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What happened last year?
In his first full year in the league, Brayan Villarreal proved to be a useful player in the Tigers' bullpen. He threw 54 2/3 innings, striking out batters at a rate of 10.9 per nine innings. There were some reasons to worry: His walk rate of 4.6 per nine innings was a bit higher than you'd prefer. But as he works out of the bullpen, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. With a 2.63 ERA, he seemed to fare pretty well.
However, one area of concern is that ERA doesn't tell the entire story. Villarreal allowed 11 inherited runners to score. That was the second-most on the team (one behind Phil Coke, who inherited 18 more baserunners.) Among pitchers who regularly came into the game with runners on base, Villarreal was the worst in the bullpen.
As you might expect, the right-hander was tough on right-handed batters, with a .206 batting average against and .511 OPS against compared to .678 OPS against from left-handers. However, a .229 BABIP against lefties indicates Villarreal is either doing something really well, or he's going to see some regression in that split in 2013.
What needs to happen this year?
First off, we need to make sure he's healthy. Villarreal had his winter league ball cut short this year after some discomfort in his pitching arm. More specifically, he was diagnosed with elbow tendinitis. It was probably just a safety precaution. After all you don't want to have one of your pitchers lost due to an offseason injury. On the other hand, you never like to hear about pain in the elbow. "Tendinitis" is often nothing, but with the Tigers it always seems to be the gateway drug to further issues.
Second off, Villarreal has to help his fellow pitchers more. The Tigers' average in 2012 was 31 percent of inherited runners eventually scoring. The AL average was 29 percent. By those measures, Villarreal is quite a bit worse than average. If the Tigers are going to keep him in the same role, he's got to be better.
There is, of course, some small possibility he could take over as closer. Without any offseason additions, the spot is up in the air. Maybe beginning the inning with a clean slate would suit Villarreal better.
2012 stats / 2013 projections
Make a prediction!
Is the Bill James projection above comes to fruition, I predict bad times ahead for Villarreal and his supporters.
It's easy to see where the projection is coming from: Villarreal didn't have a great showing in his rookie season, walking way too many and not striking out nearly enough. His numbers in Triple-A that year weren't great either. That led to an elevated ERA and FIP. The system has to give some weight to that.
But I think Villarreal's going to be better than those measures, if healthy. Outside 2011, he's been a pitcher who gets his fair share of strikeouts and doesn't offer that many walks. At this point, it feels safer to assume 2011 was a fluke.
I don't believe he's going to end up closing. I don't forsee an All-Star level of contribution. But I think it's much more likely that Villarreal will be a positive contributor in the bullpen than not.