It may be hard to believe now, but, once upon a time, MLB teams would only use one pitcher per game. In fact, the only time this wasn’t the case was when a pitcher switched positions with another player, as was the case with the Boston Red Caps in 1876, when Jack Manning switching positions with Joe Borden. Yes, folks, there once was a team named the Boston Red Caps.
Ultimately, it took until 1889 for the rules to be changed in order to allow a substitute pitcher to come into a game. Nevertheless, with starting pitchers still generally expected to pitch the entire game, it took until the later portions of the 20th century for the concept of the “relief pitcher” to be accepted in baseball. To adapt to a growth in offense, teams started to deploy at least one pitcher as a specialized reliever to use late in games, rather than rely on a tired pitcher, and that grew to teams using multiple relief pitchers to get through a game.
Still, at the time, it’s very likely that few could have imagined the evolution of pitching usage. As recently as 2010, starting pitchers were averaging around 5.98 innings per start. In 2021, though, that numbers was down to 5.02 innings, nearly a full inning less. That’s quite a stark amount, and a trend that almost certainly will continue on.
After all, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for this trend. For starters, as pitchers max out for more effectiveness and throw harder than ever, it’s naturally more difficult to work through an extended pitch count. Meanwhile, as teams have become sharper, they’ve found a considerable edge with replacing a tired starter going through a batting order for a third time with a fresh reliever, which, in most cases, is a wise decision in terms of run prevention. What’s being asked of starting pitchers is different, and while Sandy Alcantara may be trying to “bring back the complete game” on his own, the reality is that the load placed on relievers is only going to continue to grow.
So, are they up to the task? It’s hard to simply look at the average statistics for a reliever – efficiency goes down as volume goes up – to determine this, but it’s not a surprise to see the standard reliever allows fewer runs per nine innings than the average starter. After all, the depth of pitchers who can sit in the upper-90s with a two-plane slider are growing tremendously, to the point that teams don’t have room for several intriguing relief pitchers that can be a major part of a World Series contender.
As we have seen from Clay Holmes (Yankees), Evan Phillips (Dodgers), Jason Adam (Rays), John Schreiber (Red Sox), and others, a dominant reliever can come from where you least expect it. Especially as more relievers are needed, front offices are going to use all resources, such as small trades or the waiver wire, to try to strike gold on the next impact late-inning arm. In hindsight, surely there are teams kicking themselves on missing out on those names above, but rather than dwell on the past, it’s all about finding the next Clay Holmes or Evan Phillips.
It’s easy to look away from the television screen when the big-name starting pitcher comes out of the game. However, when these relief pitchers come into the game, that shouldn’t be the case. Whether it’s a youngster trying to establish himself or a pitcher who has overcome previous struggles, these relievers are bound to take the next step and hopefully transition into high-leverage arms, even if they aren’t heralded names at the moment.
At the end of the day, to quote the great Ferris Buehler, “life moves pretty fast”. If you don’t stand to look around for a moment, you might miss the ascension of these relievers!
Simply from a run differential standpoint, the Rangers (+6) should theoretically be a .500 team this season, a major step forward from where they were last season. Instead, they’re nine games below .500, thanks, in large part, to the league’s worst record (5-22) in one-run games. That’s certainly not what the team envisioned at the beginning of the season.
How does this happen? A bullpen with the second-worst win probability added (WPA). Texas has had a lot of issues when it comes to finding stability in the later innings, and now, they’ve chosen to turn to a different reliever to pitch in their most crucial situations. Interestingly, though, he isn’t your prototypical late-inning reliever.
Nope. Instead, Brett Martin succeeds in a much different fashion than your standard fireballer. While he isn’t a “soft tosser” per se, 93-94 MPH is generally average for a reliever, when your top fastball is a sinker, it’s generally unlikely that you’re going to miss a lot of bats. Well, unless you’re Martin. The lefty may only have a 19.7% strikeout rate in 32 innings this year, but that comes with strong underlying metrics, such as a 28.8% whiff rate and 13.6% swinging-strike rate. In other words, the strikeouts are coming.
