Opinion

Typing words about Roenis Elias, the reliever

Looking at Roenis Elias in his new role in the bullpen

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (June 16, 2016 – Source: Rich Gagnon/Getty Images North America)

Roenis Elias has been in the spotlight lately, garnering attention to his strong spring training performance. Originally vying for a the a spot in the rotation, reports indicate that manager Alex Cora is now looking at him as a potential bullpen piece.

Elias has spent nearly his entire professional career as a starter, so this is a bit of a change for the southpaw. It is one that makes sense, though, considering Boston’s “need” of a left-hander in the ‘pen and Elias’ unsuccessful numbers as a starter.

Currently, Roster Resources projects the 29-year-old to be starting the season with the club as a long reliever. Of course, this system is not gospel and assumes quite a few things. First of all, they expect Steven Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz and Tyler Thornburg to all start the season on the disabled list.

It is not written in stone all of them will be unavailable to begin the season but, as Opening Day inching closer, it seems increasingly likely. In fact, in Cora’s projected rotation to start the year, Pomeranz, Wright and Rodriguez are all absent, according to Boston Herald’s Chad Jennings.

With Thornburg, there is virtually nothing on him since the bullpen session he threw in late February. It is very probable he finds himself on the DL come March 29th.

Further, Craig Kimbrel, who has been absent from the club due to important family matters, is questionable to be ready for the 2018 season. Roster Resources assumes he will be good to go, but there is a feasible scenario where this is not the case. If he cannot, this will just open an additional spot in Boston’s bullpen.

With the litany of guys ailing with injury, it makes sense Elias would, at least, start the season with the club. Boston does not have much pitching depth and he is, for better or for worse, one of the superior depth pieces.

Roster Resources also has Bobby Poyner starting the season with the club, in place of Robby Scott. In a perfect, healthy world I envision Poyner, Elias and Johnson would be fighting for the last bullpen spot.

With his tantalizing minor league stats, resulting from swing-and-miss stuff and a brilliant command of the strike zone, Poyner would probably be the best option. With his lack of minor league options, Johnson would be the most practical option. Meanwhile, Elias would be a relatively close third.

Luckily (for Elias’ major league aspirations), it is almost a guarantee the Red Sox will never be completely healthy. However, one has to acknowledge he is clearly benefiting from the Red Sox’ pitchers lack of health. He is not working himself onto the team solely on meritocracy alone.

Sure, people are gushing over the eight innings of 0.00 ERA he has compiled in spring  thus far. With that said, he has compiled that in eight innings, which is not even close to being a viable sample size. Anything is possible in such a short timespan, reflecting random variance more than being indicative of skill. To mention nothing of what eight inning means in terms of predicting future performance, which is nearly negligible.

For reference, Blaine Boyer (remember him?) pitched a 13-inning stretch for Boston between June 10th and July 1st last year where he accumulated a sterling 1.38 ERA and 2.47 FIP. He ended the year with a 4.35 ERA and 3.59 FIP, which is honestly not that bad, and currently has a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals.

I did not mean to single Boyer out there because he performed fairly decent for Boston in ’17. I was just making a point with a relatable and relevant example. Good luck in your future endeavors, Blaine!

Getting back to Elias, he has accumulated his eight-inning stretch in spring training. Spring training is a time where, not only are the better players less incentivized to perform well, but pitchers are more likely to see minor league-caliber players. Thereby, the competition is not as stiff and it is probably easier to do well, especially if you are a borderline MLB player, whose employment is contingent on having a good spring.

Further, looking at the underling stats for Elias’ 0.00 ERA spring, they do not inspire much confidence. He has recorded six strikeouts to six walks. That is not a way to be consistently successful in the major leagues. The caveat, again, being that it is spring training and a ridiculously small sample size.

Though I have been poking flaws in the electricity that he has generated this spring, there are things to like about Roenis Elias, the reliever.

According to Brooks Baseball, he has a nice four-pitch mix, with a four-seam fastball, a sinker, changeup and curveball. His best pitches, in terms of whiffs and Pitch Info Pitch Values, have been the latter two. Now, we do not have very meaningful statistics to look at with those pitches. He has accumulated 8 MLB innings over the past two seasons, so we are not operating with much data.

What we do have, however, is a decent career sample of how those pitches have performed in the big leagues over his career. It is not foolproof by any means because pitchers change. With that said, it is a quality indicator of the strength of his respective pitches.

 Pitch # of Pitches Whiffs AVG SLG
Four-seam 1960 5.77% 0.297 0.506
Sinker 444 6.31% 0.365 0.551
Change-Up 1105 16.29% 0.255 0.373
Curveball 1050 14.86% 0.126 0.213

Going back to 2014 when he made his debut, as mentioned, Elias has been most successful with his change-up and breaking ball. He has generated high number of whiffs and limited damage with those pitches. The same cannot be said of his fastball and sinker.

Granted, his fastball was always destined to probably be hit harder than his other pitches because he throws it more frequently. Consequently, hitters expect it more often and are able to adjust their approach at the plate to be conducive to it. Plus, it is not as deceptive as his other pitches and lacks the velocity to be extremely effective.

In his very limited season with Boston in ’17, his fastball averaged at 92.2 mph. The year before, in another small sample, was 93.1 mph. Before that, with the Mariners in ’14 and ’15 he averaged 92.9 mph and 92.3 mph respectively. An average Elias fastball is not slow by any means, but it is below-average (MLB pitchers averaged 93.6 mph on their fastball in ’17).

The conventional wisdom is that starters who convert to relievers typically gain velocity on their pitches. They do not pitch as many innings as a starter, so their stuff tends to play up. This could conceivably happen to Elias, which perhaps will go a long way to increasing the effectiveness of his fastball, his most frequented offering.

His secondary offerings are already pretty good weapons. With a better fastball, Elias could become something special out of the bullpen.

Not only he be able to maximize his pitches’ potential but he could be used against batters he has more success with. The lefty has been much more serviceable throwing to his same sided counterparts than right-handed batters. Need proof? Enjoy this table.

IP AVG SLG K/9 BB/9 FIP
vs. LHB 64.1  0.231 0.349 10.07 3.92 3.20
vs. RHB 222.2  0.254 0.420 6.95 3.48 4.66

These are Elias’ career numbers against left and right-handed batters. It should be obvious he has compiled better results against lefties, particularly in the strikeout department. As a reliever, Cora may deploy him predominantly against lefties to get the most of out of his skillset. As we said in the beginning, Boston “needs” a left-handed reliever.

In his career, he possesses quality peripherals. His strikeout numbers are pretty good, while his command of the plate is not too bad.

Overall, Elias seems to be the the epitome of a replacement-level player, especially as a starter. As a reliever, he could be something different altogether. He would probably be more effective, especially relative to himself, in that role. There is a lot of uncertainty and in a utopia where everyone is healthy, we may not even be talking about Roenis Elias, the reliever. However, we do not and here we are.

Elias’ case to make the Opening Day club should not be argued based on his spring training performance, rather, it should be based on his skillset and the body of work he has accumulated in his career. Regardless, this seems like an intelligent switch on Cora’s part, designed to get the most out of his players and team, even if it is not the traditional roles they are accustomed to.

 

Advertisements