For the remainder of the 2012 season, I’ll take a weekly look at one Angel’s recent performance and how it relates to their overall season and, in some cases, the fortunes of the team. This week, our focus lies on lefty call-up Nick Maronde.
A dominant force in the bullpen over a single month can only help a team so much. Even in his best seasons, Mariano Rivera hovered around a 4 WAR while Eric Gagne’s totally clean Cy Young season in 2003 featured a 3.6 WAR and a .514 162WL% (the record an otherwise .500 team would put up with Gagne’s season plugged in). Sharp baseball analysts have wised up to the fact that being named “closer” doesn’t inherently alter a pitcher’s value, especially since high leverage innings can occur at any point in a game. Injuries have hit the Angels’ bullpen hardest, and when coupled with the typical inconsistencies of relievers, Mike Scoscia hasn’t enjoyed the supposed benefit of a year-long fireman. Ernesto Frieri has been the de facto closer in 2012′s later months, but he, Isringhausen, Carpenter, Takahashi, Downs, and Hawkins have racked up between 39 and 44 innings without anyone moving ahead of the pack for long.
Outside of Frieri and his 14.4 K/9 rate, the Angels’ bullpen has been all over the place, relying on an improbable Kevin Jepsen run in recent weeks while enduring past D.L. stints from Downs and Hawkins. The bullpen ranks 20th overall in ERA and its 20 blown saves top the American League. While an individual relief arm may provide a relative dearth of value compared to a 200-inning starter or lineup fixture, as a collective, a steady pen can carry a team. Cincinnati relievers hold a 2.70 ERA over 366 innings in a hitters’ park, owning the AL Central despite a piddling offense. With a similar bullpen, the Angels could have compensated for starter deficiencies in the forms of anyone not named Weaver.
Newly ascended Angel (Good pun? No? Sorry…) Nick Maronde can’t bring the Angels to Texas’ door alone. No reliever can. He could toss up 25 scoreless frames in the final 25 games of the season and at best elevate his club’s position in the standings by about a game or two. But an effective Maronde grants the team an emotional edge and positional flexibility. As a lefty, he provides the Angels with a southpaw option besides Scott Downs, who’s struggled with injury and ineffectiveness at various times in the second half. Maronde could also shorten games by 1 inning. Going back to Mariano, in 2011 he and David Robertson stacked zeroes on top of zeroes and allowed viewers to check out after 7 innings. Frieri’s pitched near that level of mound supremacy but no one else has jumped in ahead of him to help guarantee a smooth 8th. Maronde might not get a shot to work as an official set-up due to his age and recent call-up, but a scoreless inning at any time is a luxury the Angels couldn’t buy during the All Star break and their new lefty could give it to them.
Maronde certainly comes with one big “iff,” his experience. So far in the majors, he’s been as comfortable on the mound as Bill Clinton at the podium*, striking out all four batters he’s faced. But four batters isn’t exactly a lengthy track record, forcing us (by us I mean me) to go back to his minor league stats and scouting reports to try and see what sorts of work we can expect from Maronde going forward. Is his stellar opening with the Angels like Led Zeppelin I, a prelude to further mastery? Or is it like Boston’s first album, an awesome debut that leads to slow deflation and, eventually, this.
*Move over Jon Stewart.
What struck me most about Maronde’s minor league totals was his walk rate, a stellar 2.1/9 over 146 innings. His 8.6 K/9 suggests hit-and-miss stuff (as does his low 90′s fastball with movement) and coupling high strikeout totals with pinpoint command elevates Maronde above even highly-touted prospects. Maronde himself has flown under the radar a little, due to his being a 3rd round draft pick at the age of 21 and only featuring 2 pitches, the fastball and an improving slider. Maronde’s relatively advanced age upon signing with the Angels translated into the vague notion of “mound poise” because his rise through the minors was rapid; 2012 marked just his first full season in the minor leagues and continued success with the Halos in September could make it his last.