So, how does Martin do it? It’s certainly not from his two fastballs, which have induced a whiff on just 13.2% of the swings against them this season. Both pitches have been very effective in terms of inducing ground balls (66.7%), which has allowed him to rank near the top of the league in terms of turning hitters into worm burners. Yet, to become a complete pitcher, it’d be ideal to have the strikeouts come, and that has been the case for Martin.
Really, this has been what has held Martin back. While he boasted a ground ball rate over 55% prior to the start of this season, it also only came with an 18.5% strikeout rate, making him more of your standard contact-inducing reliever. Thus, Martin opted to make some changes:
Less fastballs and more breaking balls is generally a strong foundation for missing more bats, but there’s more to it than that. See, Martin has added significant vertical depth to both of his breaking balls, which had led to considerable success for his curveball. I mean, this is simply a thing of beauty:
The issue with having a horizontal breaking ball is they can tend to have notable platoon splits, but that’s not a concern for Martin, who’s vertical curveball actually has induced more whiffs against righties (46.7%) than lefties (33.3%). As a lefty reliever, this edge is pivotal, and allows him to be trusted as a high-leverage arm for the Rangers, regardless of the other team’s lineup. Essentially, the 27-year-old has three pitches (sinker, slider, four-seam fastball) that excel in terms of getting ground balls, with one true put-away pitch that will allow him to unlock another level.
If there is one minor concern with Martin, it’s that his velocity has fluctuated constantly throughout the season. That being said, velocity fluctuations can be common for relievers – see, Scott Barlow – and he’s starting to comfortably sit in the 93-94 MPH range. Any pitcher who can get the ground balls that he does will have a role in a major-league bullpen, but when you add in the extra whiffs he’s getting as well as his propensity for limiting walks, you get the type of pitcher who could flourish into a high-octane reliever in a few years. Still just in his third year of MLB service, Martin has plenty of time to establish himself before he becomes a free agent. When the time comes, though, expect him to have done enough to be in high demand.
Back to the well with another lefty here! What if I told you there was a reliever that a respected projection system (THE BAT) believes will post a 2.96 ERA for the rest of the season, yet you may have never heard of him? Let’s change that here.
To be fair, simply based on minor-league statline scouting, there was plenty of evidence that the Twins had something special in Jovani Moran. Starting in 2019, he struck out 37.5% of the batters he faced in the upper levels of the minors, yet, for a variety of reasons, wasn’t able to solidify himself at the MLB level. So far this season, the 25-year-old has had quite a journey:
- Start of Season: Sent Down To Triple-A
- May 2nd: Called up To MLB
- May 6th: Sent Down To Triple-A
- May 28th: Called Up To MLB
- June 15th: Sent Down To Triple-A
- June 26th: Called Up To MLB
Since his latest promotion to the MLB level, Moran has experienced his longest stint without being sent down, and there are some good reasons for him to continue to be in the majors for the rest of this season, and moving forward as well. After all, he’s allowed just five earned runs in 19.1 innings, but, most importantly, his underlying peripherals (34.6% K, 3.45 skill interactive ERA/SIERA) all indicate that he’s been a very productive reliever so far. As the Twins look to finish the job and win the AL Central, getting more from their bullpen will be key, and that starts with giving Moran more opportunities to shine.
So, clearly, Moran has the ability to miss bats and be effective at a very high level, but how he does it makes for a much more interesting story. Sitting just 92-93 MPH with his fastball, he isn’t someone who is naturally going to blow you away, earning a below-average 45 grade from Fangraphs on the 20/80 scouting scale. Still, he’s made notable changes to his fastball, leading to it featuring 1.7 inches of vertical movement above average. The result? A pitch that is significantly harder to hit than you may think:
As you’d expect, Moran’s intentions are clearly to locate this pitch exclusively at the top of the zone. With the vertical ride created, he’s excelled when it comes to getting whiffs (32.1%), while the fastball has also been successful in terms of inducing a lot of weakly hit balls in the air. Don’t worry, though – this isn’t even his best pitch! Rather, the honor would go to his changeup, which is a true 80-grade offering:
What makes this changeup so special? For starters, it has consistently missed bats (48.6% whiff) at an incredible level, but, to add onto it, also gets ground balls (68.4%) with absolute ease. Thus, he not only features two exceptional pitches, but two that complement each other to allow him to work north/south, while balancing weakly-hit pop-ups (fastball) with a lot of ground balls (changeup). The grand result? The exact type of pitcher you want in a high-leverage situation. Need a strikeout? Moran can do that for you. Need a double-play? No problem. Even when you factor in consistent troubles with walks, there is plenty of research done that high-leverage walks aren’t as consequential as you may think, given the possible alternative of grooving a fastball right over the heart of the zone.
