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Introducing The Next Star Relievers (Part 2)

Introducing Baseball's Next Star Relievers! (Part Two)

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, 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, yet 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 number 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! We’ve already looked at several names in part 1 of this series, but there are even more relievers to keep your eye on. Who are they? Well, what are we waiting for?

 

LHP Jose Quijada, Los Angeles Angels

 

On May 25th, the Angels looked destined to accomplish something that the baseball community had long awaited – get Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani into the postseason. After all, they were just one game back from the Astros in the AL West, had a comfortable cushion in the AL Wildcard race, and seemed to be clicking on all cylinders.

Since then, though, all hell has broken loose. Between a 14-game losing streak, a manager firing, a brawl with the Mariners, and multiple injuries, the Angels have gone through about everything imaginable this season. Losers of 42 of their past 58 games, they’ve once again been essentially eliminated from the postseason race, and it’s time for them to question how they got to this point. As usual, a lack of pitching depth has been problematic for them, particularly in the bullpen; only the Rangers rank worse in win probability added this season. That being said, it’s not all for naught.

Throughout his entire minor-league career, Jose Quijada went through some twists and turns in terms of his command and the ability to get ground balls. What remained the entire time, however, was the ability to strike batters out as a high level. Ultimately, this ability allowed him to come up through the Marlins organization and make his MLB debut at age 23 in 2019, but the results were not pretty; he struggled mightily with walks (18.6% BB) and the long ball (3.03 HR/9), leading to him being a well below-replacement level player. Ultimately, this led to Miami designating him for assignment, and although Angels claimed him off waivers, he didn’t play much of a role in 2020 and started the year back in Triple-A for 2021. At that point, had Quijada missed his chance?

In some ways, the Angels’ lack of pitching depth last season worked in Quijada’s favor. After performing well in the minors, he was brought up to the majors, and, from there, shined; he struck out 34.5% of the batters he faced, posted a strong 3.44 skill interactive ERA (SIERA), and became the Angels’ most reliable lefty reliever. Fast forward to 2022, and he’s allowed just seven earned runs in 19 innings, has continued to perform well in the strikeout (28.9%) department, and has been the Angels’ most valuable reliever based on wins above replacement. Still just 26-years-old and in his second year of team control, he’s someone the organization can rely upon in their bullpen for the foreseeable future. That is, if they’re able to appreciate the talent at hand here.

What makes a fastball perform well? Velocity, vertical ride, and raw spin would be certain characteristics one may look at, but, in Quijada’s case, none are particularly in his favor. So, clearly the pitch isn’t effective, right? Wrong. Whether we isolated it to swings-and-misses (35.1% whiff) or the overall production of the pitch (.226 xwOBA), it’s been one of the best fastballs in all of baseball this season. So, what gives? For starters, the location of the pitch is quite sound:

 

 

Throwing the fastball up in the zone and often has always been a focus for Quijada, but his command has never quite been this consistent. With a low release height (5.34 feet), it is natural for Quijada’s fastball to work better than it should up in the zone, while the pitch’s lack of horizontal movement (-37% compared to average) allows it to stay in vertical plane better. Ultimately, that leads to swings like this:

 

via GIPHY

 

To me, this certainly doesn’t look like a pitch without ideal vertical shape, but that speaks to some of the other underrated characteristics Quijada brings to the table. Hitters have struggled to barrel up his fastball consistently over the past two seasons, with 42.4% of the batted balls against it being classified as “poorly-hit/under”- weakly-hit fly balls and pop-ups. Essentially, that means that a great majority of the contact Quijada allows on his fastball are weakly hit balls in the air that are very disadvantageous when it comes to getting on base. Whether you’re inducing ground balls or not, it all comes down to creating as unfavorable of contact as possible. This fastball is a pitch that Quijada leans on (83%) an extraordinary amount, and it’s easy to see why.

From there, the rest of Quijada’s arsenal is a mixed bag. Without much feel for his changeup or slider, he doesn’t have any other offerings to complement his fastball, though that just adds to his overall level of upside. After all, think about how productive he has managed to be just relying on his fastball in Jake McGee-esque fashion. Now, imagine if he can add a vertical slider/changeup to go along with that plus pitch. Oh, it’s a beautiful sight! It may have taken him some time to find his footing in the majors, but he’s here now, and Angels fans ought to be thrilled about that. Now, let’s hope for him to be a part of more critical games next season.

