In Defense of Ronald Belisario

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2014 was a rough year for Chicago White Sox relief pitcher, Ronald Belisario. He gave up a lot of hits, a lot of runs, and a lot of leads. So many, in fact, it seems unlikely the organization will resign the arbitration-eligible free agent. White Sox fans, myself included, were frustrated by the veteran’s inability to string together quality appearances. He was credited with 4 blown saves in 12 save opportunities, and gave up 78 hits in 66.1 innings pitched. However, a deep dive into Belisario’s stats reveals he didn’t pitch nearly as poorly as we felt he did.

White Sox general manager, Rick Hahn implemented a plan prior to the 2014 season to play away from one of the team’s vulnerabilities, according to SBNation’s Dan Shoenfeld, bringing in relief pitchers that induced ground balls at a high rate to counteract US Cellular’s home run friendly atmosphere. Enter Ronald Belisrio, a veteran with a history of inducing of ground balls more than 60% of the time the ball is put into play, per fangraphs.com. Rick Hahn signed the former Los Angeles Dodger to a one year contract worth $3 million in December of 2013. The White Sox were so committed to this philosophy they even signed an older, left-handed version of Belisario one month later, inking veteran southpaw, Scott Downs, to a one-year deal worth $4 million.

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In hindsight, the philosophy may have worked better for a team with above average defensive range in the infield. Unfortunately, defense was not one of this team’s strengths. The infield was manned most of the year by Connor Gillaspie, Alexei Ramirez, Gordon Beckham, and Jose Abreu. None of those four players posted a Range Runs above average (RngR) higher than zero in 2014, per fangraphs.com. What is RngR? Range Runs measures how effective a player is at fielding balls in their defensive zone and translates that into the amount of runs the player saves or surrenders compared to the average fielder. If a player’s RngR is positive, they have better than average range and are saving their team runs as a result; think Dustin Pedroia. If they have a negative RngR, they are costing their team runs as a result of below average range; think Mo Vaughn.

Groundball pitchers need good defenders behind them, because the infielders are going to get a lot of work.

So why did I just give you a mini-lesson in sabermetrics? The White Sox players individual RngR help explain why Ronald Belisario, and Scott Downs for that matter, had such a tough time in the Windy City. Groundball pitchers need good defenders behind them, because the infielders are going to get a lot of work. Not surpassingly, Ronald Belisario’s BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, was .344 in 2014, according to baseball-reference.com. That is quite the outlier, as his career BABIP is .291. If the defense behind a pitcher has below average range, the pitcher will likely have a higher BABIP than usual. There is such a large disparity in Belisario’s case between his BABIP and career average that defense alone can’t account for the difference, but it was almost certainly a factor.

Luck plays a part as well. Take a look at the bunt single by Bryan Holaday below. With two outs in the top of the 9th inning, and the potential winning run on third, Holaday decides, what the heck, why not try laying down a bunt for the win? By the way, who the heck is Brian Holaday? Yeah, I still don’t know either. But, he ended up delivering a perfectly placed roller that Marcus Semien, playing third base, had no chance to make a play on. That left Belisario to make an attempt, and he couldn’t make the play either. A bunt single with two outs in the ninth inning by a catcher with a career batting average of .241; what are the odds?

Ronald Belisario finished the season with a ghastly 5.56 ERA, however, his FIP, or fielding independent pitching, was more than two points lower at 3.54, according to baseball-reference.com. This gives us a truer measure of Belisario’s performance in 2014 by stripping away the effects of poor defense and bad luck. While his strikeout rate (K/9) was below his career average, his strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) was well above his career average, because he posted the lowest base on balls total of his career, finishing with only 18. A minimal amount of free passes issued by a relief pitcher is definitely something you want. Not only that, but his home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) of 8% was much better than the league average of 10.19% in 2104, according to sportingcharts.com.

As White Sox fans watching Ronald pitch, all many of us saw were the hits, runs, blown leads, and blown saves. It was frustrating and Belisario was the obvious scapegoat. Should he ever be expected to close? No, he has always been subpar as a closer when given the opportunity. However, he can be a very effective middle reliever. He made important improvements in 2014 that will bode well for him in the future. White Sox fans might not have realized it at the time- I know I didn’t, but Ronald Belisario actually didn’t have that bad of a year in 2014. At 32 years-old when the season begins next spring, he will be a positive addition to the right team, with the right defense behind him, and maybe, just maybe, a little luck.

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