After a phenomenal debut in 2019, Chris Paddack took a significant step back in his sophomore campaign. Much of those struggles could be linked to the performance of his four-seam fastball. In 2019, opposing batters hit just .204 against his four-seamer with a .275 wOBA. Those marks jumped to .308 and .413, respectively, in 2020. Likewise, Paddack went from a whiff rate on his heater of 23.2% his rookie year to 20.9% last season, a mark just barely over league average for a four-seamer. With that pitch and a plus changeup making up the majority of his pitch mix, the ineffectiveness of his fastball had a much larger impact on his results, as he simply didn’t have anything else in his repertoire.
This spring, Paddack decided to start looking at the analytics behind his fastball. In a mid-March media session, he spoke at length about what he learned about how its shape affects his results:
“Last year I was east to west. I was pulling off. My spin direction was outside of one, for y’all that know the baseball term of that. The axis of the baseball… I was getting two-seam run on my four-seam fastball.”
Here’s a look at the physical characteristics of Paddack’s fastball and its percentile ranks when compared within each pitch type:
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Just a few weeks ago, Julian Merryweather was fighting for a spot on the Blue Jays Opening Day roster. A back injury suffered early in spring training pushed his Grapefruit League debut back to mid-March and he struggled to get up to speed in such a compressed timeframe. But then Kirby Yates went down with an elbow injury that would require Tommy John, a couple of other pitchers were sidelined to start the season, and Merryweather just barely snuck onto Toronto’s 26-man roster on March 31.
The very next day, he was pitching in the 10th inning in Yankee Stadium, trying to hold a one-run lead on Opening Day. He came one pitch away from throwing an immaculate inning and ended up striking out the side to secure the win. Three days later, he was thrown into the fire again, this time being asked to protect a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. He recorded two more strikeouts in that outing and earned the second save of his career.
When I wrote about what the Blue Jays bullpen might look like without Yates a few weeks ago, Merryweather wasn’t even on my radar. Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis have definitely been in the mix for high-leverage work — they threw in the eighth and ninth of that Opening Day victory paving the way for Merryweather’s appearance in the 10th. The quality of Merryweather’s stuff has been a revelation and has helped him emphatically declare his spot in the bullpen pecking order.
Merryweather was acquired by the Blue Jays in August of 2018 when Toronto traded Josh Donaldson to Cleveland right before the waiver trade deadline. It was viewed as a light return at the time since Merryweather had blown out his arm during the previous season and was in the middle of rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. He got back on the mound in 2019 but another arm injury limited him to just six minor league innings. Last season, he made his major league debut in September, showing impressive velocity and a starter’s repertoire out of the bullpen, but another elbow issue cut his season short after just 13 innings. Read the rest of this entry »
During the last few days of spring training, most teams are wrapping up position battles and preparing for Opening Day. The Angels, meanwhile, decided the waning days of March were a great time to revamp their bullpen. On Sunday, they signed Noé Ramirez to a minor league deal. Then on Monday, they acquired James Hoyt from the Marlins for cash considerations and signed Steve Cishek and Tony Watson to matching one-year, $1 million deals. Save Hoyt, all these pitchers were available because they had already been cut from other team’s rosters. That’s not a promising way to build a bullpen, but the Angels, who desperately need additional depth on their staff, didn’t have much of a choice.
Bolstering the relief corps was a priority for new Angels GM Perry Minasian, and he made a handful of moves in the winter to do so. In December, he acquired new closer Raisel Iglesias from the Reds in exchange for Ramirez and a player to be named later. Ramirez ended up getting cut by the Reds, and the Angels scooped him up again, effectively acquiring Iglesias for free. The team also added Alex Claudio and Junior Guerra via free agency, but even with those three new relievers, Los Angeles still lacked depth in the middle of their bullpen. The projected relief corps before this week included control artist Aaron Slegers, the raw but promising Chris Rodriguez, and veteran Jesse Chavez to hold the line during the middle third of the game. Conspicuously absent from that group is Ty Buttrey, who was a solid option out of the bullpen in 2018 and ‘19 but greatly disappointed last year. He was optioned to minor league camp last week. Felix Peña will likely be counted on for some high-leverage work as well, but he strained his hamstring this spring and will start the year on the Injured List.
With Hoyt, Ramirez, Watson and Cishek on board, here’s what Los Angeles’ bullpen now looks like:
Adding so many relievers has definitely increased the depth, but the flexibility isn’t all that improved. The first seven names on that list are either out of minor league options or good enough to hold a roster spot for the entire season. If the Angels carry eight relievers on their 26-man roster, that means the final bullpen spot will be a rotating door for whichever reliever is the freshest.
