’s K-rate was more than double that of Jones.
Still, Jones manages success because of other things he doesn’t do. His renaissance as a closer came in 2005 with the Florida Marlins when he simply stopped walking people. He only issued 25 free passes between 2005 and 2006 in over 130 innings. However in 2007 he struggled with his control, relatively speaking and issued 23 walks in 61.1 innings, and that put him in the bottom half of closers.
So with a bad strike out rate, and a not so good walk rate, he must have had sterling defense behind him right? Not so much. His batting average on balls in play was .299 which ranked in the bottom 3rd, or the top 3rd depending on your point of view, but it’s the bad 3rd regardless.
Look at these numbers, how did Jones manage to have blown save numbers comparable to Francisco Rodriguez and Bobby Jenks? He had 2 things working for him. The first is that he keeps the ball in the park. He only allowed only allowed 3 homers this year, and a slugging percentage of .371 meant that it would take several hits for Jones to blow a save.
Protecting the protector
Second, he was typically starting with the bases clean. He only inherited 7 runners all season (2 of which scored), only 6 other closers faced fewer. Only 4 times he was brought in to the middle of an inning. And of those 3 times there were already 2 outs and never did those runners on base represent the tying or winning runs. So while Jones was utilized to protect leads, he was protected in that role.
And that last point really gets to the crux of the Jones argument. Should he be the closer or a set up guy? I’ve been a supporter of Jones in the closer role for exactly this reason that due to a low strike out rate he works best in a situation where the next hit doesn’t spell doom. In 2006 Tigers fans watched Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney routinely come in and extinguish threats protecting narrow margins with runners on base. Truly facing those high leverage situations right? Wrong?
If you look at leverage index (LI is a measure of the crucial-ness of a situation), Todd Jones faced the highest leverage situations each of the last 2 years. If you’re like me your first inclination is to think “well duh, he pitched himself into those situations” but that’s not the case – entirely anyways.
Jones average LI when entering a game in 2007 was 1.76, essentially meaning that the typical situation was 1.76 times more crucial than a randomly selected situation. Joel Zumaya, coming into those tighter spots was 1.65. Given Zumaya’s and Rodney’s injuries this year, it’s worth looking at last year as well. Zumaya was actually a little lower last year at 1.58 while Jones was almost identical at 1.74.
The discrepancy has to do with the fact that the later in the game it is, the less time there is to recover. Coming into the top of the 8th with a 1 run lead has a 2.2 LI versus at 2.9 LI with the same lead at the beginning of the 9th. So even with runner-on situations in the 7th and 8th innings, there were enough times that Zumaya would come in starting an inning clean that he wasn’t really being maximally leveraged.
Should he still close?
Jones probably received to much grief from Tigers fans last season. He of course had his roller coaster moments, but he also turned in 24 1-2-3 9th innings this year. At the same time he’s probably pushing his luck as far as he can push it. Jones had a decent K-rate until last year (7.5 per 9 innings pitched), but he’s gone the last 2 years only fanning a batter every other inning. His margin for error has become exceedingly thin.
That said Jones can still provide value, but he has to be used similarly to how he has been the last 2 years. He shouldn’t be coming into jams, but there’s no reason he couldn’t be expected to eat the 7th or 8th innings, especially with a Zumaya like talent available to work out of jams.
At this point it becomes how much the Tigers want to pay for established bullpen depth. To get Jones, the Tigers will probably have to pay closer to closer money than set-up man money. Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland have shown a preference for the familiar and so a premium of a couple million for a one year deal probably won’t be an issue.