Five More Relievers You Might Be Overlooking

The spotlight makes its way to another five bullpen arms.

Yeah, this is the same topic as last week’s article. I decided there were enough pitchers worth noting to warrant doing another one. This group of pitchers is not any better or worse than last week’s, there just wasn’t room for ten scouting reports in one article. Anyways, let’s get right into it.

 

1. Erik Swanson

Erik Swanson had a rocky start to his MLB career. Across 2019 and 2020, he allowed a home run to 7.1% of all batters faced. For reference, the league average during those years was 3.6%. As you might imagine, that led to immense struggles and poor performance. However, he seemed to figure out what was causing this issue early in 2021. That only lasted for a half-season though as the wheels fell off the wagon later on in the year. But now in 2022, he’s pitching better than ever.

Swanson attacks hitters with a 3 pitch mix (fastball, slider, splitter) that may not stand out visually but is effective nonetheless. His fastball’s velocity has been about league average this year- sitting 92-94 and topping out at 96. The pitch’s defining trait that makes it so good is its 99% active spin rate. The overall spin of ~2280 RPM average for his career is slightly above the usual. With nearly all of it being active, the pitch has incredible movement. Combining both above-average rise and run, the pitch misses bats with ease. The slider and splitter are less special, but still solid pitches. Their whiff rates are about average overall but they generally induce non-threatening contact.

With a solid arsenal of pitches and plus command, there’s a lot to like about Swanson. He doesn’t burn himself with walks, but he does suffer the extreme variance potential that most high-fastball pitchers struggle with. Even with that in mind, I like the outlook here. Swanson could be a very good reliever in the mold of someone like Chad Green.

 

2. A.J. Puk

 

As a former top prospect and sixth overall pick, A.J. Puk has had lofty expectations placed on him in his professional career. He got off to a promising start in 2019 following his return from Tommy John surgery. He was fast-tracked to the majors where he showed off his high-octane stuff. Unfortunately, he suffered from lingering shoulder problems that eventually led to surgery and him missing all of 2020. He didn’t fare well in 2021 spending most of the year in AAA getting knocked around but still showing potential with his high strikeout rate. Now in 2022, he’s made some adjustments and his stuff looks better than ever.

Puk is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher. He has a changeup that grades well but it is inconsistent and he doesn’t throw it often enough to be worth analyzing further. His slider is an extreme gyro spin pitch with just a 13% active spin rate this season. So far, major league hitters have had no luck trying to do anything with it- whiffing on 44.7% of their swings against it. He throws a 4-seam and a 2-seam fastball, the former being the superior of the two. His 6’7″ frame, slight crossfire delivery, and starting spot on the first base side of the rubber create a unique look for hitters. This could be why his 4-seam misses far more bats than its sinking shape suggests that it should. To go along with that, it doesn’t suffer the consequences that most high-whiff fastballs do.

Armed with this dead ball of a pitch, a slider that might as well be invisible half of the time, and an 8.5% walk rate to date, Puk’s potential as a relief pitcher is limitless. With his injury history, the odds of him making it back into a starting rotation seem low but Puk appears to be a closer-caliber bullpen arm.

 

3. Griffin Jax

 

Embracing the new school of relief pitching, Griffin Jax is throwing more sliders than the rest of his pitches combined this season. He had a less than stellar rookie season in 2021 but there’s a bit more to the story than his statistics would suggest. His slider was his main secondary pitch at the time, but it was new to him. He started throwing it in 2020 while trying to add a pitch with horizontal movement to his mostly vertical arsenal. It took a bit of fine-tuning but this year it seems like a pitch he could build an MLB career on.

He throws this pitch with a high spin rate, usually in the ~2700 RPM range. The spin direction contributes to the violent horizontal action you see on it. It’s important to remember that he only learned this pitch recently and that’s probably part of why it got lit up in 2021. It was landing in the zone far too often and it wasn’t drawing as many chases as you’d hope for. He tweaked the axis on it a bit last offseason which resulted in even more horizontal break. It’s also ending up right next to the zone far more, in an ideal spot to get right-handed hitters to chase it and for lefties to get tied up on it. This improved pitch location is proving to be the piece Jax was missing last season. And, it’s not just his slider that looks better.

