On Friday, the Los Angeles Angels and Pittsburgh Pirates swapped their former closers in a kind-of-interesting, kind-of-not challenge trade. The Pirates swapped former All-Star Jason Grilli for Ernesto Frieri, after neither pitcher covered themselves in glory to start the 2014 season.
Grilli, who came into the season as part of a powerful Pittsburgh 'pen, has been supplanted by Mark Melancon (also a former) All-Star in the ninth and made expendable by the emergence of Tony Watson. In addition to spending a bit of time on the disabled list, Grilli's seen his prodigious strikeout rate of about 36% over the last two years fall to 22.6%. In this high-strikeout climate, it's just not good enough, especially when your walk rate is high (11.8%) and your home runs per nine (1.77 HR/9) is astronomical.
All that adds up to a very disappointing overall performance: his ERA (4.87) is 37% worse than league average and his FIP (5.36) is 49% worse than the league. He's also had nearly as many meltdowns (seven) as he has had shutdowns (six). That's not good enough to be any sort of high-leverage reliever, much less a closer on a team with designs on a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, Ernesto Frieri hasn't been worse, but he also hasn't been good. Frieri has lost his job as closer (to new acquisition Joe Smith) and appears to have also finally lost his long-standing battle against the home run. He's allowed 2.32 home runs per nine innings, which is both ridiculous and a little unsustainable. At the same time, Frieri has often dealt with high HR/FB rates ... meaning that while a 21.1% HR/FR rate might be ridiculously high for any other pitcher, it may just be very high for Frieri.
Frieri also sits near the bottom of the ERA leaderboard, as his rate of 6.39 puts him 68% below the league average. His FIP, while not as bad, is still bad -- an FIP of 4.97 is about 33% worse than the league average.
So if we've established that neither pitcher is doing very well right now, then what's the purpose of making a trade like this? I'm not exactly sure beyond the old adage of each guy needing a "change of scenery." Both pitchers have similar contract values, with Grilli's two-year deal (worth about $4 million this year) ready to expire at the end of the season and Frieri signed for about that much this year ($3.8 million) after avoiding arbitration.
But Frieri might get a little bit of a benefit moving to Pittsburgh. A quick look at FanGraphs' park factors for 2013 show that while Los Angeles suppressed home runs by about five percent, PNC Park in Pittsburgh suppressed them by 10%. Since Frieri's strikeout rates are still high, and his walk rate still manageable, anything that helps his dinger rate should change the runs allowed calculation quite a bit. The ERA predictor metrics like SIERA and xFIP forecast a much more manageable runs allowed amount -- something closer to three runs per nine.
Jason Grilli, on the other hand, doesn't inspire the same amount of confidence in the ERA predictors. His xFIP this season is 4.58, and his SIERA is 4.01. And unlike Frieri, Grilli is pitching in his age-37 season. Past experience tells us that age defeats all comers, and while Grilli hit his prime late, the velocity aging curve may sap his fastball oomph more than it already has. Grilli has lived and died on his fastball-slider combo during his salad days, and his already diminished swinging strike rate (11.9%) can't take too much more damage.
Truthfully, I can't imagine a deal like this drastically affecting either team. If each team thinks they can do something to fix their new acquisition, that's good for them. Unfortunately, when relievers start to lose it, they lose it in a hurry, and they don't always get it back.
However, if one of the two teams is going to see a return this season, I'd expect the Pirates have a better chance of benefitting. Frieri is younger, he's got a better strikeout and walk rate, and he's moving to a park that may help mitigate his worst feature -- the home run. While I'd love to see both guys return to their 2013 form (or maybe even 2012, in Frieri's case), I'm not sure either could get there at this point. Maybe a change in scenery is all they need, but a mile per hour on the fastball and fewer home runs would do the trick too.
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Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.