Right-handed reliever Ronald Belisario refused an assignment to the minor leagues from the Chicago White Sox last week, making himself a free agent. He was part of the problem for one of the worst bullpens in baseball in 2014, allowing a 5.56 ERA in 66 1/3 innings. This has not deterred other teams, though. Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reports that "about ten teams" have already reached out to Belisario, and the Tigers are one of them. They're clearly interested, but is pursuing Belisario a good idea?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
Belisario is a 31 year old Venezuelan who originally signed with the Florida Marlins as an amateur free agent in 1999. It took a full decade, a Tommy John surgery, and three organizations for him to make his MLB debut, a scoreless relief outing for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009. Belisario logged 70 2/3 innings for the Dodgers that year, allowing a 2.04 ERA and 3.51 FIP. He struggled in 2010 with a 5.04 ERA in 55 1/3 innings, resulting in a career-worst -0.3 WAR.
A negative WAR total would be the least of Belisario's worries in 2011. After failing to report for Spring Training, the Dodgers learned that Belisario had not received a visa for the 2011 season. Worse still, Belisario reportedly did not receive the visa because he had tested positive for cocaine. He served a 25 game suspension at the start of the 2012 season, during which he allowed a 2.54 ERA and 3.09 FIP in 71 innings. After another solid year with the Dodgers, Belisario signed with the White Sox, where his ERA took a nosedive.
Why should we care?
Belisario's ERA was horrible in 2014, but every advanced statistic in the book suggests that this was bad luck. He had a 3.54 FIP, a 3.69 xFIP, and a 3.22 SIERA. Fangraphs, who calculates their pitcher WAR totals based on FIP, thought he was worth 0.5 wins above replacement. His walk rate was just 6.2 percent. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was miles better in 2014 than it was in 2013. Cover up the ERA, and his numbers look favorable compared to most of the Tigers' relievers.
So what happened to his ERA? Bad luck, mostly. Belisario allowed a .339 BABIP in 2014, which is 50 points higher than his career mark of .288. This resulted in 78 hits allowed in 66 1/3 innings, by far the highest rate of his career. The reason why I think this is bad luck (instead of bad pitching) is because of his batted ball profile. Belisario allowed a 17.6 percent line drive rate last season, well below the league average rate for relievers. His ground ball rate was 59.3 percent, just below his career average of 60.4 percent. However, his BABIP on ground balls was .292, well above the league average of .251.
This last part is a sticking point for the Tigers. Their pitchers had a .277 BABIP on ground balls last season, which was also above the league average. That said, not all ground balls are created equal. We don't have access to HitFX to determine whether Belisario gave up harder contact than most, but a grounder machine like him tends to give up plenty of softies. In terms of a batted ball profile, Belisario compares best on the Tigers' staff with Rick Porcello, who had a .234 BABIP on ground balls in 2014. Plus, the Tigers will have Jose Iglesias back at shortstop. Is it a stretch to think that this alone could correct the problem? Possibly. But everything else suggests that his ERA should come falling back to earth in 2015.
Why should we stay away?
Even at his best, Belisario isn't great. He has a pair of seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA under his belt, but only one with a FIP under 3.50. He strikes out under 20 percent of the batters he faces, and he had command issues while he was with the Dodgers. Before last season's improvement, Belisario was walking 9.4 percent of the batters he had faced in his career. His 2013 WHIP was even higher than his 2014 total thanks to the higher walk rate.
Belisario's platoon splits are also a concern. Left-handed batters have hit .280/.379/.393 against Belisario in his career. They have 72 walks to just 84 strikeouts, nearly a 1:1 ratio. Luckily, they have only hit eight home runs off of him in five seasons, though three of them came in 2014. He isn't quite a ROOGY, but opposing teams will still be chomping at the bit to use a left-handed pinch hitter whenever he's in the game.
Will he end up in Detroit?
This is exactly the type of low profile, high upside move that the Tigers should be looking for to improve their bullpen. Belisario's peripheral numbers indicated that his 2014 ERA was heavily inflated by bad luck and other factors outside his control. He is one year removed from a decent season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and could benefit from a move back to a bigger home ballpark. A Jose Iglesias-aided infield defense will also help, provided Belisario's grounder-heavy ways continue. He might not be worth the $3 million he made last season, but he's a solid buy-low candidate for 2015.