We are just two days away from Spring Training and still have yet to preview the back end of the bullpen. Since they will likely be seen in the same games quite often, we will lump Joaquin Benoit and Bruce Rondon together... just not in this post. For now, let's debunk Benoit's elevated home run rate in 2012.
What happened last season?
Benoit continued to prove that he is worth the $16.5 million contract that the Tigers gave him prior to the 2011 season, racking up a 5-3 record and 84 strikeouts in just 71 innings in 2012. Other than the giant elephant in the room -- more on that gargantuan home run rate later -- he was every bit the excellent reliever that he was in 2011. He continued to keep his walk rate down, something that he struggled with earlier in his career, and even improved his strand rate to a stellar 81.7%.
He struggled in the second half, allowing a 5.52 ERA largely thanks to 10 home runs allowed, but rebounded nicely in the playoffs, allowing just two runs to the Oakland Athletics in Game 2 of the ALDS.
What needs to happen in 2013?
The obvious answer is that Benoit needs to give up fewer home runs. 18.2% of the fly balls that he allowed left the park, resulting in an astronomical rate of 1.77 home runs allowed per 9 innings. While his overall BABIP of .269 says otherwise, I'm willing to chalk up the elevated home run rate as a product of sample size. Looking closer, the list of names that hit home runs off of Benoit in 2012 is actually fairly impressive. Other than no-names Taylor Teagarden and Ezequiel Carrera, most of the other guys that homered off Benoit have done similar damage to many other pitchers. Benoit's xFIP was just 3.29 in 2012, showing that he was closer to his 2011 production than the traditional statistics would lead you to believe.
2012 stats and 2013 Bill James projections
The part where I call Bill James lazy for hitting "copy + paste" from the 2011 numbers
It's pretty clear that the projection systems also think that Benoit's home run rate in 2012 was an anomaly -- he projects nine home runs allowed, for those that are curious. Other than the ERA, which is a pretty bullish projection by James' standards, these stats are almost identical to what he did in 2011. While some may see the upward trend in both ERA and walk rate since 2010, I think this is a product of both regression to the mean (2010 to 2011) and bad luck (2011 to 2012). Unless the home run rate wasn't a mirage and Benoit actually falls apart, expect his 2011 stats with an ERA in the 3.20 to 3.50 range in 2013.