Of the four relievers added this week, Hoyt has the most interesting projection. He broke into the majors in 2016 with Houston and won a championship there the next year, though he was left off the postseason roster. He was traded to Cleveland mid-way through 2018 and spent what was left of that year as well as the majority of ’19 in Triple-A, logging just 8.1 innings in the majors that season.
When the Marlins faced a team-wide COVID outbreak at the start of last year, they acquired Hoyt for cash considerations to help fill out the bullpen. He enjoyed the best season of his short career in Miami, striking out over 30% of the batters he faced despite a huge drop in velocity across all four of his pitches. To combat that, he started throwing his slider more than two-thirds of the time. With a whiff rate over 40%, that pitch formed the foundation of his success.
Hoyt’s velocity hasn’t returned this spring: His fastball is topping out under 90 mph, and his slider is coming in around 80 mph. But if he maintains his approach from last year, he’s shown that his slider is good enough to thrive without elite velocity. The other important thing he possesses is a minor league option. The Angels’ bullpen has a lot less flexibility to call up fresh arms when the attrition of a full season starts to hit. Since Hoyt is one of the few relievers with an option still available, he’ll probably ride the shuttle between Triple-A and the majors regularly this season.
In Cishek and Watson, the Angels add two relievers with plenty of high-leverage experience and funk. Cishek scuffled through his worst season in the majors in the White Sox’ bullpen last year. The frisbee slider he whips in from an extremely low release point was as good as ever, but his sinker was crushed. In the past, he had relied on that pitch to maintain his above-average ground ball rate, but opposing batters elevated and celebrated against it in 2020. At this point, he’s best cast as a right-handed specialist so he can use his slider as much as he needs to. Facing too many left-handed bats will leave him exposed, especially now that his sinker is barely crossing 90 mph regularly.
Watson’s career arc closely mirrors Cishek’s. He was a solid high-leverage option for the Pirates, Dodgers, and Giants for a number of years, but the quality of his stuff has deteriorated recently. The 2019 season was his nadir — a 4.17 ERA, 4.81 FIP, and -0.2 WAR in 54 innings — though last year represented a small bounce back. And like Hoyt and Cishek, he had to learn how to survive with diminished velocity: He saw a three mile per hour drop across his entire repertoire, though his strikeout rate did jump up three points from ’19.
Watson’s extreme release point nearly matches that of fellow lefty sidearmer Claudio. But where the latter has historically struggled with a significant platoon split, the former’s has been much less dramatic. In 2020, that handedness split was mitigated even further as Watson increased the usage of his changeup to 45%, making it his primary pitch. But like Hoyt, his velocity failed to show up this spring, and he opted out of his minor league deal with the Phillies, who had signed him over the winter.
With Cishek and Watson now in the fold, the Angels’ bullpen has another pair of sidearming relievers to pair with Claudio. It brings to mind the multi-faceted bullpen the Rays put together last season, where nearly every reliever threw from a different arm slot. The Angels aren’t as extreme as the Rays were, but they have a couple of different looks they can trot out to throw off the opposing team.
The velocity issues each of these pitchers are dealing with certainly doesn’t inspire confidence. But when you’re bringing in relievers off the scrap heap, there isn’t much you can do about warts like that. Hoyt, Cishek, and Watson have all shown a willingness to adapt their approach and have had some success with their diminished repertoires. Luckily, the Angels aren’t counting on them to handle critical innings for them — only to provide a competent bridge to the back end of the bullpen.
On Monday, the Blue Jays announced that Kirby Yates had been diagnosed with a strained flexor in his throwing elbow. A day later, that injury turned into something far more serious, as the righty will need Tommy John surgery (the second of his career) to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Signed to a one-year, $5.5 million deal earlier this offseason, it’s likely he’ll never pitch an inning in a Blue Jays jersey.
Elbow issues have derailed a promising late-career upswing for Yates. Between 2018 and ’19, he was arguably the best reliever in baseball, worth a league-leading 5.2 WAR and with 53 saves to his name as the Padres’ closer. But bone chips in his elbow limited him to just 4 1/3 innings in 2020, and his age — he turns 34 in just a few days — combined with the uncertainty surrounding his health likely led to the below-market deal he signed with Toronto. That elbow reportedly sunk a potential deal with the Braves earlier in the offseason, and his physical with the Jays showed more damage than expected, costing him more money.
