Early Offseason Marginal Pitching Transactions, Part 2

Cal Quantrill
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we looked at a few single-inning relievers who changed hands in the recent flurry of transactions. We’ll wrap up this series with another small reliever signing, as well as looking at two swingman/starter-types who could have a larger role on their new teams in the upcoming season.

Rockies acquire Cal Quantrill from Guardians in trade

With Quantrill coming off a career-worst year and with a looming arbitration salary estimated at $6.6 million, the Guardians decided to part ways with the 28-year-old righty, designating him for assignment to clear up 40-man roster space. The Rockies opted to cut the waiver line, acquiring him in exchange for low-minors catcher Kody Huff.

Quantrill has never had premium stuff, getting by with a diverse pitch arsenal and a fair share of batted ball luck. In 2021 and ’22, as his role evolved from long relief to spot starter to rotation lock, he ran ERAs around three with xERAs and FIPs above four. While some regression in his results was inevitable, his collapse this past season was the result of underlying changes rather than regression to the mean. Formerly a quintessential control artist who generated soft contact and ground balls thanks to excellent pitch placement, he posted career worsts in walk rate, barrel rate, and ground ball rate, and his inconsistent command was evident in pitch location data.

Cal Quantrill PitchingBot Metrics
Year PitchingBot Stuff PitchingBot Command PitchingBot Overall PitchingBot ERA ERA
2021 44 51 45 5.02 2.89
2022 41 53 44 4.71 3.38
2023 44 43 39 5.57 5.24

Quantrill threw more waste pitches, getting into bad counts on offerings that could have been chases in past seasons. As a pitcher without overwhelming stuff, throwing off hitters’ swing decisions is a key component of his ability to get strikeouts. But his inability to land pitches on the edges of the zone made it easier for them to lay off bad pitches and made them more aggressive on hittable ones. In particular, his cutter stands out as a pitch that hitters saw exceptionally well, as what was previously his best pitch by run value became his worst, allowing a .495 slugging percentage. Last season, the cutter’s average location drifted about three inches upwards and a nudge more to Quantrill’s arm side — in other words, right down the middle. His sinker was still located effectively, but with subpar movement on both planes, he can’t rely on it to miss barrels.

Quantrill’s career-worst strikeout rate of 13.1% isn’t just poor by his standards; it’s practically unheard of in the modern game. The potential dangers of such a pitch-to-contact approach are magnified in his new home of Coors Field, by far the most hitter-friendly park in baseball thanks to its expansive outfield area and thin air. While the Rockies need innings from anyone with a pulse, their primary pitching targets should be high-strikeout arms who accept an elevated walk rate as the cost of doing business. Free passes aren’t great, but they can only advance runners one base; a ball into the Colorado outfield can be far worse than that. It’s not impossible for Quantrill to become a fine innings-eater on his new team, but he’ll have to get his strikeout rate back to acceptable levels and reverse his worrying trend in command to do so.

Rays claim Tyler Alexander from Tigers on waivers

Alexander spent five years with the Tigers as a textbook swingman, with stints in both the starting rotation and bullpen and averaging a shade under three innings per appearance. He fits the profile of a back-end starter or long reliever: he’s left-handed, throws every pitch type (but none very well), doesn’t throw hard, and fills the strike zone with plus command. He threw about 100 innings in each of his first two full seasons and was on track to do so again in 2023 before a lat strain prematurely ended his season. That injury won’t cost him any time in 2024, but the Tigers felt his role was replaceable enough that they waived him to clear 40-man space, and the Rays claimed him after the rest of the AL passed.

A quick glance at the stat sheet tells you almost everything you need to know about Alexander’s track record of performance. In his abbreviated 2023 stint, he walked just 2.8% of batters, second-best among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched. His zone rate ranks in the 77th percentile, but he doesn’t just throw strikes and hope for the best. His pitch heatmaps show a clear plan when executing each pitch: cutters and sinkers that diverge from the middle of the plate toward their respective edges, with secondaries that hug the bottom corners of the zone.

Each of Alexander’s pitches move to their own area of the plate, almost as if he’s aiming for the same spot every time and letting the pitch break toward its final location at the last minute. Having an array of pitches with distinct movement profiles is an important tool for someone who can place the ball wherever he wants at will but doesn’t throw hard or possess some other way of racking up whiffs. From a pure stuff perspective, it’s impressive that he’s found big league success at all. His cutter has above-average specs; the rest of his arsenal is well below. But the Location+ model agrees with our evaluations of his location charts, giving him an above-average grade on all five of his pitches (as does PitchingBot’s command model).

