For the “do something” crowd, the Orioles did something today and you can all exhale now.
According to multiple reports, the Orioles have signed free agent closer Grant Balfour to a two year contract for $15 million dollars. The deal breaks down to $7 million in 2014 and $7 million in 2015 with $500,000 deferred from each season. The Orioles have signed their closer to replace Jim Johnson.
Balfour, 35, has played in parts of 10 major league seasons. He has a career ERA of 3.27. However, in the past four years–one with Tampa Bay and three with Oakland–he has posted ERAs of 2.28, 2.47, 2.53, and 2.59 respectively. He has closed the last two years in Oakland, with last year being the first season he was the full time closer. Balfour saved 38 games in 2013 which was also the first season he appeared in an All Star game. Balfour throws primarily a Fastball and Slider. His Fastball sat at an average 93.4 MPH last year and has trended upward the last four years.
The peripheral statistics show Balfour as a more prototypical closer when compared to Jim Johnson. He posted a 10.34 K/9 in 2013, good for 29th out of 135 qualified relievers in the MLB, and has a career 9.68 K/9. He also walked 3.88 per nine innings last season which is good for 24th highest among qualified relievers. Balfour has an average HR/FB ratio. Although it did spike last year which may be of some concern due to his age, the Orioles should hope that is not an upward trend. He is pretty typical across all of the batted ball types, although Balfour gives up a few more Line Drives than you would prefer, but the strikeouts have the ability to make up for some extra hits. His career BAPIP is pretty low at .264 which one would expect to stay similar because he has a pretty large sample size. So he strikes people out, does not give up cheap hits, and may have some trouble walking batters from time to time. Essentially, he is the opposite of Jim Johnson on nights where Johnson has his best stuff, who depends on ground balls and weak contact while Balfour banks on strikeouts getting him through the 9th and any jams he might put himself in.
One of my favorite advanced statistics to look at for relievers is WPA or Win Probability Added. It measures the players effectiveness in so called high leverage situations. For instance, if a pitcher records an out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th with only a one run lead, a positive WPA score is given to the player. Conversely, if they give up a run in the same situation the player gets a negative WPA score. I believe WPA is best used for relievers because in my mind, relievers exist to get outs in high leverage situations, if they don’t do that, then they aren’t very good relievers. Balfour has, over the past two years of closing, posted a WPA of 2.44 in 2012 and 2.56 in 2013. He had the 15th best WPA for qualified relievers in baseball for the 2013 season.
Therefore, Balfour is pretty good and has been pretty good in his career. His age concerns me more than anything I see in the statistics. However, I would not anticipate a tremendous drop off considering the increasing fastball velocity over the past four years, the high strikeout rates, and ability to preform well in high leverage situations.
However, this acquisition, much like the Jim Johnson trade, does not exist in a vacuum. Balfour is Johnson’s replacement. Why I liked the Johnson deal when it was made is because of acquisitions like this. Dan Duquette turned Jim Johnson and his likely $10 million salary into Grant Balfour, Ryan Webb (you can read my analysis on Ryan Webb here), Jemile Weeks, and David Freitas. That’s two solid relievers, a starting 2B candidate, and some minor league catching depth for the same amount of money the Orioles would have paid Jim Johnson. I cannot say whether Johnson or Balfour will perform better next year, but they are essentially on the same plane of great, but not elite, closers. Therefore, I really love this deal for the Orioles simply for Balfour alone and especially love this deal in the context of the Johnson trade and the whole off-season. Now, the Orioles have to go get an effective Starting Pitcher (crossing my fingers for A.J. Burnett) and a good left handed hitter to make this off-season successful, but we’ll have to keep holding our breath for those.