Based on his minor-league track record and arsenal, several indicators point to Moran clearly having the potential to be one of the best lefty relievers in the league. As the Twins look to finally exercise their postseason demons, this isn’t just a pitcher they can rely on this year, but for several more years as well.
The first two pitchers on this list specialize in getting ground balls. That certainly isn’t the case with Steven Wilson, who is inducing the fourth-fewest amount of ground balls among pitchers with at least 20 innings this season. In spite of that, though, this is still a pitcher you can expect to work his way into the later innings of games.
Drafted as a 23-year-old fifth-year senior from Santa Clara University, Wilson didn’t have much extra time to develop. Thus, the Padres, after drafting him in the 8th round of the 2018 MLB draft, decided to fast track him as a reliever, which led to him reaching Triple-A. Alas, after absolutely crucifying Triple-A batters last season (40.1% K, 31.2% K-BB), he was on San Diego’s opening day roster. Still, the results have been mixed.
On one hand, for a fly-ball pitcher, Wilson’s 25.2% strikeout rate is slightly underwhelming, especially since it’s also coming with a 9.8% walk rate. Yet, this would be misleading. As evidenced by Wilson’s strong 13.9% swinging-strike rate and 30.1% called-strike + whiff rate (CSW%), it’s very likely he strikes out more batters over time, leading to even better numbers than he currently has. Plus, considering that his vertical arsenal specializes in inducing weakly-hit fly balls/pop-ups (40.6% of the batted balls against him qualify as such), there are a lot of indicators pointing to a successful career for the 27-year-old.
However, does the arsenal back that up? Luckily, that is certainly the case. Eno Sarris’ pitching+ model does a tremendous job as a very predictive measure for relief pitchers in a small sample size, and, in this case, Wilson ranks above-average in both the qualify of his arsenal (118.5 stuff+ ) and his ability to command it (104.6 location+). Considering the two elite pitches he brings to the table, that’s to be expected.
As for most pitchers, it all starts with the fastball for Wilson. Featuring 2.5 inches of vertical ride, it’s a plus pitch that he features at the top of the zone, succeeding both in terms of getting whiffs (28.1%) and pop-ups (20%). From a visual standpoint, it’s easy to see why:
At a time where steeper bat angles are becoming the norm for MLB hitters, having a vertical fastball that you can locate up and away is critical for missing bats at a high level. It’s not just that Wilson has strong characteristics with his fastball; he also locates it exclusively on the outer half of the plate, demonstrating a clear location plan that is going to provide him with a lot of success. As someone who doesn’t feature a changeup much, being able to have a vertical fastball that can have success against lefties has allowed him to not deal with any sort of platoon splits, although against righties, the game plan changes significantly. That’s due to Wilson’s slider, which complements the fastball tremendously.
Talk about working north-south! With above-average vertical and horizontal movement, Wilson’s slider is a complete pitch, and does feature strong velocity separation (13-14 MPH) from his fastball. Now, we can quibble as to whether a sharper slider would serve him better, given the fact that breaking ball velocity is the main driver of success. That being said, the pitch induces a lot of chases (36.8%) due to its vertical action, and has had overall success (34.7% whiff, .255 xwOBA allowed this year. To complement the fastball, it more than does the job, and rounds out a strong one-two punch.
Is Wilson going to deal with some home runs? Sure, but with the ability to miss bats, keep his walks in check enough, and limit the hits he allows based on him inducing an exceptional amount of weakly-hit balls in the air, that’s more than compensated for. As the Padres look to upgrade their offense at the trade deadline, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Wilson, a promising reliever with five extra years of club control, on the move. That being said, this is someone they ought to be inclined to keep – by next season, his talented is substantial enough for him to man the ninth inning for them. Yep, that’s the type of potential we’re looking at here.
