An Inning With One of My New Favorite Pitchers

Some of the best numbers in the upper levels of professional baseball are presently working out of the Dodgers bullpen. I don’t mean Kenley Jansen. I mean, I guess I do mean Kenley Jansen, because that certainly applies well to him, but he’s not the focus here. You know about Jansen and you know that he’s dominant. There’s somebody else in there you probably don’t know. You wouldn’t have had a reason to know him, really. Not before this year, but this year, Grant Dayton has taken off.

Here’s the way this usually works: We spot someone with crazy statistics, and then we investigate to try to determine whether the player is for real. I’m not going to pretend like that isn’t what’s happening here, but we all have to start somewhere. We all need some initial reason to start to like a given player. What I hope will come across: Dayton’s numbers aren’t just ordinary-good. They’re unbelievable-good. And now that I’ve watched Dayton pitch in the majors, I’m an even bigger fan. I think you might become one as well.

Dayton is a 28-year-old lefty with all of three games of big-league experience. This is why he’s an unknown, and one usually doesn’t fall in love with 28-year-old rookies, but as you know, with pitchers, sometimes it can just click. All right. For background — the way I typically think of it, minor-league numbers start to really mean something in Double-A, when players begin to have advanced approaches. Dayton has spent a little time this year in Double-A. He’s spent the most time in Triple-A. He’s spent three games’ worth of time in the majors. Combined, he’s faced more than 200 batters.

For the following table, I set a minimum of 100 batters. Here are the top 10 pitchers in terms of K-BB% against advanced competition. It should be very obvious that it’s easier to run a strong K-BB% in Double-A than it is in the bigs, so that’s one thing you need to keep in mind, but, statistically, Dayton has made a name for himself.

Top 10 K-BB%, 2016
Pitcher PA K-BB% BB% K%
Andrew Miller 186 40.9% 3.8% 44.6%
Grant Dayton 215 40.5% 5.6% 46.0%
Dellin Betances 211 37.0% 7.6% 44.5%
Jonathan Holder 183 35.0% 3.8% 38.8%
James Hoyt 206 34.5% 8.7% 43.2%
Kenley Jansen 178 33.7% 3.9% 37.6%
Shawn Kelley 161 33.5% 5.0% 38.5%
Edwin Diaz 292 33.2% 5.1% 38.4%
Aroldis Chapman 139 31.7% 5.8% 37.4%
Clayton Kershaw 441 30.8% 2.0% 32.9%
Double-A, Triple-A, and majors only. Minimum 100 batters faced, combined.

There’s Dayton, in second, in between Miller and Betances. Second out of 1,287 qualifying pitchers. If it makes any difference to you, Dayton actually ranks first by overall strikeout rate. Now, there are a few other unknowns here. There’s something to be written about Holder, and there’s something to be written about Hoyt. Maybe I’ll eventually end up composing those posts, but here, it’s Dayton who’s most amazing among the pitchers you don’t know. The Dodgers got him almost for free.

In April of 2015, the Marlins designated Dayton for assignment, and he cleared waivers. The Dodgers dealt for him in July, exchanging Chris Reed. Dayton was functional in the minors, but this season has been the breakout. His K-BB% this year is almost double what it was last year. Last year, Dayton threw 66% strikes, and 11% of his pitches were cut on and missed. This year, Dayton has thrown 71% strikes, and 21% of his pitches have been cut on and missed. Both of those numbers are extraordinary — those are Aroldis Chapman whiffs, with Bartolo Colon strikes. Even better, to be honest. Mostly in the minors, sure, but minor-league hitters aren’t terrible, and now Dayton has brought his stuff to Los Angeles.

The stuff! Dayton is very much not a flame-thrower. His fastball will hang out in the lower 90s, which no longer really means anything in this day and age of reliever heat. I don’t know what the Dodgers might have tweaked, if anything, between 2015 and 2016, but now, Dayton is defined by his fastball. Yesterday, Eno posted a chat he had with Ryan Buchter, where Buchter talked about the Dodgers’ obsession with spin rates. When Dave Roberts referred to Dayton, he called him a “high spin-rate guy.” Dayton himself tweeted a link to a spin-rate article in January. And by average four-seam fastball rise, Dayton ranks in the 96th percentile. That’s from a small big-league sample, but pitch movement stabilizes almost immediately. We can see that Dayton must have a deceptive fastball.

And he has some other pitches. And he has command. He’s got everything but triple digits, and so that you can see what I saw, we’re going to walk through Dayton’s 10 pitches against the Phillies from Tuesday. I know it’s just the Phillies, but, bear with me. It’s really the pitches themselves that matter.

Starting things off:

A perfectly-located first-pitch curveball. That’s a guaranteed called strike, and the execution couldn’t have been better. Up next:

This time, it’s the fastball that’s spotted. Dayton nailed his target to move ahead 0-and-2. A glimpse at one of his putaway pitches:

Dayton missed just a little, but he missed in a spot where Ryan Howard couldn’t do very much. The fastball was still up and Howard took a bad swing. Cameron Rupp was next:

Dayton found his spot and Rupp swung underneath the ball. That’s what you get with a good four-seamer. Dayton then came back with something different:

Quality changeup, nearly for another strike. Rupp held up, but the pitch did what Dayton wanted. The count even, Dayton came in:

That’s a ball, but it’s not much of a miss. Dayton hit the high-and-tight area and was just off the black. Rupp found himself in a fastball count:

Maybe the pitch was supposed to be a little lower, but high-rise four-seamers are typically thrown in the upper half, and Dayton painted the edge. That’s a perfect fastball where the hitter is looking for something to drive, and Dayton found himself in another two-strike count. He gave Rupp what he gave to Howard, basically:

Precisely what they wanted to do, and precisely what they wanted to have happen. Dayton executed his heater, and that brought up Aaron Altherr:

Just another beautiful and perfect first-pitch curveball. When you go up against these high-rise-fastball guys, you expect those high-rise fastballs. Many of those pitchers have trouble throwing their other offerings for strikes. Dayton doesn’t seem to have that problem. As a matter of fact, I can say this: On the first pitch, Dayton has thrown 53% curveballs. After the first pitch, he’s thrown 81% fastballs. Big-league batters have yet to swing at a single curve. Dayton uses multiple pitches and he’s good at messing with timing. Anyhow, let’s close out the inning:

Dayton didn’t strike out the side, but he might as well have, closing with a harmless pop-up. The high-and-tight fastball was right on the edge, and Altherr wasn’t going to be able to catch up to it. It was a low-leverage appearance, and Dayton was removed before the ninth, but he was about as perfect as a pitcher can be.

It’s possible I just caught him on a good night. The numbers suggest he’s had almost exclusively good nights. In the inning, you can see fastball command and you can see fastball confidence. In addition, you see a couple perfect curveballs and a quality changeup. When you put everything together, you get what should be an outstanding major-league reliever, and for whatever it’s worth, out of the 33 swings big-league opponents have attempted against Dayton’s fastball, 14 have whiffed. He’s carrying over his minor-league success, and in the minors, he was one of the very top per-inning pitchers. You don’t fluke your way into a combined .477 OPS allowed.

There are better pitchers. There are starting pitchers. There are more purely talented pitchers. No matter what Grant Dayton does, he’s never going to reach back and find 98. What’s terrific about him is he doesn’t have to. He already has a swing-and-miss fastball, and it looks like he also has upper-tier precision. I know that I’m a sucker for pop-up relievers, but there’s a reason for that. Good relievers pop up. This one has a chance to be great.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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A couple of days ago Daniel Brim wrote basically the same article, but about a two-inning appearance vs the Red Sox: