Alex Torres has moved on. The 26 year old lefty had a huge rookie season for the Rays, managing a 1.71 ERA in 39 appearances, but the Rays turned around and traded him away to the San Diego Padres for Logan Forsythe and a quartet of interesting prospects. The Rays had to like the players they were getting back, but it still seems so strange that the Rays traded him with his future looking as bright as ever. Was there something about Torres that the Rays picked up on that made trading him seem more attractive than it would seem? Torres’ numbers from this season give us insight into a trend that could be just that.
In 2013, Torres became the 15th reliever since 2000 to register an ERA below 2.50 in 35 or more appearances while averaging at least 1.3 innings per appearance (basically an inning and a third). The previous 14 did not do well, with each one seeing his ERA rise the next year. The reason for that ties into Torres’ season. Torres was pitching extremely well in long relief, so the Rays put him in higher leverage spots to see what he can do. He did decently in that role, but he was not anything nearly as special. No one is satisfied with a great long reliever. Long relievers are by definition the last guy on your pitching staff, and if they prove themselves more capable, they either move to starting games or to a late-inning role. History shows, however, that their success moving on is far from assured.
Wait a second–it is very difficult to post an ERA under 2.50 for an entire season. How do those 14 pitchers compare to the entire body of pitchers who posted an ERA below 2.50 since 2000? The statistics provide evidence that the group that Torres joined experienced a more extreme decline. The 14 pitchers averaged an increase of 2.215 earned runs per 9 innings compared to the overall average of 1.39 in the 301 pitchers who managed a 2.50 ERA in 35 or more appearances and threw in 10 games the following year. That is a statistically significant value with a p-value of .0172 (think 58 to 1 odds). Relievers are variable enough, but these pitchers could be especially at risk of collapse. If that is really the case, the Rays could not have picked a better time to trade Torres.
We have already seen the Rays trade away another one of those 14 pitchers, and they look brilliant now for doing so. Wade Davis was also coming off a huge season in long relief in 2012, managing a 2.43 ERA in 54 appearances and 70.1 innings pitched, but he was a disaster as he moved back to the starting rotation as a member of the Kansas City Royals, managing just a 5.32 ERA in 135.1 IP. There is no guarantee that Torres will have the same fate, especially because he will remain in relief. However, with the season he had clouding his future and the Padres offering a trade package they could not resist, the Rays found the perfect opportunity to trade Torres. We may be viewing this trade very differently a year from now if recent history persists.