An Assortment of Reliever Signings, Part One

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

As expected, the first weekend after the end of the lockout gave us a flurry of moves. Relievers in particular were a hot commodity, with teams trying to bolster their bullpens as the pool of quality pitchers continues to shrink. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these moves from over the weekend.

White Sox Sign Joe Kelly

Kelly comes to Chicago on a two-year, $17 million deal with a club option for a third year. At 33, the veteran is coming off of a great season with the Dodgers, probably his best as a reliever. Underneath his 2.86 ERA, he posted a career-best swinging-strike rate (11.6%) and exit velocity (85.5 mph), as well as his lowest walk rate (8.2%) ever. Even with all the success, a pair of injuries raise questions about his durability moving forward. Kelly got a late start in 2021 because of an offseason surgery to clean up his shoulder, and his year ended with him walking off the mound in the playoffs after suffering a forearm injury. Luckily, he avoided the worst case scenario; all reports have him ready for the upcoming season.

Kelly’s successful 2021 came on the back of a dominant low-spin sinker. In each of the previous five seasons, his four-seam fastball was his most used heater, but after years of middling results with the pitch, he all but shelved it in 2021. A new sinker-heavy pitch mix helped increase his groundball rate over the years; his three primary pitches — sinker, curveball, and changeup — all generate grounders more than 55% of the time.

Kelly’s sinker usage is somewhat unconventional; he doesn’t keep it at the knees but instead pounds the inside edge to righties and outside edge to lefties. This allows the pitch to play well off his curveball by coming in at a similar location before mirrored movement separates them. That curveball is a standout pitch, boasting 98th-percentile spin that gives it great horizontal and vertical movement and allowing only a .220 wOBA last season. It’s also his best pitch for getting whiffs.

These nasty offerings allowed Kelly to be aggressive in the zone, with an above-average zone rate and one of the best CSW% (Called Strikes Plus Swinging Strikes) in all of baseball at 33.8%.

Kelly gives Tony La Russa another electric arm in relief — not that he necessarily needs one. Chicago’s bullpen had the best K-BB% in baseball last year, and nobody threw harder, with White Sox relievers averaging nearly 96 mph on their fastballs. That’s not to say that trying to improve the bullpen is a waste; even with those numbers, they ranked ninth in ERA-.

This isn’t the only high-profile addition the White Sox have made in their bullpen this offseason either; a few months ago, they signed Kendall Graveman to a three-year deal. Part of the rationale for that deal seemed to be the publicly stated desire to trade away Craig Kimbrel, but the post-lockout trade chatter around him has been quiet. Yet here the Sox are again spending money on a reliever, suggesting they would still have interest in moving Kimbrel and his $16 million salary, as they are currently about $53 million over last season’s payroll. As currently constructed, though, this is a nasty bullpen, and Kelly slotting in as arguably the fifth- or sixth-best option is testament to that.

Rockies Sign Alex Colomé

Colomé heads to Colorado on a one-year deal, although the exact specifics have yet to be reported. The veteran righty is coming off a down year with the Twins but has a long track record of being a quality closer, even if his peripherals have always leaned closer to average than his ERA typically suggests. From 2016 to ’21, he recorded 138 saves in 156 opportunities with a 2.78 ERA and a 3.46 FIP. During that span he allowed only a .260 BABIP, but that figure ballooned to .305 last season en route to a 4.15 ERA, the highest of his career.

Now 33 years old, Colomé has lost a tick on his fastball, sitting at 93.9 mph where he used to average over 95. Every bit of velocity is important given that he only throws fastballs and cutters; in fact, he hasn’t thrown a pitch slower than 85 mph since 2016. That cutter has some downward bite to it, giving it some slider characteristics, but it comes in just four miles per hour off his fastball. He features the pitch heavily, with a usage rate over 70% in the last three seasons, and it’s his best tool both for grounders (57.6%) and whiffs (15.8%). Colomé brings a smooth and easy motion, with his arm action providing a bit of deception; it somewhat awkwardly rotates behind his body before finishing with a standard over-the-top release point.

Colomé’s cutter should be a plus in the thin air of Coors Field; in fact, he is the only guy in the Rockies’ bullpen with a groundball rate consistently over 50%. That doesn’t make him a perfect fit for his new home (who even is a perfect fit there?), as his lack of elite swing-and-miss stuff makes him pretty reliant on contact. His cutter can get in a lot of trouble when left above the knees, too; he surrendered six homers on the pitch last season. When he’s on, you’ll see him pounding the corners with fastballs and landing his cutter at the knees. It remains to be seen where Colomé will fit into the late-inning mix given the presence of Carlos Estévez and Daniel Bard, but given his experience, he’ll likely get the opportunity to hold down a high-leverage role.

