March 7, 2007
It sure seems that Scott Linebrink has been connected to more potential transactions than every major league player since last July's trade deadline (including one particularly deathless rumor that he would be swapped to the Phillies for Aaron Rowand), yet he is still a member of the formidable Padres bullpen. While last year was Linebrink's most disappointing season as a setup man, he still logged a 3.57 ERA and ranked fifth in the National League in WXRL among relievers wih 50 innings pitched-good for 13th overall in the majors. How did Linebrink get to this point, and is he capable of replicating this production in the future?
Scott Cameron Linebrink was originally drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the second round of the 1997 amateur draft out of Southwest Texas State University. San Francisco placed him in Salem-Keizer of the Northwest League for his professional debut, but Linebrink would only log 10 innings there before a promotion to High-A landed him in San Jose:
Year Team Level IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 1997 Salem-Kzr (A-) 10.0 5.4 5.4 1.0 0.9 6.3 4.50 1997 San Jose (A+) 28.1 12.2 3.2 4.0 0.6 9.2 3.52 1998 Shreveport (AA) 113.0 10.2 4.6 2.2 1.0 8.0 5.27
His performance at San Jose earned him a promotion to Double-A Shreveport the following season with just 38 innings in the low minors. For his age-22 season, Linebrink posted excellent strikeout rates, but walked a few too many batters for his own good, which is reflected in his Run Average.
Baseball Prospectus 1999 was a fan of Linebrink, and thought he was on a path to success:
Jason Grilli got most of the attention after the '97 draft. Linebrink was drafted in the second round of the same year, and is maturing faster than his more-noted colleague. His upside might not be as high as Grilli's; on the other hand, he did strike out 128 in 113 innings for Shreveport.
To clarify, Grilli was selected in the first round by the Giants in 1997 and fourth overall, with Linebrink coming in the second at #56. Both players eventually converted to relief roles, and so far Linebrink has indeed had the much more productive career of the two. In fact, 2006 was the first year Grilli did not spend any time in the minors at all. Grilli has somehow just missed out on three World Series rings though, as he never made the major league squad for Florida in 2003 and left the White Sox for Detroit after 2004, and then was part of the losing effort against the Cardinals in last year's Fall Classic. The two combined for 2.1 innings pitched for the Giants in their careers, all of it coming from Linebrink.
Scott would repeat Double-A in 1999, and although he dropped his walks considerably, his strikeout rates fell as well, and he only managed 43 innings that season. Arthroscopic shoulder surgery should have rectified these problems, but the payoff was not immediate, as we shall see. As Baseball Prospectus 2000 put it, "A couple of years ago, Linebrink was one of the best pitching prospects in the Giants' organization. Now he's just another struggling young pitcher working his way back from injury problems." Not to be deterred by this lack of progress, the Giants promoted him to Triple-A Fresno, where he converted to relief after seven starts:
Year Team Level IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 1999 Shreveport (AA) 43.1 6.9 2.9 2.4 1.5 10.0 6.44 2000 Fresno (AAA) 62.0 7.1 1.7 4.1 1.5 7.8 6.10
In addition to his injuries, Linebrink caught a bad case of gopheritis and pitched pretty poorly from 1999-2000 for the Giants. His walk rates dropped again in 2000, but the strikeout rates still were not very high, and the home runs were the main issue with his game. He also threw those 2.1 innings discussed here earlier, but I think Linebrink would appreciate it if I didn't quote those stats.
Right before the deadline, the Giants decided to ship Linebrink out to Houston in exchange for Doug Henry, a veteran reliever bound for free agency at the end of the year. Henry posted some strange numbers for the Giants, throwing 25 IP and posting an ERA of 2.51, yet issuing 7.4 free passes per nine. Meanwhile Linebrink remembered how to pitch moving over to the Astros' organization:
It was only 15 innings, but it looked markedly different from his last work within the Giants organization. He would finish out the season with Houston, but that did not go quite as well, with Linebrink's peripherals falling apart completely; although hi ERA was only 4.66, he gave up the same number of walks as strikeouts, almost three homers allowed per nine, and a H/9 over 10.
Baseball America ranked Linebrink the 16th-best prospect in the Astros farm system, with a wonderful summary of the pros and cons of his career thus far:
Linebrink was San Francisco's No. 2 prospect entering 1999, but was slow to bounce back from arthroscopic shoulder surgery that offseason…The Astros made mechanical adjustments so Linebrink would stop throwing across his body, which had made it difficult for him to pitch inside against lefthanders. He throws three pitches, none of them soft: a 92-94 mph fastball, a slider, and a splitter. His splitter can be effective when he stays on top of it. A former starter, he has taken to relieving because he doesn't need an offspeed pitch and it takes less of a toll on his arm. After a strong Arizona Fall League showing, he'll compete for a major league bullpen job this spring.
Linebrink would split the 2001 season between New Orleans and Houston, and would do quite a bit better this time around:
Year Team Level IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA 2001 New Orleans (AAA) 72.0 9.0 3.0 3.0 0.5 6.5 3.50 2001 Houston (MLB) 10.1 7.8 5.2 1.5 0.0 5.2 3.56
Linebrink started out in Houston, but was sent down after four walk-wracked appearances. When he came back at the end of the season, it was more of the same, although in between he had a solid campaign at New Orleans. Heading into 2002, Linebrink was going to be a 26-year-old reliever stuck in Triple-A, but Baseball Prospectus 2002 thought he could do better than that:
Linebrink would be a fine candidate to step into the bullpen and give the Astros a solid reliever at the minimum salary, if Drayton McLane would just let someone as low-profile as Linebrink take the job…The longer Gerry Hunsicker pretends that some magic pixie dust makes the likes of T.J. Mathews better than Linebrink, the more McLane's money disappears unnecessarily.