 

RHP Jose Cuas, Kansas City Royals

 

Let’s look at a completely different type of reliever, shall we?

One of the most exciting aspects about pitcher analysis is that no two pitchers are the same; uniqueness is a virtue. This may be our second straight Jose, yet they couldn’t go about their craft in more distinct ways. Before we get to that, though, we simply need to appreciate the  truly fantastic story of Jose Cuas. Drafted by the Brewers in the 16th round as an infielder, Cuas struggled to adjust to the professional level, leading Milwaukee to opt to convert him to a full-time pitcher as a 24-year in 2018.

After more struggles, this time as a pitcher, Milwaukee opted to release Cuas, who then suffered a similar fate with the Diamondbacks following the 2019 season. By that point, he started to work as FedEx delivery driver while training at night; considering he was a 25-year-old who had never pitched above High-A, the odds weren’t in his favor. Remarkably, though, Cuas’ hopes have come true; he signed a minor-league contract with the Royals in 2021, and after thriving in the minors, made his MLB debut in late May of this season. In just a year, his life has completely changed, and more stability should be in his favor moving forward.

On some level, there are reasons to be skeptical with what we’ve seen from Cuas. Yes, he’s sporting a 3.18 ERA in 22.2 MLB innings, but his underlying peripherals (4.69 SIERA, % K-BB) aren’t exactly eye-popping. Thus, most optimism regarding his prospects stems around what he can do, rather than what he has done so far. Fortunately, there is a lot to be excited about.

Sinker-slider relievers are becoming the standard by now, and Cuas is no different. Relied upon 64.8% of the time, his sinker is clearly his bread and butter; it has allowed him to induce ground balls (52.9%) at a high level. With a very low release height, Cuas wants to make righties as uncomfortable as possible by jamming them with sinkers inside, which leads to a lot of weak contact:

 

via GIPHY

 

As you’d expect, right-handed hitters struggles hitters have struggled mightily (.276 xwOBA, 24.4% hard-hit) against Cuas’ sinker, though that has not been the case (.407 xwOBA) against lefties. Right now, he’s struggling to identify where to locate it against them, often leaving it over the middle of the zone. That being said, sinkers like this have notable called-strike potential inside to lefties, with the ability to induce weak contact fading away as well. A minor adjustment in his location strategy against them could substantially fewer platoon splits, which, in turn, would make him a much more complete reliever.

On the bright side, Cuas’ slider has induced a whiff on over half of the swings against it, while also dealing with no platoon problems whatsoever so far. Interestingly, the pitch lacks any sort of horizontal sweep (-69% compared to average), and, instead, gets a strong amount of vertical drop. At its peak, it can lead to silly swings like this, even against some of the league’s best hitters:

 

via GIPHY

 

When you make a player of the caliber of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. do that, it’s something that can’t go unnoticed. While Cuas is still struggling to locate it, when it generates a swing, the slider is often leading to a whiff or poor contact. Perhaps a true sweeper would be best served for him, but the early returns are positive here should he continue to gain a better feel for it, which would allow him to get back down to the very low walk rates he demonstrated in the minors.

Is Cuas going to miss a lot of bats? Probably not, but as a true sinker-slider reliever, he can get ground balls, limit barrels, and make even the game’s best hitters look foolish on occasion. I find it interesting that hitters swing less in the zone compared to the league average against him, yet also expand the zone more than league average as well. Meanwhile, he’s actually had tremendous success limiting contact in the zone, with his 10.1% swinging-strike rate and 25% whiff rate pointing to better days ahead for him from a strikeout standpoint.

Regardless, there is a lot he can bring to the table, with the potential to become more as he continues to get more feel for how to get MLB hitters out. With a few adjustments, we could be looking at a reliever who breaks out with an elite year eventually. When will that come? We’ll see, but, right now, there are so many reasons to be intrigued. In fact, you can’t count them with ten fingers; not only is Cuas a tremendous story, yet a reliever you have to keep a close eye on as well. At this point, how can you bet against him?

 

LHP Packy Naughton, St. Louis Cardinals

 

We’re used to starting pitchers seeing their performance see an uptick when they move to the bullpen. However, that’s generally due to them being able to rely on one or two of their best pitches, as opposed to having the need to have a very diverse arsenal. Yet, in many ways, Packy Naughton is the outlier.

