We've been hearing a lot about Grant Balfour over the last few weeks, and word finally came in yesterday that the Orioles and Balfour have agreed on a two-year, $15 million contract. Balfour will be the team's closer, replacing Jim Johnson. We all have our own opinions on closers in general and multi-year contracts for relief pitchers, but regardless of what they are, Balfour is an Oriole now. He's our guy so it's time to start hoping he pitches well.
Balfour was signed by the Minnesota Twins in 1997 has a 19-year-old amateur free agent out of Australia. He was in the Twins organization for nine years and saw playing time in parts of three seasons (‘01, ‘03, ‘04), but never had much success for them at the major-league level. His numbers for them in the minors weren't bad, but the Twins didn't see a future with Balfour and granted him his free agency in December 2005.
After spending time in the minors with the Reds and the Brewers, Balfour came to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a trade in late 2007. It wasn't until he was with the Rays that I became familiar with him, and it was there that he came into his own as a relief pitcher. For three seasons, 2008-2010, Balfour was very good for the Rays. He pitched in 181 games with an ERA of 2.98, striking out 10.8 batters per nine innings against 3.7 walks per nine. That walk rate is a little high for my taste, but it's something I'll have to learn to get used to.
Balfour became a free agent after the 2010 season and, as is often the case, he priced himself out of the Rays' budget. The Oakland A's signed him to a three-year, $12.25 million contract and Balfour went west to the cavernous Oakland Coliseum.
Balfour's line over three years in Oakland looks a lot like his time in Tampa Bay. He pitched 202 games with a 2.53 ERA, 9.2 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9. Overall he's had six straight strong years as a relief pitcher, so there's no reason to think that won't continue while in Baltimore, right? Well...maybe.
Eno Sarris over at FanGraphs wrote a great article on what we might expect from Balfour in Baltimore. The entire article is worth a read, but I'm going to focus on what scares me the most: his fly ball rate.
Per the article, only 16 relief pitchers who threw over 100 innings had a ground-ball rate lower than Balfour in the past two seasons. Over his career he has a fly-ball rate of 43.6%, fluctuating between 39.1%-51.7% over the last six seasons. His career average is higher than any individual FB% in the 2013 Orioles bullpen (of the regulars).
Even with his high fly ball rate, Balfour has maintained a somewhat respectable HR/9 of 0.8 for his career. But as is pointed out in Sarris' article:
Here's a fly ball pitcher, straight out of Oakland (92 park factor for home runs) and Tampa (96), heading to Baltimore (110).
Fly balls hit in Camden Yards tend to leave the yard. It's not just the dimensions of the park, either. Fly balls in Camden Yards go an average of six feet further than the league average. Feel free to insert your own joke about the Orioles having terrible pitchers, but a large culprit is the weather. Balls go further in hot weather, and Baltimore summers are no joke.
So that is my fear for Grant Balfour: Baltimore Oriole. Say what you want about Jim Johnson's troubles in 2013, but we never had to worry about him giving up bombs regularly. If Balfour's home run rate goes up thanks in part to the stadium, we'll have something to worry about.
There are still a lot of things to be encouraged about with Balfour. He's an older guy, yes, but he still has average fastball velocity over 93 mph and strikes out nearly 10 batters per 9 innings. He doesn't have a platoon split at all, so we don't have to worry about him coming into an inning based on who will be up to bat for the opposing team (something that would haunt me regularly if the Orioles had made Tommy Hunter the closer). And given the money that free agents are getting lately, two years at $15 million isn't outrageous. That last point would make me feel even better if I believed the Orioles were interested in spending more money than last year, but that's a point for another article.
I wasn't crazy about this deal when it was just a rumor, and now that it's a reality it's still not one that I'd say I'm excited about. But I do think Balfour will be a nice addition to the bullpen, if one that I didn't think was completely necessary. All told the Orioles have turned Jim Johnson's 2014 salary into Grant Balfour, Ryan Webb, and Jemile Weeks. I guess that's not so bad.