Who will be MLB’s next breakout reliever? These three arms have the right tools


No position in baseball is as volatile as relief pitcher. Even the very best reliever can be unpredictable from one year to the next. Take Blake Treinen. He was an All-Star in 2018 who had a 0.78 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP in 80 1/3 innings. In 2019, Treinen had a 4.91 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP in 58 2/3 innings, and he was non-tendered after the season. The Athletics let him go for nothing.

Teams spend countless resources trying to identify, acquire, and develop the next great reliever even though the position is fraught with unpredictability. There are skills that point to potential success, of course. Great stuff and the ability to miss bats is highly valued in the late innings. Missing the barrel and limiting hard contact can work too, though balls in play can equal bad things.

Each year relievers come out of seemingly nowhere to have tremendous success. Kirby Yates developed a splitter after bouncing around waivers and became a dominant closer. Nick Anderson went from independent ball to the big leagues in four years. Adam Ottavino reinvented himself in a Harlem storefront. These out-of-nowhere success stories happen every year.

With that in mind, here are three pitchers who’ve shown the skills that suggest they could be on the verge of bullpen stardom. We’re going to focus on pitchers with a decent number of big-league innings, so Indians strikeout machine James Karinchak (22.0 K/9 in the minors!) doesn’t make the cut following his brief September cameo. No one will be surprised if he has huge success.

Austin Adams

RP •

2019 stats

ERA3.94

WHIP1.13

IP32

BB16

K53

Had the bullpen-needy Nationals not won the World Series last year, their decision to trade righty Austin Adams to the Mariners for a fringe prospect and cash would’ve raised quite a few eyebrows. Instead, Washington won a title, and no one really cares that they gave away a 28-year-old pitcher who struck out 51 batters in 31 innings following the trade.

Adams is a career reliever — the former eighth-round pick has started two games in his professional career, both last season as an opener with Seattle — with a fastball/slider combination that is more like a SLIDER/fastball combination. He threw the slider 64 percent of the time last season and why wouldn’t he? It’s a wipeout pitch that generated a miss on nearly half of all swings, and several relievers (Andrew Miller, Sergio Romo, etc.) have had extended success throwing 60-something percent sliders.

The league average swing-and-miss rate on sliders is 35.9 percent. Adams was at 48.8 percent last year. He also managed a better than average swing-and-miss rate with his fastball (23.4 percent vs. 21.9 percent). Those whiffs are primarily the result of high-end velocity and an elite spin rate.

Fastball velocity

95.9 mph

93.4 mph

Fastball spin

2,601 rpm

2,287 rpm

Slider velocity

85.9 mph

84.7 mph

Slider spin

2,829 rpm

2,428 rpm

There is more to life than velocity and spin, however. Adams also misses so many bats because he tunnels his pitches very well, meaning the fastball and slider not only have a similar release point, but the pitches stay on the same plane as they approach the plate. In English, the two fastball and slider looks the same out of Adams’ hand, and only begin to separate late in flight.

Here is the tunneling time leaderboard among pitchers with at least 100 tunneling events recorded in 2019:

  1. Austin Adams: 0.159 seconds
  2. Jesse Chavez: 0.159 seconds
  3. Nick Vincent: 0.159 seconds
  4. Sam Dyson: 0.160 seconds
  5. Jared Hughes: 0.160 seconds

This tells us, on average, how much flight time the two pitches have until they reach the plate when they begin to separate. To put it another way, this tells us how much time the hitter has to react after the slider starts sliding. Up to that point, it looks like a fastball. Between the velocity, spin, and tunneling, Adams has an elite bat-missing arsenal.

Why did Adams not get his first extended taste of the show until his age-28 season? Control, mostly. Adams has a 12.5 percent walk rate in 123 1/3 career Triple-A innings, and it was a 12.3 percent walk rate in the big leagues last year. Relievers can be very effective with a high walk rate — Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman are two of the best relievers of their generation and they both own career walk rates north of 11 percent — but it does give them a smaller margin for error.

Adams tore his left ACL covering first base last September and had been placed on the 60-day injured list prior to the shutdown this spring. He was not expected to return until late May or early June. Given the delayed season, it’s possible he’ll be ready to go come Opening Day. Seattle’s bullpen figures to be the land of opportunity this year and Adams has the tools to become a factor in the late innings.

“When he’s been healthy, the strikeout numbers speak for themselves,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told MLB.com’s Greg Johns last September. “He’s got a special pitch. That slider is really a wipeout. He’s got the demeanor you like out of a reliever, no situation is really too big for him. He likes being out there. I like bringing him in with traffic. He’s got a chance to strike anybody in the league out. He’s had a nice year.”  

If nothing else, Yankees righty Jonathan Loaisiga has a unique backstory. He spent two years in the Giants‘ farm system before being released in May 2015. He was set to play in the Italian Baseball League when New York signed him out of a tryout camp in Feb. 2016. Two years later Loaisiga was in the show even though he missed most of 2016 and 2017 with Tommy John surgery.