As a ninth-round pick out of Virginia Tech, Naughton’s overall numbers in college didn’t particularly stand out, but after performing well in the minors between 2018 and 2019, his prospect stock certainly increased. Still, though, he was ranked as just the Reds’ 21st-best prospect, per MLB Pipeline, who also expressed concerns about his long-term upside:

“A ninth-round pick in 2017 out of Virginia Tech who tended to be a bit too hittable during his college career, Naughton had an up-and-down first full season of pro ball with the Reds. While he finished second in the organization in strikeouts and capped off his year with a good start up a level in the Florida State League playoffs, the left-hander gave up more hits (168) than innings pitched (154) in the Midwest League.

Naughton can be prone to creating his own big innings with one mistake. He often fought his delivery, causing his stuff to not be as sharp. That was particularly true of his breaking ball, which can get caught between a curve and a slider. He needs to rely on movement, deception and command because of his lack of plus stuff, starting with an 87-94 mph fastball that can sneak up on hitters due to his deception, but often lacks movement. He might need to pick one breaking ball to help define it better and give him a third solid pitch, behind his above-average changeup. He goes right after hitters and fills up the strike zone (2.0 BB/9 in 2018).

Naughton finished off his first full season much more strongly than he started it. His ceiling might be limited, but if he can carry those adjustments over, he has the chance to be a No. 5 type starter or an effective middle reliever.”

Clearly, the Reds expressed similar sentiment, shipping him to the Angels in exchange for outfielder Brian Goodwin during the 2020 season. After struggling in his MLB debut (5.94 SIERA) with the Halos and continuing that with a subpar minor-league season, he was ultimately designated for assignment before being claimed by the Cardinals three days later. Surely, the Angels want a do-over on that decision.

St. Louis has lacked stability in their bullpen this year, but, as always, they’ve struck gold on another unheralded name with Naughton. In 24 innings, the lefty has shined with a 2.97 SIERA and 18.6% K-BB, while also inducing a ground ball on 56.1% of the batted balls against him. As someone who can miss bats (12.6% swinging-strike rate), limit walks (5.2% BB), and get a lot of ground balls, he can do it all, while also serving as a multi-inning relief lefty weapon for the Cardinals.

If you just look at Naughton’s arsenal though a traditional lens, though, you certainly wouldn’t be ready to run through a brick wall out of excitement. Eno Sarris’ pitching+ model does a tremendous job as a very predictive measure for relief pitchers in a small sample size, and, for Naughton, his 80.3 stuff+ rating not only puts him in very poor company. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to believe he can overcome this.

For starters, having a strong base of command can always help when it comes to maximizing your abilities, and that’s the case for Naughton, who has strong command of all four pitches in his arsenal. Speaking of which, diversity of pitches can go a long way towards compensating for a lack of impact “stuff”. Fortunately, this is in Naughton’s favor, allowing him to attack righties and lefties in very distinct ways:

  • vs Lefties: 39.6% Slider, 38.3% Four-Seam Fastball, 14.9% Sinker, 7.1% Changeup
  • vs Righties: 39.5% Changeup, 32% Four-Seam Fastball, 21.9% Sinker, 6.1% Slider

Let’s start with Naughton’s four-seam fastball, which, at just 92-93 MPH with poor vertical movement and spin, wouldn’t appear to be an effective pitch. Certainly, the pitch has its limitations against righties, but against lefties, it’s a pitch he’s leaned on for a lot of success (36.7% whiff). A major reason for this success? How he commands it:

 

 

In the modern day and age of baseball, hitters, lefties in particular, have shifted to very steep bat angles, making it difficult to cover pitches up and away. Naughton has wisely realized this, leading to plenty of whiffs up and away, as seen here:

 

via GIPHY

 

There’s something to be said with putting the ball where it’s supposed to be place. Sure, we’d all love to throw 100 MPH, but when not granted that luxury, there’s another way to get around it, which Naughton is proving. Of course, it also helps when you’re slider can miss bats (40% whiff) as it has so far:

 

via GIPHY

 

