For a year and a half, Scott Downs was a savior for the Angels bullpen, but he became part of the problem in the final months of last season. Is the veteran southpaw finally starting to break down? Is he just being infected by the rest of the Bullpen of Perpetual Sorrow? Is there any saving him?
2012 Stats: 45.1 IP, 1-1, 9 SV, 3.15 ERA. 3.66 FIP, 43 H, 17 BB, 3 HR, 32 SO, 2.81 GB/FB, 0.4 fWAR
2013 ZiPS Projections: 45.0 IP, 3.60 ERA. 3.65 FIP, 42 H, 14 BB, 4 HR, 33 SO, 0.4 fWAR
2013 Bill James Projections: 39.0 IP, 3-1, 0 SV, 2.77 ERA. 3.57 FIP, 33 H, 13 BB, 3 HR, 30 SO
2013 CAIRO Projections: 40.0 IP, 3-2, 3 SV, 3.13 ERA. 3.46 FIP, 40 H, 14 BB, 3 HR, 30 SO, 0.7 fWAR
2013 MWAH Projections*: 55.0 IP, 3-1, 3 SV, 3.76 ERA. 3.49 FIP, 55 H, 19 BB, 3 HR, 40 SO
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA and FIP calculations are approximate)
2012 in Objective Review:
By normal standards, Scott Downs had a very solid season in 2012. But by Downs' standards, it was his worst year since he was converted to a full-time reliever. His ERA, walk rate and batting average allowed all saw noticeable spikes to near career-worst (as a reliever) levels. Of course, much of the bloating for those numbers took place in the second half of the season when Downs started to struggle with shoulder issues and spent time on the disabled. His inability to stay healthy and effective were just one of the many contributors to the awful performance from the 2012 Angels bullpen.
That was disappointing on a whole for the Angels, but much of that disappointment seemed to be magnified by the rest of the bullpen struggling around Downs. Comparatively, his numbers still hold up well against other left-handed setup men. However, as the linchpin of the entire Halo bullpen, it simply wasn't good enough.
2012 in Revisionist History:
2012 was a stark reminder of why it is so risky to rely so heavily on a 36-year old pitcher. In the first half of the year, Downs was the only guy holding the bullpen together, especially before Ernesto Frieri arrived. While his strikeout rate dipped a little bit, the rest of his numbers were very strong. Then July came and the wheels started to come off in a hurry.
Almost overnight, Downs completely lost the plate which is kind of a big issue for a soft-tossing southpaw who relies so much on having pinpoint control. In standard Angels fashion, Scott was trying to suffer silently through shoulder problems but ultimately had to be shut down for a few weeks to try and rest up his achy soulder. When he came back for the final few weeks of the season, it was pretty clear that he still wasn't his old self and just as clear that Mike Scioscia had lost faith in him, protecting him from right-handed batters and often only using him for one or two batters in an outing.
You could blame his limited usage down the stretch on his injury, but there were some red flags with Downs even before he got hurt. One of the things that made Downs such a great late-inning lefty is that he could hold his own against right-handed batters. In 2012, not so much. Righties actually touched him up to the tune of a .294/.363/.451 slash line. That is the kind of ineffectiveness that turns guys into LOOGYs, which is exactly what Scioscia did to Downs by season's end, which is quite the fall from grace given that Downs had been moonlighting as the closer for part of the season.
Three Lingering Questions for 2013:
1) So is Downs broken?
Nobody knows this answer but Downs and the doctors. He avoided surgery, so that's a good sign. As is the fact that on the whole in 2012, his fastball actually saw an increase of 0.4 MPH on average. The problem, of course, is that Downs is now 37, has suffered his fair share of random injuries in previous seasons and was originally shifted into relief back in 2006 in part because he was plagued by arm problems. One could actually argue that it is something of a miracle that his arm lasted as long as it did.
2) Did Scioscia break Downs?
Well, Scioscia and the Angels' lack of bullpen depth. Looking at what happened to Downs in the second half, it is hard not to look back at one particular stretch that sowed the seeds for Scott's breakdown. Specifically I am referring to the final week of May in which Downs had five one-inning outings in six days. For even the most durable of relievers, that is a usage level that practically begs for injury. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but Downs had allowed more than one hit in an appearance just once in his first 19 appearances, which ended with that stretch of overuse, he then allowed that to happen three times in his next eight outings with a brief shutdown period due to a muscle strain mixed in. Still, his real collapse didn't happen until mid-July, so maybe this was going to happen regardless and getting overworked at the end of May just accelerated his decline.
3) Can Downs be fixed?
The funny thing about Scott is that if you look at his peripherals, the only two numbers that really stand out are his increased walk rate and BABIP. Most of his other numbers actually seem to be trending in a positive direction, well, other than the all important number that is his age. There was additional hope in September though as Downs only allowed a run in one outing that entire month and saw a big spike in his strikeout rate. Some of that was likely due to his more specialized usage, but it is also possible that his arm was finally starting to recuperate.
Three Irrelevant Questions for 2013:
1) What comical way will Downs get hurt this season?
He's gone to the DL because he stepped on his kid's toy. He's tweaked his ankle jumping to catch a chopper. He's hurt himself trying to cover first. Really, you have to be impressed with his creativity. Betting on something baseball-related is the safe bet here, but I'm going to go off the board and predict that he suffers a concussion in a tragic badminton accident.
2) If he suffers a bizarre injury again, we can start calling that "Downs Syndrome" without it being offensive, right?
Yeah, probably not, but I'm a risk taker, so I'm willing to give it a go.
3) Will Downs' rapid decline finally convince this organization to stop handing out multi-year contracts to relievers in their mid-thirties?
Maybe that was just a Reagins-specific problem, but I'd still like to see how quickly it takes for Dipoto to get wise to the folly that is giving a three-year or even a two-year contract to relievers that are past their prime. Just remember that I brought this up when we are all griping before the 2015 season that Sean Burnett's third-year option vested.
2013 in Subjective Projection:
As you can see from the projections at the top of the post, there is not a whole lot faith in Downs staying healthy or productive in 2013. While I had the most pessimistic view of his ERA, I ended up with the most optimistic projection on his workload. My theory is essentially that Downs just isn't his old self anymore. Whatever happened with his shoulder and abdominal muscle last year clearly affected him for months and two different periods of extended rest didn't help him very much. That ugly platoon split has me pretty scared as well, which is why I get a very strong sense of how his season will unfold.
My hunch is that Downs just isn't going to be the same, but it is going to take a month or two for Scioscia to realize it. That will lead to Scott getting his head bashed in by righties for a time, causing his numbers to get bloated. Eventually though, Scioscia's loyalty will finally run thin and Downs will drop down below Sean Burnett on the depth chart and be used more sparingly as a left-handed specialist. This more specialized usage will come with a nice trade-off though in that his aging body won't be worked as hard (no more five innings in six days), thus allowing him to stay mostly healthy for the entirety of the season before the Halos give him a hearty handshake and usher him out the door into free agency, never to be seen again.