RHP Matthew Festa, Seattle Mariners
From one exciting team to the next!
The Mariners may have started the season on the wrong note, but, now, they’re in position to break their 20-year postseason drought. With a top-three bullpen in terms of SIERA, as well as a top-ten unit in bullpen wins above replacement, it’s no surprise the team continues to have a lot of success in one-run games; a lot of credit needs to be given to general manager Jerry Dipoto for building a relief corps suited to thrive in high-leverage situations.
Between Paul Sewald, Diego Castillo, Andrés Muñoz, Erik Swanson, Penn Murfee, and now Matt Brash, there are a lot of very talented relievers in Seattle’s bullpen. Yet, there’s one name that may not get much buzz, but has the potential to be the most impactful. Now, between 2018 and 2019, this certainly wasn’t expected to be the case for Matthew Festa. A below-replacement level reliever during this span, Festa struggled mightily in terms of missing bats (17.7% K) and home runs (1.47 HR/9), to the point that he eventually was sent back down to the minors in July of 2019.
From there, though, the bumps in the road only got more chaotic. See, in March of 2020, Festa had to undergo Tommy John surgery to repair his elbow, sidelining him for nearly two years. Yet, after succeeding in Triple-A (32.6% K-BB) upon returning in late 2021, Seattle saw what they needed to place him on the opening day roster this year. Surely, that’s a decision they are quite grateful to have made.
When I first came across Festa’s player page, I needed to check multiple times to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Overall, the 29-year-old is striking out 37.1% (!) of the batters he’s facing, has the sixth-highest K-BB (30.5%) among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, and has the eight-best SIERA (2.07) in that sample. No matter how you slice it, he’s been absolutely dominant this season, which deserves recognition in itself. That being said, there’s more on the table here than just strong production.
There are many different ways to have a productive fastball if you’re willing to look hard enough. Obviously, velocity will be the first characteristic that comes to mind, which, in Festa’s case, isn’t particularly in his favor – 92.8 MPH is actually slightly low for a reliever. Meanwhile, the fastball doesn’t sport above-average vertical movement, nor does Festa get an exceptional amount of extension. So, how does a pitch like this get whiffs (36.5%) at the level his has? Believe it or not, but it’s the LACK of horizontal movement that may be doing the trick.
Coming from a low release height (5 feet), Festa’s fastball features 45% less horizontal movement compared to average. The result. A pitch that simply shoots out of a cannon:
From that look, you certainly can’t tell that this fastball lacks necessary vertical ride – the lack of horizontal movement is a tremendous asset for him. However, while “stuff” may trump command generally, having the ideal location plan to miss bats is an essential aspect on maximizing your true potential. That’s certainly been the case for Festa, who has improved his pitch strategy significantly this season. For instance, here is where he is locating his fastball to right-handed hitters this season:
Now, contrast that to where he was locating his fastball prior to this season:
As we alluded to with Steven Wilson, in a day and age where steeper bat angles have become the norm, fastballs down and in are simply a launching pad for opposing hitters. Coming from a low release height with no cut, Festa’s fastball is clearly meant to be placed in the upper half of the zone, preferably on the outside portion. That’s finally happening, and the results speak for themselves. Yet, this is simply just a small portion of story. As a matter of fact, Festa’s fastball isn’t even his most-used pitch.
Rather, that honor would go to his slider, which has been completely re-shaped this season. That’s one way to put it, but, to be honest, he simply has a new pitch. Recently, we have seen the rise of the “sweeper”, two-seam gripped pitch that is similar to a slider, yet features a significant higher amount of horizontal sweep. Consequently, the pitch is more successful when it comes to inducing swings-and-misses and chases, as seen here:
Now, that is comical. Not surprisingly, the pitch is performing much better in terms of missing bats (35.7%) and getting chases (31.5%), while, for what it’s worth, the slider also hasn’t allowed a barrel all year. Thus, you’re looking at two exceptional, unique pitches, which, combined together, have helped mold Festa into the elite reliever he has become. To see a pitcher go through the adversity that he did, and then do everything in his power to maximize on his abilities is an example of what makes baseball so incredible. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Festa’s story certainly follows the bill. Right now, I definitely would not want to step up to the plate against him.
