(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)
Here we go again. It seems like every year fantasy owners get attached to an Angels closer, only to have unpredictable mad man Mike Scioscia rip our hearts out, usually replacing the up and comer with a washed up veteran (remember Bud Norris?)
Indeed, the Angels ninth inning role has been fraught with uncertainty for what feels like a decade. The expected closer in LA for the last few years has been Cam Bedrosian. Yet, Bedrosian only has seven career saves. It’s looking more and more like his lights out 2016 season (1.12 ERA, 11.4 K/9) is an outlier. Currently, a dip in velocity has relegated Bedrosian to the middle innings in 2018.
Blake Parker had a chance to run away with the job, but an incredibly underwhelming spring and an ugly start to the year has pushed him into middle relief, far away from the ninth inning. Many thought Scioscia would go the veteran route once again and put 34-year-old Jim Johnson in the role. Johnson has 176 career saves and earned 22 last year with the Braves, albeit with an unsightly 5.56 ERA (4.22 FIP).
However, Scioscia is going with his young flame-thrower Keynan Middleton. Middleton sports a blazing 97 mile per hour fastball a tight 88 mile per hour slider and a heavy changeup. He has gotten the job done thus far, going 4-for-4 in save opportunities with a 0.93 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. From a fantasy perspective, Middleton is the guy you want to own in LA at the moment. A deeper look at his pitch arsenal shows plenty of reasons to be excited about the 24-year-old, but some causes for concern as well.
Middleton has a three pitch arsenal, although like most relievers he relies predominantly on two pitches. His fastball averages 96.5 miles per hour, and can touch triple digits. Although he’s lost movement from his rookie season, Middleton is finding a lot of success in the early going, thanks to a 44.1% o-swing rate and a .158 BABIP.
As you can see above, Middleton likes to attack hitters, particularly right-handers, up in the zone with his fastball. That has helped him post a 52.6% fly-ball rate this year, up nearly 12% from last season. However, his HR/FB rate was 17% last year and is 0% in 2018. Expect some regression in that regard, especially as the weather gets warmer. Not saying Drew Butera will suddenly be blasting high heat out of the park when there’s not snow in his face, but others certainly could.
While his fastball may be due for some negative regression, the opposite can be said for his slider. Middleton’s slider was his best pitch last season, boasting a 22.7% swinging strike rate and holding opponents to a .534 OPS. That has not been the case in the small sample we’ve seen from him in 2018. He has seen his swinging strike rate plummet to 7.9%. The biggest reason: he can’t locate it. He is only throwing 18.4% of his sliders in the strike zone, and while his 35.5% o-swing rate is solid, he needs to tighten this pitch up if he wants to actually generate strikeouts. From the chart above you can see he’s trying to stay low-and-away to both left and right-handers, but he can’t quite clip the corner. The below GIF is a good example of how nasty the pitch can be, but also shows Middleton’s middling (heh) control.
On an 0-2 count with nobody on, that’s a great pitch to try and get a hitter like Stephen Piscotty to chase. However, this situation is a 2-0 count and two runners on. Middleton needs to get that pitch dropping right into the corner of the strike zone, instead of in the dirt. He was bailed out by Piscotty’s impatience at the plate, but this could easily have gone 3-0. The slider has great 12-6 movement and scratches 90 miles per hour, so it’s easy to see why it can be a devastating weapon. However, unlike last year, Middleton has not been able to harness it correctly.
Middleton’s last offering is his changeup, which he has decided to use much more in 2018. He threw the pitch 3.1% of the time in 2017, but is currently offering it at a 10.8% clip. However, he only throws it against left-handers. While the pitch has not been very successful this season (5.9% swinging strike rate, 8.3% o-swing rate) there is some reason to be excited in the potential.
It seems like he wants his change-up to be his out-pitch against left-handers. While lefties are hitting .333/.400/.389 off him this year, Middleton should continue to develop this pitch. Most relievers try and carry just two pitches, but Middleton’s slider is inconsistent at best, and a 87 mile per hour changeup with hefty arm side run is the perfect pitch to throw at lefties and get them out in front, like he did here with Nomar Mazara.
Overall, Middleton has the profile of a mid-tier closer. He will likely never be a Craig Kimbrel or a Kenley Jansen, but if his slider can return to the level it showed in 2017, and if his change-up can develop into a solid out pitch against left-handers, he has the makings of a solid fantasy contributor.
Of course, the big if here is Scioscia. Middleton has received the last four save opportunities, and has shut the door on each of them. However, it likely won’t take much for Scioscia to decide to rotate other arms into the ninth inning role. And while Middleton has gotten the job done so far, he’s had luck on his side. Take his April 13 outing for example. Middleton gave up a leadoff single to Jon Jay before getting reserve outfielder Abraham Almonte to ground into a double play. Whit Merrifield followed with a walk, but was thrown out trying to steal second by Rene Rivera. A save sure, but not exactly what you want to see out of your ninth inning guy.
All this to say, pick up Middleton if you need a closer. He has the stuff to carve out a place square in the middle of our closer rankings. Just don’t get too attached. Mike Scioscia sure won’t.