Maronde’s most encouraging stop saw him make 10 outstanding starts this year at High-A Inland Empire. Maronde’s 1.82 ERA with the 66ers was proven genuine by a 60/14 K/BB and only 4 home runs allowed. A call up to AA Arkansas featured a near-doubling of his ERA, 3.34 in 7 games (5 starts) but also the lowest walk rate of his brief career, just 3 in 32 innings. The walk rate is the good news (again) with Maronde. On a less enthusiastic note, his K rate dropped to a troubling 5.8, ensuring that more balls in play would mean more balls falling; 39 hits in the 32 innings. While his 4 immediate strikeouts with the Angels have drawn comparisons to K-Rod circa 2002, Maronde’s fastball-slider combo has more in common with Rodriguez than the type of pitcher I think he projects to. Batters making some adjustments in AA could be predicted because with only 2 pitches, Maronde doesn’t force the opposition to guess a whole lot. He won’t beat himself, but to start in the majors, Maronde’s command will have to remain near perfect because a low 90′s fastball and show-me slider won’t last for 7 innings if he starts hanging pitches.
For now, Maronde remains in the bullpen, an obvious place behind 5 veteran starters. There, he can crank up the fastball and expend more effort on the slider. Think Kelvim Escobar in 2005, returning from injury and throwing 97 out of the pen for one lights-out inning at a time. Batters won’t make quick adjustments to Maronde because for now, he’s not on their list of concerns on a team featuring Weaver, Greinke, Frieri, and Downs among others. But continued execution on the mound will make Maronde a necessary study for opposing hitters, scouts, and coaches and adjustments will be made against him. Two-pitch relievers can certainly dominate, as indicated by Mariano Rivera, who’s ridden a single cutter into lifelong eminence. And arriving in the majors with his control already intact helps insure Maronde against Jordan Walden-types of mound implosions. We know the defense behind him as well as the thick Anaheim air at night will work to Maronde’s advantage and a K-rate that hovers around his High-A level of 8 rather than Double-A 6 will make an enormous difference.
Since Maronde’s long-term status with the Angels remains uncertain, it’s difficult to compare his minor league numbers to those of other young arms around the majors. I don’t see him as a closer and his stellar command would only prove ideal for a starting role were he to add another pitch or get the slider up to a regular “plus” status. Relief seems like a waste to someone who could put up 3.5/1 K/BB rates annually, and control pitchers carry the benefit of efficiency and longer starts. His minor league numbers don’t look that far off from another late-age draftee, albeit one heralded from the beginning: David Price. Price opened at A+ at 22 and made it to AAA the same season. Overall, in 27 starts and 144 innings, he put up a 3.1 BB/9 and a 9.0 K/9. They’re different pitchers, of course, with Price working 4 pitches with about 3 extra miles per hour on his fastball. But his minor league numbers demonstrate that Maronde was pitching with better command than someone Baseball America called the #2 prospect in baseball, and he did so at around the same age. Maronde’s minor league walk rate is equal to that of default Ranger ace Matt Harrison’s and his K rate is over 2.0/9 better.
Maronde demonstrates the necessity of scouts and computers, sometimes separate entities at war with each other. From a statistical standpoint, Maronde looks like the next Dan Haren*, a control pitcher who just happens to rack up almost a strikeout per inning. Scouts see him more as a bullpen asset who could project as a No. 5 with any luck. Maronde’s repertoire on the mound simply tempers the high expectations his numbers produce. The number of two-pitch starters to build lasting careers is a short one; Randy Johnson rode a fastball/slider combo to prominence but Maronde ain’t Randy Johnson.
*The Dan Haren of years’ past. Remember him?
Captain Obvious says that the Angels have had mixed success with their pitching prospects. Weaver exceeded expectations, Saunders sort of matched them, Trevor Bell flopped, and Ervin Santana messes with all our minds harder than that drug in 21 Jump Street. Maronde’s a strange case though, with the two pitches seemingly pegging him as a bullpen power-lefty but the control suggesting a higher ceiling than that. For now, the Angels need some good bullpen outings, ones devoid of the walks and meltdowns that have become too common since the start of 2011. Maronde should more than suffice, and if he makes his way into the rotation, could provide more value going forward than K-Rod ever managed.