Here’s a fun fact: only the Reds, Red Sox, and Nationals are spending a lower percentage of their payroll on relievers than the Giants. Now, given the fickle nature of relievers from one season to the next, there is logic behind this approach, and payroll isn’t always the best measure of the quality of a bullpen. That being said, this means that a need is created to either develop quality bullpen arms or to acquire them in smaller transactions.
Unfortunately, with the fifth-worst bullpen in terms of skill interactive ERA (SIERA), that plan hasn’t quite panned out. On the bright side, it doesn’t appear they have completely struck out on striking gold where no one else sees it. As recently as 2019, Mauricio Llovera was rated as a top-15 prospect in the Phillies farm system, seen as a potential middle-of-the-rotation starter with a chance to increase his effectiveness if moved to the bullpen. Perhaps in an attempt to escalate his development, Philadelphia finally employed him as a reliever in Triple-A last year, but he struggled mightily, eventually leading him to be outrighted off the team’s 40-man roster in August. Still, the Giants were intrigued enough to sign him to a minor-league contract, and they certainly have been proven right for that faith.
In Triple-A this season, Llovera pitched 20 scoreless innings, combining a 30.8% K-BB with a 52.3% ground ball rate- a tremendous combination. Meanwhile, that success has carried over to the MLB level, where he’s struck out 27.8% of the batters he has faced, uniquely inducing both ground balls (47.7%) and pop-ups (13.6%). Now, we’ll see if that all holds up with a longer sample size, but the early returns are positive, and there are a lot of reasons to believe the Giants have found something here.
When Llovera appeared in the majors last season, his stuff+ (95.8) and pitching+ (94.7) ratings, per Eno Sarris’ model, did not suggest a future reliable reliever. This season, though, those metrics (118.4 stuff+, 105 pitching+) have improved dramatically, and it’s easy to see why. After all, his arsenal has been completely re-worked. For starters, Llovera’s four-seam fastball, which doesn’t feature the vertical shape needed to miss bats, wasn’t a pitch he could count on. So, what did he do? Scrap it entirely in exchange for a worm-burning sinker, which has done exactly what you’d want it to- get ground balls.
In fact, batted balls against the sinker have a negative (-3) launch angle this season, which is quite impressive. Yet, what may be even more impressive is the ability to combine those ground balls with swings-and-misses (25% whiff) as well. As a result, the pitch has been everything one could hope for, and more, yet it’s not even his most relied-upon offering! Let me introduce you to Llovera’s sweeper:
Due to its two-seamed grip and the seam-shifted wake it creates, a sweeping breaking ball is the perfect complement to a sinker; it appears the same out of the hand, yet ends up going in a completely different direction. This is a pitch he throws 62.8% of the time to right-handed hitters this season to much success (36.3% whiff), and the pitch also is very successful in terms of getting pop-ups (22.7%) as well. In fact, inducing pop-ups is a specific benefit of having a sweeper, and makes complementing it with a sinker so sensible – it always induce all sorts of disadvantageous batted-ball types for opposing hitters, in addition to the overall deception it creates.
There may be no greater prototype for a productive reliever in today’s game that a sinker-sweeper pitcher. Unfortunately, Llovera is now on the 60-day injured list with an elbow injury, but come next season, the Giants ought to know they have a pitcher they can count on in high-leverage spots next season. As always, seeing pitchers re-craft themselves to take the next step is always a beautiful sight to see, and, for Llovera it has been a remarkable success. This is an organization that has quite the reputation when it comes to pitcher development, and it’s easy to see why here.
RHP Yunior Marte, San Francisco Giants
Let’s stick with the Giants, shall we?
As you’d expect for a team that searches for relievers like nobody else’s business, the crux of the Giants’ bullpen has been built through minor-league signings, small trades, and waiver wire claims. The results haven’t quite come to fruition yet, but soon enough, that ought to be the case for Yunior Marte. Signed as an international free agent from the Dominican Republic, Marte spent eight years in the Royals organization before being let go during the 2020-2021 offseason. Just a month later, he signed a minor-league contract, and then spent the entire 2021 season in Triple-A.