Despite that kind of appreciation, 2002 was ugly for Linebrink, with too many free passes combined with too many hits allowed at three different levels. His ERA looked shinier in 2003, but his peripherals were poor, with below average strikeout rates and still too many walks. For a guy with Linebrink's power stuff, this was somewhat surprising to see, especially so far removed from the arthroscopic shoulder surgery that had initially hampered his progress. The Astros grew tired of trying to fix Linebrink, and placed him on waivers, where the Padres promptly snatched him up.
What happened to Linebrink seems to happen with almost every reliever Kevin Towers and Co. pick up. He pitched well, and cost little:
His peripherals weren't outstanding, but they were certainly a step up from the putrid postings of previous campaigns. Linebrink had bounced back and forth between the minors and majors from 2000 to 2003, but he was just getting started as a member of the Padres.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 did not like Linebrink as much as previous editions, but this was also before Petco was considered the pitcher's paradise that it has since being recognized to be:
Linebrink is best suited for a role that really doesn't exist in MLB anymore, that of swingman. With most teams on a five-man rotation, managers tend to leave their starters in five innings in almost all circumstances, a guy who can starts 10-15 times and provide 10-15 three-inning outings out of the bullpen doesn't really have a place. He ends up pitching in the sixth and seventh innings or the 12th and 13th innings. Given the Padres' outfield defense and the likelihood that Petco Park will be at least somewhat less friendly to flyball pitchers, Linebrink is a bad bet for 2004.
PECOTA did not think Linebrink would perform overly poorly, but the forecasted strikeouts may have been a little low; you can blame that on his awful peripherals from the years preceding his 2003 San Diego stint. To be fair, Linebrink was an extreme flyball guy, with only 32.5 percent of all batted-balls coming on the ground in 2003, and if it was thought that (1) the Padres outfielders would play poor defense and (2) Petco was not going to be kind to flyball pitchers, then you would assume Linebrink would not perform well, given his tendencies and his relatively small sample of success in the majors.
We now know that Petco is one of the best places for pitchers, period. The outfield defense was not terrible overall; the Padres had -10 FRAA from both left and right field, but +15 from center for an overall of -5, which over the course of a full season is not all that much, especially in the context of a reliever who throws fewer than six percent of the team's total innings. Given that, Linebrink ended up posting two straight dominant seasons, along with a third excellent one (for WXRL, his overall rank in MLB is in parentheses, among all relievers with a minimum of 50 IP in each season):
Year IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA WXRL 2004 84.0 8.9 2.6 3.5 0.7 6.5 2.36 3.559 (20) 2005 73.2 8.6 2.3 3.7 0.5 6.7 2.09 3.729 (19) 2006 75.2 8.1 2.3 3.6 1.1 8.3 3.71 3.995 (13)
Linebrink has been one of the top 20 relievers in baseball over the past three years, and this is in the same bullpen as Trevor Hoffman, who has ranked nearly alongside or higher than him in each of those seasons. Given a stable role and finally showing some health, Linebrink displayed the kind of production the Giants may have envisioned back when they took pitchers with each of their first two picks in the 1997 draft, even if it was in a relief role.
Over the course of his San Diego career, he has held hitters to a .226/.289/.346 line, including a ridiculous .212/.282/.311 against lefties. Right-handers hit much better off of Linebrink in 2006 though, coming in at .294/.341/.468; prior to that, they had hit .223/.283/.355. We will find out in 2007 if it was a one-year blip, or a trend to be concerned about.
Year P/PA FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2002 4.0 45.1% 28.0% 26.8% 13.5% 5.4% .394 .400 +0.06 2003 3.8 38.7% 27.2% 34.1% 17.6% 8.3% .304 .392 +0.88 2004 3.9 45.5% 22.0% 32.5% 13.7% 8.4% .256 .340 +0.84 2005 4.0 40.6% 20.8% 38.5% 19.2% 5.1% .270 .328 +0.58 2006 4.0 41.6% 19.0% 39.4% 13.0% 9.8% .296 .310 +0.14
Thanks to Petco, as well as some outstanding defensive play by the Padres, Linebrink has been able to outperform his expected BABIP every year of his career, sometimes by a very wide margin. Maybe he was not quite as good as his 2004-2005 stretch of dominance suggests, but he's certainly as good as his 2006 season was, and that was still one of the better relief seasons in the league. Interestingly enough, Linebrink's BABIP dropped immediately when he came to San Diego (.343 with Houston, .296 with the Pads in 2003), and his line-drive rates have continued to fall, while his groundball rates have risen since he has joined up with them.
This has made Linebrink a more effective pitcher, and if he can continue to get the ball on the ground more often-especially with the nifty infield defense the Padres have put together-he should have continued success. If, however, he continues his struggles against right-handers-and chances are, that will get worse as time goes on and Linebrink gets older-his value will drop significantly. Until that occurs, the Padres have themselves one of the better relievers out there, but he's a free agent at year's end if things do go downhill.