Naughton has re-shaped his slider to be more vertical, which, in turn, should mean that he can use it more against righties than he has. At the end of the day, that’s two tremendous pitches that Naughton can lean on versus lefties, but until he trusts his slider more, he’ll have to rely on other offerings to get righties out. Naturally, he has that working for him as well. They call the changeup the “great equalizer”, and certainly has been the case; it’s yet to allow a barrel and has missed bats (36.7%) at a high level. Studies have shown that command of off-speed pitches might matter more than the actual quality of the pitch, and Naughton’s changeup is a prime example- he locates it tremendously down and away to righties in a way that makes it impossible to do damage with it. Just ask Ronald Acuna Jr.:

 

via GIPHY

 

Add in Naughton’s sinker, and he has three pitches (changeup, sinker, slider) that are inducing a ground ball on about 2/3 of the batted balls against it, as well as three pitches (changeup, slider, fastball) that can induce plenty of whiffs. That’s how you get the complete package that he is starting to cement himself as. Would it be ideal if his four-seam fastball wasn’t hit so hard against righties? Sure, but with two off-speed pitches and a sinker in his back pocket, that’s a very small concern.

Consider Naughton a lefty killer that can more than get the job done against righties, while also having the ability to pitch multiple innings and be trusted to not let his command get him into trouble. That might not sound exciting on the surface, but, in reality, the value he is providing the Cardinals with right now is immense, and allows them to go into the trade deadline without forcing themselves to trade for a lefty reliever. If a reliever can simply limit damage, they’re going to earn the trust of their manager, and we’ve clearly seen Naughton earn that with manager Oliver Marmol. Come postseason time, don’t be surprised to see him getting some key outs for a team with very high aspirations.

 

RHP Ron Marinaccio, New York Yankees

 

Coming into the season, the AL East was expected to be a dog fight, and considering that four teams may make the postseason out of the division, it has been. Even so, the Yankees have come away from the fight without any bruises whatsoever- they’re currently on pace for their highest winning percentage (.670) since 1998, which, by the way, resulted in a World Series win. Right now, I think it’s safe to say that there is no team in baseball with more pressure to come out on top than the Bronx Bombers.

With the best offense in baseball in terms of runs scored and a dominant rotation, there are plenty of reasons the Yankees have experienced the type of success they have so far. Yet, don’t discount a bullpen that has allowed the second-fewest runs per nine innings, and also has the third-best win probability added this season. Still, with Michael King out for the season and Aroldis Chapman struggling, New York will be looking for players to step up and fill that void. Enter Ron Marinaccio.

Drafted in the 19th round out of the University of Delaware in 2017, Marinaccio actually grew up in New Jersey as a Yankees fan, which always makes for a fantastic story! Still, as of 2019, he was a 23-year-old in Single-A without dominant production, essentially putting completely off the prospect radar. Yet, when you have arguably the best season of any reliever (39.3% K, 29.7% K-BB between Double-A and Triple-A) in the minors, as Marinaccio did in 2021, that changes things quickly. Essentially, in a span of one year, he worked his way from unknown to on the Yankees’ opening day roster, which is quite the turn of events.

It’s one thing to get an opportunity, but it’s another to fully capitalize on it. In his rookie year, the 26-year-old has struck out 29.9% of the batters he has faced, overall resulting in a very strong 3.42 SIERA. With just six earned runs in 24 innings, it’s very likely that he’ll continue to work his way into pitching in more critical situations, and Yankees fans should be very comfortable with that.

Generally, when it comes to pitcher analysis, we start with the fastball. For Marinaccio, though, it makes sense to change things up, literally. I mean, what are you supposed to do with this?

 

via GIPHY

 

With over two inches above-average in both vertical drop and horizontal fade, Marinaccio’s changeup clearly shapes up as one of the best in the sport. To boot, it has the third-best run value per pitch among qualified pitchers, as well as the 12th-highest whiff rate (45.7%). Folks, those are incredible feats. Even if he’s currently leaving it over the heart of the plate too much, it’s hard for there to be any consequences of that given how superb a pitch it is, making it his clear put-away pitch. Yet, the rest of his arsenal isn’t too shabby either.