Thus, Marte entered 2022 with nine professional seasons under his belt, yet no days of service in the majors. That changed on April 12th, however; Marte finally got the big-league promotion he certainly had long awaited. Since then, he’s been optioned and subsequently called up four different times, but has been up in the majors since July 9th, and, hopefully, can continue to receive an extended opportunity moving forward. After all, with the dominance (35.7% K, 25.7% K-BB, 115.6 pitching+) he demonstrated in Triple-A, there’s little for him to prove down there, even if it hasn’t come together at the MLB level (19.1% K, 9.1% K-BB) so far.
Oftentimes, when it comes to reliever analysis, it’s important to focus on the ingredients of success, as opposed to the actual production one has demonstrated in a limited sample size. For Marte, it’s easy to see where the breakout can come from. It’s not always common that sinker can miss a lot of bats, yet Marte is the exception. As a matter of fact, his sinker has the third-highest whiff rate for that pitch type (34.6%) this season, and there’s no reason to believe that is any sort of fluke:
Buried down and in to righties, Marte’s sinker does the trick in terms of getting swings-and-misses, as well as ground balls (61.5% GB). Nevertheless, he’s using it (23.2%) less than his four-seam fastball (33.4%), despite the fact the latter pitch doesn’t induce whiffs (12.1%) likely due to poor vertical shape it has. Thus, he can operate in much more conventional sinker-slider fashion. Speaking of which, the latter pitch has had its decent amount of success this season:
We could quibble about whether any minor changes can be made to the pitch’s shape, but Marte still has two pitches that miss bats at a strong clip, leading to a strong mix of whiffs and ground balls. Right now, he’s mainly being used in lower-leverage spots, though I’d expect that to change over time; there is legitimate upside here just waiting to be unlocked. Soon enough, that’s exactly what should happen.
Speaking of the Giants, before Llovera and Marte, Trevor Gott was the first under-the-radar reliever acquisition that created the blueprint they have come to follow. Boosted by swapping out his sinker for an effective four-seam fastball in 2019, Gott had a career year (3.73 SIERA) with San Francisco in 2019, and entered 2020 as the team’s “closer”. Unfortunately, after struggling tremendously (6.89 SIERA, 11.93 FIP, 0% K-BB) in 2020, he wasn’t able to get an MLB opportunity in 2021, and eventually was cut loose in the offseason. Now, though, he certainly looks like the fish that got away.
When you’re trying to re-establish yourself as a pitcher, there aren’t many better places to go than Milwaukee; the Brewers have a tremendous reputation when it comes to pitcher development. Well, consider Gott to be another shining example of that. Immediately placed in the opening day bullpen, the 29-year-old has been utterly dominant with a 28.6% strikeout rate, 4.8% walk rate, and 2.67 SIERA this season, and it’s easy to buy into that success. If there’s a theme from these relievers, it’s that there’s no better way to maximize on your potential than to completely optimize your arsenal. Well, that’s exactly what Gott has done.
It’s one thing to create a new pitch, but it’s another thing for it to immediately rank in the top-five amongst that pitch type in run value per pitch. Somehow, that’s what Gott has been able to accomplish with his cutter this season. After introducing it in 2020, he’s made the pitch much more vertical, and the results have been remarkable – it’s missing bats (33.3% whiff) and thriving in terms of inducing weakly hit pop-ups. I mean, good luck with this:
Not surprisingly, this is a pitch that has equal success to righties and lefties, and is the perfect pitch to neutralize an opponent’s chances of getting on base; if it gets swings and misses as well as poor contact, then you’re doing something right. On its own, this pitch would be enough for Gott to thrive, but, instead, the beauty of his arsenal is just getting started. It’s one thing to have ideal vertical shape on the fastball, but it’s another thing for it to play up due to a low release height and strong location strategy. Fortunately, Gott has both working in his favor.