Phillies Sign Jeurys Familia

Familia, signed to a one-year, $6 million deal with another $1 million available through performance incentives, is a familiar face for Phillies’ fans, as he’s spent all but 31.1 of his nearly 500 career innings pitching for the division rival Mets. In his prime (2014–16), he was a nasty closer who threw high-velocity sinkers and sliders and had an elite groundball rate. No reliever appeared in more games than he did over that stretch, and that extreme usage may have taken its toll. Since his lone All-Star appearance in 2016, Familia has had steep fluctuations in his performance, often tied to his inability to throw strikes:

At 32 and far from his prime years, Familia has understandably lost some stuff. His slider and sinker both accrued negative pitch value last season. On the aggregate, he can still bring his sinker in hard, averaging over 96 mph on the pitch, and that velocity has been consistent over the last six years, even if it is still a full tick off of his prime. It generates plenty of arm-side run, and its vertical shape has changed quite a bit over the years, as he now gets a few more inches of drop. That new shape has not been a boon, however, as hitters had an easier time elevating the pitch. Last season, batters took that pitch deep nine times, or as many times as they had in the previous seven seasons combined. The shape itself can’t take all the blame, either; Familia’s faltering command has resulted in more sinkers over the heart of the plate instead of on the corners. His slider has also changed over the years, now sitting around 89 mph (up from 87) and with more cutter characteristics and less extreme movement. In short, it’s no longer the whiffs-and-ground balls machine that it used to be.

The Phillies’ bullpen struggled last season, finishing 25th in ERA-, so it’s no surprise that the team has thrown some money at the problem. The Familia signing represents Philadelphia’s second big move in that direction after it signed Corey Knebel earlier in the offseason. Knebel is clearly the best late-inning option for manager Joe Girardi, but a strong start to the season from Familia would give him some welcome flexibility in the late innings.

Adding Familia is also in line for a bullpen that led baseball in reliever groundball rate last year. But all those worm-killers don’t really fit with the Phillies’ defense. Jean Segura (+5 DRS) represents their only above-average defender on the infield; Rhys Hoskins (-7), Didi Gregorius (-10), and Alec Bohm (-13) are out-and-out disasters at their positions. Given Familia’s propensity to get grounders and allow walks, he figures to put a lot of pressure on this defense, putting the onus on the Phillies to improve it or suffer the foreseeable consequences.

Nationals Sign Steve Cishek

Cishek, added on a one-year, $1.75 million deal with $500,000 in incentives, has been a funky and reliable bullpen arm for the last decade. Even at the age of 35, he’s coming off of yet another solid season, throwing 68.1 innings for the Angels with a 3.42 ERA and 3.74 FIP. He’s had to adapt to life without the stuff of his younger days, with a drop of over three miles per hour on his sinker and four-seamer over the years; you’ll see plenty of 88s and 89s on his heater. But despite that velocity decrease, he’s still loyal to his fastballs, which make up over 60% of his pitch mix; his slider does the rest.

As he’s had to make do with lesser stuff, Cishek has been more picky about throwing balls in the strike zone, which has led to rising walk rates, all the way up to 13.3% last season. His zone rate is down around 47%, well below the league average of 51.5%, and thanks to his below-average chase rate, he’s not stealing extra strikes either.

What makes Cishek effective, unique, and a joy to watch is his hunched, side-arm delivery, which creates one of the lowest release points in baseball. That helps him generate soft contact and mitigates some of his command deficiencies. He’s simply a master at missing barrels, with a 98th-percentile average exit velocity of 85 mph, and he’s always been great at keeping the ball in the yard, though last year’s absurdly low 3.1% HR/FB rate is going to be hard to repeat. Home run suppression is basically a requirement if you’re going to walk as many guys as Cishek does, and if that 2021 home run rate regresses to something closer to that of years previous (11.3% from 2016 to ’20), things are going to get ugly.

As currently constructed, the Nationals’ bullpen doesn’t appear to be a strength, with their top four arms — Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey, Will Harris, and Cishek — all with below-average walk rates. Even more confounding is the lack of lefties in relief: the only two southpaws on Washington’s 40-man roster are Sam Clay and Francisco Perez, neither of whom has much experience or success above Triple-A. Perhaps the Nationals aren’t too worried about bullpen construction as they embark on a soft rebuild. In any case, Cishek comes at a cheap price, and if his performance remains consistent, he could garner some interest around the trade deadline.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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2 years ago

This is great Luke! Thanks to all the writers for these timely write-ups, I know the signing frenzy can’t be easy to keep up with!