Usually, a fastball either has strong vertical ride, horizontal cut, or neither. Rarely, though, does a pitcher truly have it all when it comes to their fastball. Well, Marinaccio is an exception. I mean, the pitch truly has everything you could want:

  • 1.3 inches of vertical ride above average
  • 4 (!) inches of horizontal movement above average
  • 99% active spin with 67th percentile spin rate and 66th percentile

To summarize, Marinaccio’s fastball has natural vertical movement, but the amount of active spin it possesses allows it to rise even more than you’d expect. That’s not all, though; it also cuts tremendously away from lefties. As such, it’s a pitch that can not only miss bats, but can limit damage as well. Hence, why it can get unfavorable swings like this:

 

via GIPHY

 

Or this:

 

via GIPHY

 

Talk about a complete pitch. While he’s still harnessing the command of the pitch in order to take advantage of its strengths, it’s a rather platoon-neutral pitch that serves a lot of purposes for him. That, along with his changeup, give him two pitches that can play off each other well, but it’s important to be able to change eye sights as well. That’s where Marinaccio’s slider comes into play.

Recently, we have seen the rise of the “sweeper”, a two-seam gripped pitch that is similar to a slider, yet features a significant higher amount of horizontal sweep. Not only does the pitch induce a lot of chases, as seen below, but it’s also quite effective inducing pop-ups, leading to it being an effective pitch that many teams are prioritizing making a part of a pitcher’s arsenal. The Yankees are chief among them, and for good reason- it complements his arsenal tremendously.

 

via GIPHY

 

I don’t think we can overstate the value of having a pitch that simply moves in opposite direction to your pitches. Now, hitters can’t just focus on one quadrant of the zone, yet have to be prepared for all possibilities. Now, it’s not getting the chases you may expect from it, but it’s still a very difficult pitch to square up and do any sort of damage with. With more refinement, expect it to become a more complete pitch.

That’s generally the case for Marinaccio in general; there is plenty of upside present, though further development in terms of location will be paramount. Even then, his stuff+ rating (124.9) puts him right in line with Jordan Romano, which I mention because there are similarities present there; Romano has since refined his command to the point his elite arsenal makes him an impact high-leverage arm, and that same pathway to success is there for Marinaccio. Is he still a work in progress from a development standpoint? Sure, but I’ll gladly take any bumps and bruises with a pitcher who has the arsenal that he has. With a decorated history missing bats and inducing disadvantageous contact, the ceiling is quite high; in a few years, we could very well be looking at the next celebrated reliever in the Bronx.

 

RHP Colin Holderman, Pittsburgh Pirates

 

From one New York reliever to one just traded away, Colin Holderman may have the perfect name for a reliever. Hey, Collin, what are you going to do with this runner at first? “I’m gonna hold ‘er, man.” Okay, I promise (maybe?) that’ll be the last pun made with Holderman here, though can you blame me for being tempted?

A relative unknown coming from Heartland Community College after transferring from Southern Illinois University, Holderman got notable over-slot money in the 9th round ($400K with slot value of $163.7K) by the Mets in order to forego transferring to Mississippi State for his junior season. Unfortunately, through 2019, he struggled to stand out in the lower levels of the minors despite being extremely old for the levels he was at, likely due to him recovering from Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2018 season. By 2021, he was strictly a reliever, but, even then, only pitched in 24 innings. Thus, he was a relative unknown, though Fangraphs’ lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen certainly was optimistic about his future outlook:

“Here we have a case of nominative determinism, as Holderman has the stuff to pitch high-leverage innings. He experienced a four-and-a-half tick bump to his fastball velocity between 2019 and ’21, moving from the 90-92 mph range to 94-96, and that trend has continued into 2022, as he’s added another tick. Though he’s worked with four pitches in the past (he was throwing more changeups and what looked like a curveball as recently as the 2021 Fall League), Holderman’s sinker/slider combination carries him. Per Synergy, his fastball is generating a 68% groundball rate at Triple-A, and its sink and tail sets up hitters to swing inside his slider. He projects as the third banana in a contending team’s bullpen.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of relievers being referred to as bananas, but, honestly, I think it’s perfect! Anyways, it’s clear that Holderman has experienced significant growth starting in 2021, and we saw that come to fruition at the MLB level; in 17.2 innings with the Mets, he posted strong (3.43 SIERA) peripherals, combining the ability to miss bats with very limited damage on contact. Yet, New York, in need of a lefty bat with a lot of bullpen depth, opted to ship him to the Pirates in exchange for slugger Daniel Vogelbach, which, with all due respect to Vogelbach, may turn out to be a trade they’d like to have back.