While it’s important to remember that this is a smaller sample size, there’s an undeniable improvement. The only issue I have with Jax currently is that he occasionally gets into trouble with his fastball in situations where he needs to throw a strike. It has a good shape, he just needs to lean on it a little less in those situations. That aside, he’s much improved from last season and he’s also shown an ability to go multiple innings if needed. This bodes well for his future and I’m looking forward to seeing what he becomes as his career progresses.

 

4. Jason Adam

 

It’s taken a while for Jason Adam to establish himself with just 89.2 innings pitched in his MLB career at the time of writing this. This despite making his debut in 2018 and making appearances in the majors every season since. A combination of command issues, flyball pitcher variance, and a freak ankle injury that required surgery have played a part in this. It’s unfortunate because this is the kind of stuff we’ve been robbed of seeing more often as a result.

The first time I saw him pitch, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. His mechanics look so strange but he has some of the best stuff in the league right now. Not only that, his funky short-arming delivery hides the ball until very late in his motion which allows his already great pitches to play up even further. He’s undergone some slight mechanical changes and pitch changes over the years. The Rays may have found his best form yet.

It’s curious, his slider was already a great pitch but it’s different this year. It was previously a pitch with heavy downward action thanks to the positive deviation between the spin-based and observed movement. Now, it has negative deviation, somewhat similar to Jax’s slider, giving it more horizontal break and a new shape. It’s hard to say for sure whether or not this change is for the best, only time will tell, but its slash line against is nothing but zeroes currently. Regardless, this is a pitch he primarily only uses against righties. His real secondary pitch is his changeup.

I’m hoping you understand why I love watching this guy pitch now. The stuff is just plain nasty and the changeup is no exception. This pitch is a total worm-killer, assuming the hitter can even make contact with it. This contrasts with the rest of his batted ball profile which includes a ludicrous 16.7% popup rate on all batted balls in his MLB career. The key for Adam going forward is to continue to locate his pitches close enough to the zone to elicit swings and to avoid the middle of the strike zone. The Rays have a history of reclamation projects and making diamonds out of coal, so the thought of them continuing to work with Adam is an exciting prospect.

 

5. Scott Effross

Scott Effross was someone I strongly considered showcasing in the article about sidearm pitchers a couple of weeks ago. He’s a bit more of an old-school sidearm pitcher. He doesn’t throw particularly hard but he has exceptional control and works a sinker-slider-changeup mix to great success.

His ability to limit walks has been his defining trait thus far. His 1.9% walk rate is unsustainable of course, but it’s not out of character for him at all. Across his minor league career, he worked to a 6.4% rate and he has given us no reason to believe that that’s going to change at the major league level. His tried and tested method for attacking hitters is as good-looking as it is effective. The sinker goes one way and the slider goes the other. More specifically, the sinker averages ~17 inches of run while the slider averages ~13 inches of break in the opposite direction. Two pitches that start in the same place and wind up breaking 30 inches apart are generally a good start for a pitch mix. He also has a changeup that is effective when he throws it out of the strike zone.

Striking out hitters when your fastball barely scrapes 90 mph is a difficult task but Effross does so while also managing contact effectively. He’s not perfect. He does occasionally leave his slider in bad spots, however, it hasn’t burned him yet. He hasn’t been entrusted with high leverage spots yet but you have to imagine it’s only a matter of time if he keeps pitching the way he has been.

Closing Thoughts

In the last article I said I was looking forward to finding more pitchers that I thought deserved a deeper look and recognition. I suppose it didn’t take long to do so. I’m not sure if this will wind up being a series, but for now, I’ll keep trying to find more pitchers like this.

 

Featured image by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerdesigns_ on Twitter)

Jack Foley

Jack is a contributor at Pitcher List who enjoys newfangled baseball numbers, coffee, and watching dogs walk by from the window where he works. He has spent far too much time on the nickname page of Baseball-Reference.

2 responses to “Five More Relievers You Might Be Overlooking”

  1. Larry says:

    I play in a 15-team, points-based league. We values Holds numerically the same as Saves. I find these articles very interesting and helpful. Keep ’em coming!

    • Jack Foley says:

      I’m so glad you like them! The list of relievers that fly under the radar wears thinner with each one, but there should be enough for a couple more!

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