Good afternoon, good evening, and good night! When this pitch is placed at the top of the zone, it is nearly impossible to square up. Particularly to right-handed hitters, this is simply a lethal fastball (41.3% whiff), and has become his go-to pitch with two strikes. When a pitch has that type of rise, it’s going to be very difficult for an opposing batter with a steeper bat angle to not only make contact, but do anything other than getting under the pitch. A batted ball classified as “under” refers to weak fly balls and pop-ups, which are very disadvantageous for batting average. Thus, the fact that Gott’s “under rate” allowed is nine percentage points above league average is telling, and it all goes back to the combination of his cutter and fastball- an exceptional one-two punch.
Of course, though, it can’t end there; when Gott needs a ground ball, he can get it with a sinker and curveball that each induce a ground ball on at least 60% of the batted balls against them. Just talk a look at what this sinker can do to right-handed hitters:
It definitely shouldn’t come as a surprise that righties are struggling to do damage (.247 xwOBA) this season. Yet, since he doesn’t throw it much to lefties, it’s important he has a pitch that can get ground balls against them. Fortunately, that is where his curveball comes into play:
Considering that Gott doesn’t change speeds much, having some sort of softer offering is encouraging. As a very vertical pitch, it’s meant to play well against left-handed hitters, and looks likely to do the trick as another whiff pitch with a lot of ground balls. All told, we’re talking about a pitcher with four above-average pitches, with a few (cutter, fastball) serving as borderline elite. Think about how difficult it is to have just one plus pitch! It’s remarkable how Gott has been able to come into his own right away with his new organization, and, now, he just adds to an already dominant bullpen. Come postseason time, this is precisely the type of pitcher who can make a notable difference.
When we analyze pitchers, it generally all starts with one question: can they miss bats at a high level? Still, even if that answer is “no”, there are plenty of ways for a pitcher to perform at a high level. In fact, the uniqueness of every specific pitcher is part of what makes baseball so special, and is actually something that teams embrace; teams such as the Rays, Dodgers, Twins, and Giants have specially tried to create as much diversity as possible in their bullpen.
Generally, when you’re allowing the second-most amount of contact in the zone of any reliever with at least ten innings pitched, that is incredibly problematic. Nevertheless, that hasn’t prevented Zach Pop from quietly establishing himself as a very effective reliever. Sure, he’s not going to overpower you with a high strikeout rate, but what can he do? Keep the ball on the ground. Only three pitchers in baseball are allowing a lower launch angle (-2.6 degrees), and for good reason- his sinker is an absolute weapon.
Relied upon an absurd 83.5% of the time, Pop’s sinker has allowed a ball in the air just 15% of the time, good for a negative seven-degree launch angle. After adding even more vertical drop and a MPH of added velocity to the pitch, consider it an absolute worm-burner a pitch that you simply cannot do damage with:
It’s hard to believe, but hitters are swinging at 48.1% of the sinkers Pop is throwing outside the zone. For someone who doesn’t miss bats when throwing in the zone, this allows him to not be a net-zero when it comes to strikeouts, while allowing him to limit walks without pounding the zone. That combination of limited walks and a lot of ground balls has led to a 2.93 SIERA for Pop in 17 innings pitched to this season, and even if the walk rate eventually regresses, he’s got a lot of wiggle room to work with. Still, though, perhaps there’s even more on the table.
See, Pop has de-emphasized his slider (16%) from his arsenal, and for good reason – he simply has no feel for the pitch right now. Overall, in a very small sample size, the results (6.7% whiff, .578 xwOBA) aren’t promising, and he’s leaving it over the plate (56.4% whiff) far too much. Now, this wasn’t particularly a problem last year, but, even then, he hasn’t gotten hitters to expand the zone against it as you’d hope for, which ought to beg the question; can a new slider be added to expand his arsenal.
Well, good thing we know one pitch that would work perfectly with a sinker. Yep, I’m talking about the good ol’ sweeper. If you have a sinker running into righties and a sweeper running away, all coming from the same grip, that is FAR too much deception for an opposing hitter to deal with. Wait, aren’t we describing Clay Holmes? I’m not saying that’s the most likely outcome for Pop, but with the proper tweaks, a high-end reliever outcome certainly should not be discounted at all. He may not pop at first, but Zach certainly ought to garner your attention moving forward. As they say, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes!
Photos by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)