After all, as a high-performing reliever in just his first year of team control, isn’t Holderman the type of player that all teams should covet? After all, this is a pitcher with very exciting talent. In general, a sinker/cutter/slider combination is one that will likely continue to see. After all, being able to have multiple pitches that look the same coming out of the hand, but go in completely different directions, is very deceptive and makes for a very comfortable at bat- just ask Camilo Doval. Now, Holderman may not overpower hitters like Doval, though that doesn’t mean he isn’t an exciting pitcher in his own right.

In Holderman’s cutter and slider, he has two very horizontal pitches that look the exact same coming out of the hand, yet the slider has the vertical drop to differentiate the two. Let’s start with his cutter:

 

via GIPHY

 

Now, the slider:

 

via GIPHY

 

From the hand, these look like the exact same pitches, yet one stays on a horizontal place, while the other drops down; though, initially, the hitter can’t identify that. Ironically, these two pitches have identical whiff rates (42.1%) and have performed nearly the same (.138 xwOBA for cutter, .136 xwOBA for slider), but, most importantly, are two plus pitches he can lean on to miss a lot of bats and get a lot of pop-ups. Yet, what about those trusty ground balls? That’s where the sinker comes into play.

So far this season, 17 of the 28 batted balls against Holderman’s sinker have come on the ground. Since he leans on it heavily (50.2%), that allows him to get ground balls and limit home runs, which is always paramount for any reliever coming into a high-leverage situation. Thus, he has one ground ball pitch, as well as two pitches that get whiffs and weakly hit balls in the air. In other words, he can miss bats and induce every type of contact that a hitter is trying to avoid. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty sweet to me!

Currently, the Pirates have Holderman down at Triple-A, but that shouldn’t be the case for long. Simply put, he’s the definition of a tough at bat- he can keep hitters guessing and limits damage in a very unique way. Alongside David Bednar, we could be seeing the late-inning one-two punch for Pittsburgh next season, which hopefully starts to coincide with them fielding a much more competitive team. Regardless, there is one thing certain- Pirates fans should be thrilled about him entering the mix in the Steel City.

 

RHP Jesus Tinoco, Texas Rangers

 

Let’s dig deeper down the well here.

Generally, acquiring pitchers from the Rockies is a profitable strategy. After all, not only is Colorado such a different place to pitch in, but the organization isn’t exactly known as being savvy when it comes to pitcher development. We’ve seen pitchers such as Yency Almonte, Jordan Lyles, and Drew Pomeranz all take major steps forward once leaving Colorado, and after signing Jon Gray this offseason, the Rangers are reaping the benefits of this approach. Now, if only they could realize the other possible gem they have.

Believe it or not, but Jesus Tinoco actually ended up being the last-remaining piece in the Rockies organization from the Troy Tulowitski trade. Well, that trade didn’t go as planned, and neither did Tinoco’s tenure. After seeing his development as a starter stall, the Rockies moved him to the bullpen prior to the 2019 season, when he eventually worked his way up to the majors. Unfortunately, things went south. In fact, between 2019 and 2021, Tinoco ranked dead last among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched in SIERA (5.75), K-BB (2%), and FIP (8.06). During that time, he was worth negative 1.3 wins above replacement, and, between 2020 and 2021, pitched just 10 MLB innings. Add in his struggles in Triple-A as well, and the Rockies ultimately decided to cut ties with him following the 2021 season.

Soon after, the 27-year-old was picked up by the Rangers in a series of moves made by the team to upgrade a thin bullpen. So far, with the worst win probability added of any bullpen in baseball, that hasn’t quite panned out, but there’s one easy step for the team- bringing Tinoco into the fold. We may only have a 5.2 inning sample of him in the majors, but, man, those innings were fun to watch.

Throughout his career, Tinoco has leaned heavily on his sinker, but the pitch (.463 xwOBA allowed) has gotten hit extremely hard throughout his career. On the other hand, despite playing in Colorado, his off-speed pitches have been his true bread and butter. Albeit in a very small sample size, he’s gone to the slider (48.4%) much more, and for good reason:

 

via GIPHY

 

A sharper pitch without much active spin, Tinoco’s slider has actually been mistaken for a cutter by a few broadcasts. Due to the neutralization of active spin and limited movement, it’s relatively close to a “gyro slider”, which causes the pitch to drop due to gravity rather than induced movement. Notice how late the movement occurs here? That’s by design, and something Tinoco can continue to use to his advantage.

For the most part, Tinoco will operate as a slider-sinker pitcher, which is something he can utilize for a lot of success given the productiveness of his slider. So far, we’ve seen his performance (18.8% K-BB with a 56.2% GB rate) tick up in Triple-A, and it should be only a matter of time before he gets another chance in Texas. If so, this is a pitcher that Eno Sarris measured with a strong 117.4 stuff+ rating, and the end result should be a reliever who can miss bats and get a lot of ground balls. Doesn’t that sound appealing? Whether it’s with the Rangers or elsewhere, don’t be surprised if this is the next reliever to experience a notable breakout.

 

RHP Joel Kuhnel, Cincinnati Reds

 

It’s been a rough season for the Reds, and their bullpen, which has the fourth-worst SIERA, has been no exception. In spite of this, though, they certainly will be able to hang their hat on, mainly Alexis Diaz. However, there is another reliever that ought to garner your attention.

Between John Lackey and Hunter Pence, the University of Texas at Arlington has produced a few marquee players. The latest on the list? Joel Kuhnel. Although he struggled to miss bats in college, there was still plenty of intrigue regarding the quality of his arsenal, leading to him being selected by the Reds in the 11th round. Immediately, Cincinnati moved him to the bullpen, where, even though he didn’t quite strike out hitters at an elite rate, still was able to work his way up the ranks quickly- he was in the majors by age 24 in 2019.

From there, though, things took a rough turn. In October of 2020, Kuhnel had right shoulder surgery to repair a torn capsule, which essentially sidelined him for the entire 2021 season. Alas, the Reds had him start the season in Triple-A, but, before short notice, he was up with the MLB team by the beginning of May, where things have gone well.

Now, on the surface, with a 5.874ERA, that wouldn’t appear to be the case for Kuhnel. Yet, we don’t have to look far to notice his strong ERA indicators (3.26 SIERA), as well as other key signs of poor luck; he has allowed a very high .330 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and 16.7% home run/fly ball rate, while he’s only stranding a low 64.9% of his base-runners as well. All together, that has led to a spiked ERA, but make no mistake about it- he’s been fantastic for the Reds this season.

Okay, sure, Kuhnel’s numbers have been impressive this year, but how has he gotten to the level of production he has had? Well, I’m glad you asked! As you’d expect from someone who gets as many ground balls as he does (51.6%), Kuhnel’s most utilized pitch is his sinker, which certainly does the trick (61.1% GB) as a worm-burning pitch, as has his changeup. It’s a bit concerning that his changeup hasn’t missed bats, particularly to lefties, but even as a change of pace pitch to induce weaker contact, it does the job. That’s especially true when we focus on his other two pitches.

Against righties, you can bet that Kuhnel is going to lean on his slider (44.6%) often, and for good reason. After all, it’s inducing a ground ball on nearly half of the batted balls against it, uncommon for a slider, while it has served as a tremendous called-strike (23.7%) pitch for him as well. Will that sustain? Who knows, but the as a multi-purpose offering for him, even against lefties:

 

via GIPHY

 

With sliders like that, it isn’t shocking righties can’t help themselves chasing it (39.6%) outside the zone. After all, it’s a pitch that mirrors his sinker tremendously and features a much stronger gap between the actual pitch movement and observed pitch movement, leading to more overall deception. Now, he’s peppering it more in the zone than your average slider, which could come to bite him, though his heavy usage of it in 0-0 counts also can give him an edge in terms of quickly getting ahead in the count- his command is overall quite strong. At the end of the day, as is all things in life, there’s a give and take here.

Undoubtedly, though, the most fascinating pitch in Kuhnel’s arsenal has to be his four-seam fastball. With negative four inches of vertical movement compared to average, it certainly isn’t a prototypical pitch, yet has no problem missing bats so far. That’s strange? Well, it makes more sense when you consider where he’s been able to locate it:

 

 

Metrically sound, there’s really nothing that stands out with Kuhnel’s fastball. That being said, he locates it tremendously, and it’s a great change of pace from his other offerings. Even without the biggest standout arsenal (100.7 stuff+), his ability to command it (102.6 location+) allows it to play up (103.9 pitching+) tremendously; hence, the strong results so far. I don’t know about you, but a reliever who can get ground balls, has strong command, and misses enough bats sounds intriguing to me! Sure, a pitcher with an ERA north of 5.00 on the Reds may not draw your attention, but, as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover.

 

Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)

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