Loaisiga, 25, has spent the last two seasons as an up-and-down depth arm, making eight starts and 16 relief appearances for the Yankees. He also appeared in four postseason games last year, indicating some level of trust. Loaisiga has struck out 28.3 percent of the big-league batters, which is good but not truly elite, though he shows the potential to miss even more bats given his velocity and spin rates:

Fastball velocity

96.8 mph

93.4 mph

Fastball spin

2,422 rpm

2,287 rpm

Curveball velocity

84.2 mph

78.5 mph

Curveball spin

2,805 rpm

2,531 rpm

Loaisiga’s fastball (27.8 percent vs. 21.9 percent) and curveball (45.8 percent vs. 31.2 percent) both registered better than league average swing-and-miss rates last season, and he also throws a hard changeup with a better than average swing-and-miss rate (43.6 percent vs. 30.7 percent). Three legitimate swing-and-miss pitches will take a pitcher far.

Furthermore, Loaisiga has shown a knack for limiting hard contact. Statcast puts his career expected slugging percentage at .410 based on exit velocity and launch angle, which is essentially equal to the .412 league average. Considering more than 54 percent of his career innings have come in homer happy Yankee Stadium, an expecting slugging percentage in that range is impressive. Loaisiga gets whiffs and doesn’t get hit hard.

Control has never been an issue for Loaisiga, who has a 6.4 percent walk rate in 233 2/3 professional innings. He’s been held back by injuries. San Francisco released him after shoulder problems, he had Tommy John surgery three years ago, and he’s spent time on the injured list with arm trouble each of the last two years. Loaisiga lacks experience for a 25-year-old because he’s missed so much time. Staying on the field is the biggest obstacle.

The Yankees had not finalized Loaisiga’s role prior to the shutdown but he has experience starting and relieving. His body has told us throughout his career it is not up to the rigors of starting. In order to keep Loaisiga on the field, it might be best to put him in the bullpen full-time, where his experience as a starter and three-pitch mix could make him a dynamic multi-inning option a la teammate Chad Green or Mets righty Seth Lugo.

“Loaisiga was an interesting option,” Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake told MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch recently. “We kicked that around. Whether it was a full starter or opener or kind of a Swiss Army Knife role, he had obviously really taken a step forward for us this year.”  

Unlike Adams and Loaisiga, Reds righty Lucas Sims is a former first-round pick and highly regarded prospect. He was consistently ranked in the middle of top 100 prospects lists in 2014 and 2015, though his big-league career has involved up-and-down duty as a spot starter and reliever the last three years. During that time Sims has a 5.49 ERA in 116 1/3 innings.

It wasn’t until last year, when the Reds put Sims in the bullpen full-time, that he began to deliver on the promise that made him a first-round pick and highly regarded prospect. “For them to tell me, ‘Hey, you’re here right now. We want you to learn from it. We want you to log big-league innings. We want you to get big outs for us.’ That kind of instilled a lot of confidence in me,” Sims told Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer last month.

As a reliever last season Sims saw his velocity jump and his strikeout rate jump with it — he struck out 36.4 percent of batters faced as a reliever last year compared to his career 18.8 percent strikeout rate as a starter. Sims complements his high spin mid-90s fastball with two distinct low-to-mid-80s breaking balls. He has a curveball that breaks down, like this:

And he has a slider that sweeps across the plate. Last year 549 pitchers threw at least 100 sliders. Sims had the eighth-highest spin rate at 3,004 rpm. There were 454 pitchers who threw at least 100 curveballs. Sims had the fifth -ighest spin rate at 3,120 rpm. Few pitchers in the sport can spin the ball like him. He owns two top-of-the-line breaking balls.

The slider has shown more promise than the curveball to date. Last year hitters swung and missed at the slider 55.3 percent of the time, an extraordinary rate, compared to only 30.5 percent against the curveball, which is merely ordinary. It might worth shelving the curveball and going fastball/slider exclusively, but I don’t think Sims is there yet. I say give him a chance to improve the curve.

Sims, who is still 25, is about as good a candidate to be the next Ryan Pressly as any pitcher in the sport. Pressly showed two elite spin breaking balls with the Twins but only had intermittent success. The Astros helped him tighten up both the slider and curveball, and also optimize his pitch mix (i.e. more breaking balls and fewer fastballs), and he became an impact high-leverage reliever.

Last year Sims threw 50 percent fastballs and 50 percent breaking balls. Pressly was at one-third fastballs, one-third sliders, and one-third curveballs. For Sims, that’s a pitch mix worth trying in 2020. Air it out in short bursts and spin the crap out the ball. He already misses a ton of bats as a reliever. Throwing those breaking balls more often could make him one of the game’s top strikeout artists.

“This offseason, we took some of that data and talked about ‘all right, how can we utilize it more?'” Sims told Nightengale. “As far as that, now it’s using those pitches, sequencing them the correct way and at the end of the day, still pitching to my strengths. You know, we preach to be great at what you’re good at.”    





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