Anthony Bender’s path to the big leagues is about as unorthodox as it comes. He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 20th round of the 2016 MLB draft. But after spending just three years with the team’s minor league affiliates, Bender was released. In 2019, he signed a contract with the Sioux City Explorers of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. However, Bender pitched just 3.2 innings before the Milwaukee Brewers gave him a contract, where he ended up reaching their Double-A affiliate team. But after the 2020 minor league season was cancelled due to COVID, Bender once again found himself playing in a different league. This time, he joined the Milwaukee Milkmen of the American Association. After his 2020 season, Bender elected free agency and subsequently signed a minor league contract with the Miami Marlins. Bender got the call up to the show on May 4th and has been lights out ever since.
With 34.2 innings under his belt, Bender is currently sporting a 2.34 ERA and a 26.8% K-BB rate. One quick glance at his Baseball Savant page and we can see he’s at the top of the league by quite a few metrics. He’s in the 94th percentile in hard hit rate, the 95th percentiles in both xwOBA and xERA, the 90th percentile in xBA, 96th percentile in xSLG, and 91st percentile in strikeout rate. His barrel rate, walk rate, and whiff rate percentile rankings don’t break into the 90s, but are still very solid. Bender’s sub-2.50 ERA places him 24th among all qualified relievers, however, he is 11th by xFIP, 14th by SIERA, and 9th by pCRA—possibly the best ERA estimator for relievers. All in all, Bender has a lot of metrics that point to him being really, really, good. Bender is using a two-pitch mix, where both pitches are elite.
Bender’s primary pitch, and his only fastball, is a sinker. He throws it 52.2% of the time and averages 96.7 mph with it. The pitch has turned in a measly 16.5% whiff rate, but owns a 33.2% CSW thanks to a 27.1% called strike rate—the league’s sixth-best mark for a sinker among all pitchers (min 250 sinkers thrown). So while whiffs aren’t the pitch’s specialty, his sinker finds a lot of strikes. Additionally, the pitch is great at mitigating contact and that’s where it really begins to flourish. For starters, Bender lives with his sinker near the top of the zone, which may go against the grain with the sinker ball method that we might see from most pitchers.
However, Bender’s sinker still benefits the same way, inducing a ground ball 47% of the time, the league’s 29th-best ground ball rate on a sinker. The pitch also has the league’s eighth-lowest hard hit rate on sinkers, getting hit hard only 31.8% of the time. The pitch benefits largely from its vertical movement, where it finds 6.6 inches more than the average sinker and 26.8 inches of total drop. Here’s what it looks like.
You can’t tell by the GIF, but the pitch results in a broken bat. You can see the pitch gets some run, albeit nothing special, but the velocity it brings—which is the league’s ninth-fastest average MPH for a sinker—and the pitch’s sink makes for a weakly hit ground ball combination. His sinker currently holds a .213 xBA, a .289 xwOBA, and has allowed just one home run.
Bender’s other pitch is his slider and it profiles completely different than his sinker. His slider is a strike machine, finding a whiff 46.8% of the time and a called strike 22.3% of the time. The pitch’s 43% CSW rate makes it the second best pitch by the metric in the league, trailing only Jacob deGrom’s slider. His slider averages 4.1 inches vs. average of vertical movement and 3.1 inches vs. average of horizontal movement. It averages 84.4 mph and is primarily thrown down and in to left-handed hitters. As a result, hitters who face the pitch hold a .152 xBA, .192 xwOBA, and are usually taking the walk of shame back to the dugout. Here’s one of his most recent strikeouts against Padres’ phenom Fernando Tatis Jr.
While the pitch is phenomenal—literally one of the best pitches in baseball—at finding strikes, it is also great at producing weak contact. By sliders, Bender’s has the 23rd-lowest hard hit rate, eighth-lowest dynamic hard hit rate, and has allowed only two barrels all year. And on top of that, Bender knows how to locate it. The pitch has the 10th lowest walk rate among all sliders, while posting the sixth-best strikeout rate among the same pitch. All the aforementioned factors have created a pitch with a 1.28 pCRA—the 10th-lowest pCRA on any pitch this season. Bender’s slider hasn’t just been an elite pitch this season, it’s very much been one of the best pitches in baseball.
Bender’s two-pitch mix is really all he needs. He can fill up the zone with both pitches, has a go-to pitch when he needs a whiff, and can use either pitch to induce weak outs. Bender does a decent job of tunneling the two pitches, but the large disparity in average speed and the differing horizontal movement directions are really what help the pitches feed off each other. Thanks to Pitcher List’s own Ben Brown, we can perfectly see how the two pitches break away in different directions.
Less than two years ago, Bender was pitching in an independent professional baseball league. He’s been signed to five different professional baseball teams since March of 2019. But nonetheless, the 26-year-old rookie reliever may now be firmly planting his feet among the league’s top relievers. He brings with him two elite pitches, where one may be one of the best pitches you’ll see this season. If you don’t know who Anthony Bender is, you do now. And if you need a reason to watch the Miami Marlins, now you have one.
Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire