Rich Hill and the Lefty Relief Specialist
By Ronnie Tellalian
Left-handed relief specialists seems like a relatively new advent in Major League Baseball. The role of a southpaw pitcher coming out of the bullpen to face primarily left-handed hitters dates back to the 1960’s. Over the last 20 years, the role has really taken off and become a mainstay of the modern bullpen. On Monday, lefty reliever Rich Hill was added to the Indians’ 40-man roster. This move seems like a sure bet that Hill will be the Indians new lefty specialist.
Southpaw pitchers that come in to face mostly left-handed hitters have affectionately been given the nickname LOOGY (or Lefty One-Out GuY). These pitchers sit in the pen with the role of facing opposing left-handed hitters in order to counter offensive platoon advantages. In the traditional view point, it is tougher for a left-handed hitter to face a lefty pitcher as opposed to a right hander. In general, this old adage rings true, although as in many cases, there are a few exceptions to the rule.
Platoon splits can be a very difficult thing to predict from year to year. Some left-handed hitters can perform well against lefty’s one year and poorly the next. In 2006, former Indians slugger Travis Hafner batted .321 with a .658 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching. He actually hit lefties better than he hit righties that year. The next season, he hit a mere .220 against left-handed starters, but against left-handed relievers he batted .500, gaining 19 hits in 38 at bats.
The same can be seen in pitchers as well. In 2012 Kansas City lefty reliever Tim Collins allowed a higher batting average to right-handed hitters than he did against left-handed hitters. In the previous season it was just the opposite, giving up a mere .210 average against left-handers.
Baseball history is filled with lefty specialists; some pitchers have made a career out of the craft. Randy Flores, Mike Myers, Ed Vande Berg, and Bill Henry have all shared long term success as LOOGYs. The 2012 season saw the emergence of several new breed of LOOGY. Jake McGee of the Tampa Bay Rays was one of the top lefty relievers of 2012. He appeared in 69 games, throwing 55 innings with 73 strikeouts and a 1.95 ERA. Andrew Miller pitched out of the pen for the Red Sox last season, facing primarily lefty hitters. He dominated lefties allowing just a .149 batting average.
Hill appears to have won his place as the Tribe’s new LOOGY. Hill began his career as a starter with the Cubs in 2005. After a fairly successful season in 2007 where he won 11 games with a 3.92 ERA and 183 strike outs, Hill’s career took a turn. Injuries and failed comebacks left his career on the brink. In 2010, with the Red Sox, Hill re-emerged out of the bullpen.
He has pitched 35 games out of the pen over the last three seasons, throwing 31 innings and striking out 36 batters. He throws primarily a fastball and a curveball with the extremely rare slider. In 2012, he actually threw more curves (186) than fastballs (149). His fastball averages 92.8 miles per hour, well enough to be a good Major League pitch, especially after his 76 mph curveball.
He managed to face 83 batters in 2012 without giving up a home run, and the opposition slugged a mere .250 against his fastball. He fared very well against left-handed batters, holding them to a .205 average on the season. He has been very good against lefties over his career, allowing only a .209 average against.
While LOOGYs take up a very valuable spot on a 25-man roster, with the right team they can be valuable. The modern bullpen is made up of either six or seven pitchers. Teams have a closer, three middle relievers, and a long reliever; the difference is the set-up man. One or two set-up men can be used based on the needs of the team. The Tribe has a very versatile offense with players that can play multiple positions; this allows them to carry seven relievers with two set-up men. The strength of their pen with guys like Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith, they can afford to have a specialist like Hill in the pen.
While the value of a LOOGY can definitely be debated, they do have their place in the modern bullpen. A roster like the Tribe’s can be the perfect place for a specialist, and Rich Hill can emerge as a very solid piece to the Indians puzzle.
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