Yates’ potential ability to anchor the bullpen was enticing enough for Toronto to take the risk that his elbow could hold up for the whole season. Instead, he didn’t last through spring training, and now the Blue Jays have to figure out how to organize the back end of their bullpen. They already had a number of strong options for high-leverage work; the trick will be determining the best way to cover up the gaping hole in the ninth inning.
With nearly half of spring training already over, the Pirates made a last-minute addition to their starting rotation last week, signing Trevor Cahill to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with an additional $1 million in potential incentives. Cahill becomes the second veteran arm Pittsburgh has added this offseason, joining his former teammate from the Giants, Tyler Anderson. In a season where every pitching staff will be stretched thin, both ex-Giants give the Pirates much needed rotation depth.
Cahill joins an extremely young Pirates roster. Depending on what happens with Todd Frazier, who is in camp as a non-roster invitee, Cahill could enter the season as the oldest member of the 26-man roster. Pittsburgh was very aggressive in moving whatever value they could find from their starting rotation this offseason. Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon were both traded away within a week of each other, and Trevor Williams and Chris Archer both left in free agency. Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl have the most seniority now with nine seasons and 5.6 total WAR between them. Mitch Keller will get another chance to translate his excellent minor league track record and prospect helium into actual production at the major league level. Because of either their advanced service time or pedigree, those three should have rotation spots locked up with Anderson slotting into the fourth slot. That leaves Cahill and JT Brubaker to round out the staff — assuming the Pirates use a six-man rotation.
Pirates GM Ben Cherington has said that’s how he’d like to approach the season:
“We like the idea of having six starters on the team. Whether we’re actually using all six starters or are using them to come in behind guys and provide length or back and forth, we’ll see how that plays out. We just wanted to add as much starting depth as we could after the offseason moves.”
I’m sure plenty of us would like to simply forget that 2020 ever happened. In this fictional world where a Men In Black neuralyzer is used to erase the memory of the last 12 months, Ketel Marte would be feeling pretty good about his previous season. 2019 was a big year for Marte. He posted a 150 wRC+ and accumulated 7.0 WAR, both easily career highs, and earned a fourth place finish in the NL MVP voting. With last year wiped clean, he’d be looking forward to building off his breakout in 2021 and establishing himself as a bonafide superstar. Instead, the memory of nearly 200 so-so plate appearances in 2020 comes flooding back and all sorts of questions about his true talent level begin to popup.
When compared to his performance prior to 2019, his 2020 season doesn’t seem all that out of place. His power output dropped back to where it was before his breakout, leading to very similar overall offensive contributions to his early career line.
Which season seems like the outlier when put into this context? Of course, it isn’t so easy as simply throwing out his 2019 and settling on a true offensive talent that falls somewhere around 5% below league average. Most of the projection systems think he’ll fall somewhere in between, with some but not all of his power returning.
Marte’s power surge in 2019 was driven by a significant increase in the number of hard hit balls he put in play in the air. He increased his average launch angle from 5.8 degrees in 2018 to 11.5 degrees in 2019. Along with making more authoritative contact more often, those hard hit balls were pulled more often, too. Every single adjustment he made resulted in greater damage when he put the ball in play. Read the rest of this entry »
For the last three seasons, Willy Adames has been the Rays’ everyday shortstop, and he enters 2021 with that same job locked up. Tampa Bay continues to sport one of the most flexible rosters in baseball, but there’s no one on the 26-man roster currently who can handle shortstop regularly outside of him. On any other team, he could probably look forward to years of job security before he hits free agency in 2025. But on this team, Adames’ 2021 season is full of added pressure.
Adames made his major league debut in late May 2018; the month and a half he spent in the minors earned Tampa Bay an extra year of service time, which means he’ll go through his first round of salary arbitration after this season. Over his first three years in the majors, he’s been a player who’s above-average at many things but not good at any in particular, compiling a 106 wRC+ at the plate, oscillating between good and bad defensive seasons, and posting a total of 5.7 WAR. He’s a solid contributor to a team with championship aspirations. The problem is that he’s about to get a raise at exactly the wrong time.
Way back in mid-November, when the free agent market was still moving at a glacial pace, the Braves signed Drew Smyly to a one-year deal worth $11 million. After years of injury issues, Smyly finally appeared to be (relatively) healthy in 2020. He increased the velocity on each of his pitches by 2.6 mph, helping him post the highest strikeout rate and lowest FIP of his career, though it came in just 26.1 innings.
