Is Grant Balfour an Upgrade over Jim Johnson for Baltimore Orioles Closer Role?

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Is Grant Balfour an Upgrade over Jim Johnson for Baltimore Orioles Closer Role?
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The Baltimore Orioles have a new closer, and one thing we know is that he'll be cheaper in 2014 than their old closer would have been.

But better? I wouldn't be quick to count on it, no.

First, the news itself. The Orioles had been circling veteran right-hander Grant Balfour as a replacement for departed closer Jim Johnson, and Roch Kubatko of MASNSports.com reported on Tuesday that the deal is done:

Because of the deferred money, Balfour's contract is realistically worth $15 million. But even with that considered, the Orioles have saved themselves a fair amount of cash for 2014 in going from Johnson to Balfour.

Johnson, who was shipped to the Oakland A's for utility man Jemile Weeks in early December, is projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to earn a little under $11 million in 2014. The Orioles will be paying Balfour about $4 million less than that.

So yeah, hooray savings. And as far as the last two seasons are concerned, the numbers say that the Orioles are saving money on Johnson's identical twin. Via FanGraphs:

Jim Johnson vs. Grant Balfour, 2012-13
Player G IP SV ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Jim Johnson 145 139.0 101 2.72 3.35 3.50 2.2
Grant Balfour 140 137.1 62 2.56 3.24 3.64 2.1

FanGraphs

The major edge Johnson has on Balfour since the start of 2012 is in saves. He's saved 39 more games, which would be a huge deal if we were in, say, the 1980s.

But we're in 2013, and saves don't matter that much anymore. What matters is everything else up there, where the gaps between the two pitchers' performances are minuscule. Most notably, there's virtually no difference between Johnson's and Balfour's WARs.

This is one lens we can look through, and it makes the switch of Johnson for Balfour out to be a fair one. Maybe not an upgrade, mind you, but certainly not a downgrade.

Another lens we can look through is one that focuses on how Johnson and Balfour have gotten the job done in the last two seasons. If we simplify it to a handful of telling categories, we see:

Johnson and Balfour's Pitching Styles, 2012-13
Player K% BB% SwStr% LD% GB% FB% HR/FB BABIP
Johnson 17.3 5.9 7.7 18.4 60.2 21.4 9.1 .289
Balfour 26.1 10.0 10.1 23.3 36.8 39.9 7.9 .229

FanGraphs

There are two main takeaways. One is that Johnson has been better at not hurting himself with walks, but he's been easier to hit. That's the risk that all ground-ball pitchers run, I'm afraid.

Balfour, on the other hand, has essentially been a typical closer: a bit wild, but also hard to square up. Relative to Johnson, he's missed more bats, been much harder to get a hit against and a little harder to take deep.

I don't take it as a given that Balfour's going to stop being good at missing bats any time soon. He may be getting up there in age, but Brooks Baseball can show that his fastball's velocity and whiffability are trending up rather than down. 

But now we come to the catch, which is that the numbers Balfour has been enjoying over the last two seasons simply aren't made to last.

The .229 BABIP Balfour has compiled is way too good to be true, especially in light of that 23.3 line-drive rate. His career rate says he's more of a .260 BABIP guy, and that's the range he eventually ended up in last season after his BABIP inflated from .237 in the first half to .305 in the second half.

Per FanGraphs, the Steamer projections for Balfour see a .298 BABIP in his future for 2014. That seems all the more likely now that he'll be pitching in the AL East rather than the AL West, and there's another thing about that switch that could burn Balfour.

Consider these home/road splits from Balfour's time with the A's:

Balfour's 2011-13 Home/Road Splits
Split GB/FB FB% HR/FB
Home 0.93 40.3 8.0
Road 0.85 43.3 10.0

FanGraphs

It's not totally significant that Balfour gave up a few extra fly balls on the road. What's really significant is that more of the fly balls he gave up on the road ended up going over the fence.

And that isn't all that surprising. Balfour was playing his home games at a huge ballpark in O.co Coliseum, after all. According to ESPN's Park Factors, it was the No. 25 home run haven in MLB last season. That's pretty much par for the course with Oakland's home park.

To boot, Balfour's road splits were likely saved from further harm in regular action at Safeco Field and Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Up until the Houston Astros brought Minute Maid Park into the mix, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington was the only home run haven to be found in the AL West.

Balfour is headed to an entirely different situation in the AL East. He's been a member of the division before, sure, but at its one and only pitcher-friendly park in Tropicana Field. Rogers Centre, Yankee Stadium and, yes, Oriole Park at Camden Yards were among the 10 best home run havens in 2013. Fenway Park wasn't, but it was a top-10 home run park as recently as 2012.

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The short version of all this: The switch from Johnson to Balfour will probably be better for the Orioles on the business front than it will be for them on the field.

If you prefer to buy into how the two have performed over the last two seasons, the switch is not so much an upgrade as it is the avoidance of a downgrade. But if the move from O.co Coliseum to OPACY and the move from the AL West to the AL East result in Balfour being more hit- and home run-prone, his cheaper salary is going to be really his only redeeming quality.

Maybe Weeks will turn back into the 1.7-WAR player he was as a rookie in 2011, thus making the Orioles happy that they effectively switched out Johnson for two A's castoffs.

But given that Weeks has been an afterthought for two years, that's probably not happening. Johnson's departure being worth it will more than likely have to involve Balfour outperforming what can be fairly expected of him.

Here's recommending he turn his rage dial to 11.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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