Nunez v. Lindstrom


As you may have heard, the Marlins were officially eliminated last night after the Rockies won a late-inning thriller. Over here at Marlin Maniac, I toed the line and “kept the faith,” but it would have taken a complete miracle for us to play in October, and we did not have it. Instead, I reveled in our takedown of the Atlanta Braves, and I hope you did as well.

Since I already did my look back on the season after the Philadelphia Phillies series, tonight instead we’re going to look into the future, sort of. We’re going to look into the recent past to prognosticate a move in the near future, to be more exact. The Marlins have a lot of players coming up for arbitration this season (13 to be exact), and among the difficult decisions the team is faced with making is the decision between late-inning relievers who aren’t as good/bad as they appear. One of the battle royals for the few dollars the Marlins will be handing out in arbitration will be between current closer Leo Nunez and displaced closer Matt Lindstrom.

Let’s get this out of the way immediately: neither player is good. As of right now, Nunez has a FIP of 5.22 compared to Lindstrom’s 4.46. Lindstrom is walking too many hitters, while Nunez is being hurt by a particularly bad case of homeritis, especially for a reliever. I’m almost certain that Nunez’s true talent level is not close to this; I’d be inclined to say that they’re both about the same in terms of value, but I decided to take an analytical look to this question and see which one I’d rather have in heavy innings.

First off, a nice chart comparing some important statistics between the two. Stats are from this season alone, from Baseball-Reference.

From that comparison, you can tell a few things from the pitchers. Nunez has struck out more and walked less this year, but he’s obviously been at a huge disadvantage in terms of home runs. Lindstrom has struggled with his command, and for a guy who has a blazing upper 90’s fastball that often touches triple digits, he just can’t seem to get anyone out via strikeout. For him to have essentially a league average strikeout rate, along with the high walk rate (11%), he had better be keeping the ball on the ground. In fact, that’s exactly what Lindstrom usually does, though this season his grounder rate has dropped to 45%.

Lindstrom’s ERA has been sky high all season, but an interesting I just found out over at his B-R page is that he has been essentially the exact same pitcher from last season. His walks and strikeouts have climbed around two to four percent, but remain essentially the same. The grounders are down by one percent, but are still by far his most likely result. His BABIP for each of his first three seasons is astoundingly similar (2007 .332, 2008 .333, 2009 .331), and he’s put the same percentage of balls in play this year, which means he isn’t getting any more or less lucky on balls in play, a statement I was making earlier in the year when his BABIP was in the .360’s.

Lindstrom has essentially normalized to his two year average, except with a drastic increase in home runs. While it’s nothing like the 13 that Nunez has given up, Lindstrom has allowed five this year after allowing only three in his first 520 batters faced. His home run rates have been staggeringly low all throughout his career, and given his typically decent grounder rate/low fly ball rate throughout his career, we can expect him to have an ability to keep the ball in the ballpark.

As mentioned, this has been an issue with Nunez all season. What’s ironic is that he came off of a year in which he gave up only two home runs and an extremely low HR/FB%. Though Nunez has already had a season in which he gave up a similar home run total, it isn’t likely that he’s this bad with the longball. A projection of about 234 PA using a 5/4/3 system would give him eight home runs in 235 batters faced, which while lower is still a bad mark for a reliever, especially a late inning reliever. If his batted ball profile and BIP% remain similar, we’d say that that total is something like 15% HR/FB%.

So which player is better? Using the system to project the pitchers on their defense independent variables, I got a FIP of 4.74 for Nunez (using 3.22 as the additive factor) and 3.62 for Lindstrom. It seems the home run component has been the difference in the evaluation of the two. Using their past performance in the projection, the two came out fairly even in terms of strikeout and walk rate; Nunez had a  K% of 18.1% and a BB% of 8.0%, while Lindstrom projected with a K% of 18.9% and a BB% of 9,8%. These numbers for both are around league average, with Nunez having an edge with a more significantly lower walk rate. The difference was in the homers. Lindstrom projected to allow three home runs in 244 batters faced, while Nunez’s high homer rate bumped his FIP skywards.

Of course, you could argue that home run rates usually regress to the mean, but I think there is enough skill in preventing home runs to expect a lower rate from Lindstrom than from Nunez. The question is then whether or not you’d be willing to accept the home run threat that Nunez offers versus the slightly less efficient play of Lindstrom. Lindstrom is likely to allow more baserunners, which means his career BABIP of around .330 is more likely to hurt him with our defense. But of course, the home run threat is worst when dealing with relievers, especially those who are to be placed in high leverage innings like these two will likely be. I would take Lindstrom personally, even though Nunez is about four years younger. I suspect this offseason the team’s defense, especially on the infield, will improve, helping Lindstrom’s ground balls turn into more outs instead of singles just out of reach of fielders. In addition, with similar projected strikeout and walk rates, the biggest fear is undoubtedly going to be the home run for Nunez. We’ll see what the team’s plans are, but my guess is that the club will retain Nunez and allow Lindstrom to walk; such is the way of measuring only via ERA.