Eleven million dollars might seem like a bit much for an injury-prone starter who showed the briefest glimpse of a breakout last year, at least on a relative basis. Corey Kluber signed for $11 million; Garrett Richards got $10 million; and James Paxton signed for $8.5 million. If healthy, each of those other starters likely has more upside than Smyly. Still, Atlanta was willing to take the chance in the hopes that Smyly’s velocity holds and portends a bigger breakout in 2021.
Fast forward a few months and Atlanta is again betting on another injury-prone player who had a mini-resurgence in 2020. This time around the money risked is even lower. On Sunday, the Braves brought in Jake Lamb on a one-year, non-guaranteed, major league deal worth $1 million.
Since 2017, Lamb has played in just 165 games, with a major shoulder injury and a quad injury sidelining him for much of the ’18 and ’19 seasons, respectively. During those two years, his wRC+ hovered right around 78 and the power he displayed during his breakout seasons in 2016 and ’17 was glaringly absent. For the first 18 games of the 2020 season, the same struggles persisted. After limping to just a 14 wRC+ in 50 plate appearances, the Diamondbacks cut him loose on September 10. Five days later, he signed with the Athletics after Matt Chapman went down with a season-ending hip injury. With the A’s, Lamb looked completely rejuvenated, slugging three home runs in 13 games and posting a 141 wRC+.
Anyone can look good over a 13-game stretch, but for Lamb, it was a glimpse at what could be if his body was healthy again. His average exit velocity was right in line with what he had posted in years past, over half the balls he put in play came off the bat at 95 mph or higher, and his barrel rate was 10.8% in Oakland. But even though his power returned in this tiny sample, the excellent plate discipline skills he’s shown in the past disappeared.
It’s nearly impossible to glean anything from Lamb’s performance in Oakland, let alone take anything away from the combined 99 plate appearances between the A’s and the Diamondbacks. But the Braves felt like they had a need on their roster and were confident enough in Lamb’s health to bring him in for spring training. Read the rest of this entry »
A few days after signing Ken Giles to bolster their bullpen of tomorrow, the Mariners signed a free agent who should help the team this year, and it’s a big one for Seattle fans. On Saturday, the M’s agreed to a one-year, $8.5 million deal with James Paxton, with incentives that could bring the total outlay to $10 million. With spring training just a few days away, it’s a reunion that makes a lot of sense for both parties.
Paxton was originally drafted by the Mariners in 2010 and worked his way through the organization to make his major league debut in 2013. A litany of injuries prevented him from making an impact during the first three years of his major league career, but he broke out in 2016 when he suddenly started throwing 97 mph. He was traded to the Yankees prior to the 2019 season and was a solid presence in their rotation that year, but the injury bug struck again in 2020, limiting him to just five starts. Now, he returns to the Mariners and will share the rotation with the headlining prospect — Justus Sheffield — that came to Seattle from New York in that trade two years ago.
Paxton’s ability to stay on the mound has always been a lingering concern. The last time he made it through an entire season without at least one trip to the injured list was 2013, when he made a full slate of starts for the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers and then made his major league debut in September. Last year, it was a strained flexor in his left forearm that sidelined him (that after offseason back surgery). The year before that it was a knee injury. He’s also dealt with arm contusions, back inflammation, and muscle strains in his fingers, arm, and torso. If you were to map out the parts of his body that have been hurt, the entire left side of his body would glow red.
Addressing a historically bad bullpen was the primary goal of the Mariners this offseason. Going back to 1969 — the year MLB lowered the mound — the 2020 Mariners bullpen posted the second worst league-adjusted FIP and the fourth worst league-adjusted ERA in a single season. They’ve already made a number of moves to strengthen their relief corps, including trading for Rafael Montero and bringing in a ton of relievers on minor-league deals. Yesterday, they capped off their offseason plan by signing a big-name closer to a multi-year deal. They locked up Ken Giles to a two-year deal, though the specific financials have yet to be reported at time of publication. The only problem is that Giles recently underwent Tommy John surgery and likely won’t pitch until 2022. Elbow troubles have plagued Giles over the last two years. He pitched through inflammation in 2019 but all that wear and tear on his arm caught up to him a season later. He threw just 3.2 innings in 2020 and went under the knife on October 1.
He’s the latest player to sign a deal like this. Garrett Richards and Michael Pineda are the two biggest names who have signed multi-year deals soon after undergoing major arm surgery. It’s an interesting move for the Mariners who have had a rather quiet offseason. They’re not quite ready to break out of their rebuild and have avoided opening the purse strings to make a splash this year. By locking up Giles now, they have him committed to their 2022 roster when they’re hoping to be more ready to compete. Read the rest of this entry »