Sunday, February 08, 2009

Analyzing Ayala

After toying with Eric Gagne and Russ Springer, the Twins have settled on the 31-year-old right-handed Luis Ayala, offering a one-year, $1.3 million contract (which could be worth $1.8 with incentives) pending a physical.  Ayala has further increased the depth of the bullpen, a component that the team was lacking in 2008.  In 81 appearances split between the Nationals and the Mets in 2008, Ayala threw 75.2 innings with a 50/24 K/BB ratio and a 6.32 Runs Allowed Average. 
At 41, the Athletics signed a similar type of pitcher in Springer to a contract worth twice as much ($3.3 million).  Gagne is still seeking a contract that smart GMs will laugh at.  Fangraphs recently calculated that the Fair Market Value for Ayala would be $2.8 million, so the actual contract signed could wind up a bargain for the Twins.  What can the Twins expect from Ayala in 2009?
P. Humber......87.5%
L. Ayala........86.5%
J. Crain.........80.0%
M. Guerrier.....77.1%
B. Bonser.......76.2%
C. Breslow......74.5%
J. Nathan.......70.0%
J. Nathan........28.3%
B. Bonser........23.3%
C. Breslow.......21.4%
MLB Average........19.1%
J. Crain..........18.6%
M. Guerrier......17.1%
L. Ayala..........14.9%
P. Humber.......12.0%

As you can see from the chart above, Ayala doesn't make too many bats miss.  He does not come equipped with an out-pitch -- his most successful pitch at making batters miss was his changeup (.179 WHIFF) that he throws with a seven mile-per-hour difference from his fastball.  For comparison's sake, every one of the Twins bullpen staff has at least one pitch that has a WHIFF higher than .300.  Ayala is a standard fastball/slider pitcher.  His slider is thrown to contact (.157 WHIFF) coupled with a sinking fastball that incites groundballs (48.5% GB% career).   Ayala's success is contingent on the eight other guys on the field, provided that the ball remains in the field of play.  If you subtract Humber from the Contact Percentage and Strikeout Percentage chart above (considering he only threw 11 innings in 2008 anyways), you can see clearly that Ayala, more than anyone else in the bullpen, requires his defense to convert the outs for him. 
So what about those balls in play?  In addition to having a high contact rate, Ayala's opponents made fairly solid contact: almost 23% of those balls put into play were line drives (only Boof Bonser was the only other member of that list to have his LD rate over 19%, the AL average).  With a larger than normal amount of balls scorched on a rope it is no surprise to see that Ayala's BABIP was .320.  On the flip side, fundamentally Ayala is a groundball pitcher.  His career 48.5% groundball rate means that Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla will be busy up the middle.  With a better defensive tandem at second and short, Ayala will watch his BABIP drop closer to league average. 
One indication that Ayala will improve in 2009 is his strand rate -- his ability to leave runners on base -- was absurdly low (60.2%), leading to his ERA over 5.  This statistic has the tendency to fluctuate but typically from year-to-year.  The possibility is strong that it will rebound to a higher Left On Base rate in 2009 and see his ERA shrink as a result.  According to Inside Edge's scouting report, in spite of Ayala's high line drive rate, batters were not punishing the righty, so the suggestion is that the runs crossing the plate were a factor of bad luck rather than being knocked around the ballpark.
Reliever........Well-Hit Average
C. Breslow.......152
J. Crain..........216
J. Nathan........218
L. Ayala...........232
M. Guerrier.......235
MLB Average.......267
B. Bonser.........271
P. Humber.........318
So even though Ayala doesn't necessary fit into the prototypical 8th Inning Guy mold, they did acquired a genuine workhorse with high leverage experience, two areas that needed addressing.  What wore down the Twins' bullpen in 2008 was the lack of bullpen dept.  Ayala's presence will drop Guerrier back to his lower leverage situations wear he is better suited and he will be a safety net for the Twins if Jesse Crain is unable to emerge as the dominate set up man.