For the third time now, we have five relief pitchers in the midst of breakout seasons that you may not have noticed.
The younger brother of Edwin Diaz, Alexis isn’t a carbon copy of his brother but he’s not far off from it. A 12th-round pick in 2015, the now 25-year-old Diaz skipped AAA entirely. The Reds may not be a good team, but they may have developed a monster for the back of their bullpen.
The first thing that sticks out watching him pitch is that his mechanics are nearly identical to his brother’s. A high leg kick followed by a whippy forward motion that flings the ball to the plate with excellent velocity and release extension. He doesn’t have the same build as his brother, weighing 60 lbs more, and he loses some of the speed that comes with this delivery. This hasn’t mattered much yet though. Despite throwing the ball 3 mph slower than Edwin on average, he’s produced a similar whiff rate while also producing largely non-threatening batted balls. He pairs his fastball with a slider that manages to play even better than it looks.
He’s missing bats with ease, and when hitters do make contact, they haven’t been able to do much with it to date. His high fly-ball rate is something to keep an eye on. It might level out, or, he might wind up suffering the regression most fly-ball pitchers deal with in the form of unlucky home runs. Regardless, to this point, he’s looked like a premium bullpen arm and could be put in a closing role soon.
From the pitcher tied for the second most release extension on average (7.4 feet) to the one with by far the least (4.7 feet). Now 30 years old, Moll is back in Oakland in 2022 – the team he made his MLB debut with five years ago after a trade from Colorado. He bounced around minor league systems from 2018 to 2021 – making stops in Toronto, San Francisco, and Arizona. After all that, it looks like he’s found a home in the league and the stuff to stick around.
Moll is an incredibly unique pitcher, and it starts with his being a short-strider at 5’9″. He has a half-foot less extension on his pitches than the next lowest. Going further, he throws most of his pitches in the same spot. He usually aims his sweeping slider and heavy sinker for the low glove side corner. Despite what looks like a predictable approach on paper, hitters can’t seem to do anything with his stuff.
The slider doesn’t get as many whiffs as you might expect with its nasty movement and absurd 3133 RPM spin rate, though it makes up for it by creating batted balls that rarely amount to anything. He also averages ~400 more RPM than usual on his sinker. While that’s typically not ideal, he compensates for it by having a significant amount of gyro spin, preventing it from rising too much.
Put simply, Moll is one of a kind. He gets far more called strikes than most pitchers, and I think it’s possible that batters just aren’t sure what to make of his unusual release point and his stuff. Whether or not that’s a sustainable model is difficult to say. His somewhat bloated walk rate is likely just the nature of his approach. He throws a frisbee slider 59% of the time. I don’t think it’s anything to be overly concerned about. Especially considering that he can lean on his sinker if he gets into trouble with walks. Anyway, I love watching this guy pitch. He’s a fascinating study and I hope (and think) he can continue his success.
Alex Lange has had a strange career since being a first-round pick in 2017. He never excelled at any level of the minors, just sort of got by. He only had one season with an ERA under 4.00, and that was a 3.74 as a 22-year-old in High-A ball. In his second MLB season, though, it seems he or his pitching coaches discovered why this was happening.
Lange’s 4-seam fastball is… not special. Its shape is rather pedestrian. During the last offseason, someone in his camp realized this. They came up with the idea to pitch backward and focus on his curve and changeup, his two best pitches.
His curve bucks the conventional wisdom for the pitch, with more gyro than active spin. The way he twirls it gives the pitch a 12-6 hammer shape. He also throws it hard, averaging more than 85 mph on it. These elements give it both the ability to miss bats and induce weak contact. The changeup is certainly more “normal,” but it’s no less devastating. Working with nearly 17 inches of horizontal movement on average as well as big tumbling depth, the pitch is just as effective as the curveball. He’s also switched to using a sinker as his fastball of choice and it’s doing well for him.
This unorthodox but lethal pitch mix is propelling Lange to outstanding results. He has worked his way to a stellar 2.13 ERA and 30.4% strikeout rate. His walk rate is up a bit but I don’t believe it’s cause for concern. It’s not high enough to be worth worrying about yet. Everything else has been going right for him this season, and it’s not hard to see why.
Hentges was never regarded as a top prospect coming up through the minors. This was due to a lack of consistent command and truly eye-popping stuff. However, his size (he’s listed at 6’6″) and arm slot create a difficult angle for hitters and have always allowed his stuff to play up. This season, he seems to have sharpened his control a bit, and the stuff has taken a step forward as well.
While nearly everyone else’s spin rates plummeted post-crackdown, Hentges managed to add to his fastball over this past offseason. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how he did it. His mechanics haven’t visibly changed. Maybe it’s the ever-changing baseballs?
Whatever the case, his fastball now has more run and rise, and this slight difference has had a huge impact on his pitching. His slider has also improved, adding a bit of depth and horizontal break despite throwing it slightly harder. It’s a small sample that’s likely to even out a bit throughout the season. That said, his improved stuff and that previously mentioned angle on his pitches have turned him into a ground ball machine.
I know it’s only 21 innings. He’s barely thrown 300 pitches. It might be a bit hasty to say this is who he is as a pitcher now, but there are signs of sustainable success. If the command holds and the stuff doesn’t regress, he’s someone to watch.
Vest’s rookie season last year didn’t go according to plan for anyone involved. He was selected from Detroit by Seattle in the Rule 5 Draft, and then got knocked around to the tune of a 6.17 ERA in 35 innings. This led to the Mariners waiving him which sent him back to Detroit. He was then assigned to Triple-A Toledo where he continued to struggle. However, he was given a shot on the Tigers’ opening day roster this year and he’s more than made the most of it.
Vest’s stuff has ticked upward this season, and the change in on-field results backs that up. He added a bit of extra velocity on his fastball, up to 94.8 mph from 93.5 last season. This added speed and the accompanying spin rate have given his fastball a bit more rise, bringing it to about league average.
Where his fastball shines is in its arm-side run, and his ability to land it for called strikes. The slider has also improved significantly as the higher active spin percentage he has on it this season has led to increased movement. This has led to an increase in whiffs and chases. The changeup… has potential, but he’s struggling to locate it. It’s often too far from the zone to elicit chases. When he can get it where he wants it, it can induce whiffs and ground balls with ease.
It’s important to remember that Vest has only been pitching for five years. He made the conversion from shortstop in college and never looked back. Combined with being strictly a relief pitcher the entire time, he has had limited chances to hone his craft against real competition. With this in mind, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Vest still has the potential to grow as a pitcher. It’s not often you can say that about a 27-year-old, but this is a unique case.
So ends another one of these articles. This will likely be the last in the series for a while as I’m simply running out of relievers that need highlighting this season. There are always going to be breakout players in baseball. When I find more that aren’t being properly appreciated, I’ll make another.
(Photo by Icon Sportswire) Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerDesigns_ on Twitter)