Tyler Alexander’s Arsenal
Pitch Type Usage Stuff+ Location+
Cutter 32% 102 102
Fastball 21% 87 107
Sinker 19% 76 104
Changeup 18% 73 109
Slider 10% 85 110

Alexander’s move to the Rays seems like a solid pairing given their recent run of success in getting the most out of command-first pitchers. In his first season with Tampa Bay, formerly average zone filler Zach Eflin had a career year, earning Cy Young votes. You can chalk it up to the Rays sprinkling their trademark magic dust on a pitcher and instantly turning him elite, but the adjustments he made were rather concrete: scaling up the usage of his cutter and curveball to induce weak contact and keep the ball on the ground. They’ve had similar successes with Jeffrey Springs and Zack Littell, who quickly stretched out to starter-length appearances without sacrificing effectiveness. Alexander, with a bit of starting experience himself, may build up stamina for more frequent time in the rotation.

Even if he doesn’t experience a velo spike or an Eflin- or Springs-like boost in performance, Alexander will still be an important volume contributor for the Rays. With nearly an entire starting rotation either on the 60-day IL or possibly on the way out via trade, they’ll be looking for starts to make and innings to fill. And while nearly everyone on the team is projected to be great on a rate basis, it should be noted that Eflin’s 2023 campaign is the only 170-inning season from anyone on Tampa’s current roster. In past years, the Rays have relied on bulk pitchers like Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming to take their turn amid injuries and roster churn. Alexander will likely fill their spot on the pitching staff and has a strong chance to be considerably better than either of them.

Angels sign Adam Kolarek to one-year deal

Kolarek is perhaps best known for his work with the Dodgers in the 2019 NLDS, where he was used as a one-batter specialist to deal with the dangerous Juan Soto. While the latter had a 1.020 OPS in the series, the former set him down in all three of their matchups, twice via strikeout. In 2020, the three-batter minimum was implemented, making Kolarek possibly the last dedicated LOOGY in MLB history. The new rules also put an end to his run as a full-time big leaguer; he’s appeared in every season since but has never eclipsed 20 innings.

Kolarek’s style of pitching is designed to get lefties out, firing from a low slot almost behind the eyes of same-handed batters. His primary pitch is an upper-80s sinker, which he’s thrown up to 80% of the time with negative induced vertical break, generating plenty of ground balls. He’s experimented with a few seldom-used secondaries, but in his brief 2023 look, he only threw sliders to accompany the east/west movement of his sinker. While his sinker is great at finding the skinny part of left-handed bats, its arm-side movement often breaks into the barrels of right-handed hitters, who already have the advantage of seeing his delivery well out of the hand. Throughout his career, opposite-handed hitters have collected an OPS higher than that of 2023 Corbin Carroll, a dangerous proposition considering the three-batter minimum and the possibility of substitutions even when he gets a string of lefties.

Adam Kolarek Career Platoon Splits
vs. L 18.5% 2.7% 75.6% .184 .234 .250
vs. R 13.7% 10.2% 54.1% .309 .384 .485

In Anaheim, Kolarek will take the place of the departed Aaron Loup, a fellow lefty sidewinder who was equally ineffective against all batters during his two-year run with the Angels. Despite his nature as a specialist, he likely slots in as their only left-handed option in middle relief; their other choices at the moment include José Quijada, out for a significant chunk of the year recovering from Tommy John surgery, and swingmen José Suarez and Kenny Rosenberg, who are better suited for longer appearances than short bursts.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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4 months ago

Very incorrect assessment of Quantrill, man. It’s not everyday a team can have a chance to add a recent 15-game winner and owner of a 3.54 ERA in his first four seasons!

In all seriousness, it’s a hilarious fit. And while I do agree that COL mainly needs innings and little else, why not give those innings to, say, Noah Davis, who can really spin it? They really puzzle me (most of the time).

4 months ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

“Spinning it” in Colorado doesn’t work as well as everywhere else. Maybe that’s their thinking? Low-spin, good control, grounders? Trying to mesh the previous FO’s theory with an understanding of how the Coriolis Effect works? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit; it is the Rockies.