Is the Next K-Rod Poised to Emerge this October?

How many players per team would you say you know? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty? Even if you can easily rattle off 20 players per team, 600 of the 750 players on a normal active roster, the last five that you couldn’t name would probably include some relief pitchers. Unless you’re a first-round draft pick (like the Royals’ Brandon Finnegan) or the team’s closer, it’s hard for a reliever to gain much notierity — they’re rarely voted to All-Star teams, and very few people like the Hold statistic (I like Shutdowns and Meltdowns, but they’re not universally accepted stats). So, rookie relievers can sneak up on you when the postseason starts, just like Francisco Rodriguez did in 2002.

In case you’re too young to remember 2002, or are conversely too old to remember things that happened way back in 2002, Rodriguez came up as a 20-year-old on Sept. 18. In his five games, his leverage increased, until his pLI hit 1.54 in his final regular-season appearance, when he struck out five batters of the seven Mariners’ batters he faced across 2.1 innings on Sept. 27. Overall, he struck out 13 batters and walked two in 5.2 scoreless innings, which was good for a FIP- of 1. As in, 99 percent better than league average. A tiny sample, no doubt, and not even worth paying attention to. That is, until the now-famous loophole came into play.

While Rodriguez certainly wasn’t named the closer based on that tiny sample — that mantle still belonged to Troy Percival — he was a big help that postseason. He struck out 28 batters against five walks in 18 2/3 innings, and allowed just five runs in 11 postseason appearances. That’s, um, good and junk.

Perhaps most notable was his work in Game 2 of the World Series. The Giants had scored nine runs in the first five innings, knocking out not just starter Kevin Appier, but also starting pitcher John Lackey, who had come on in relief for Appier after just seven outs. Rodriguez entered in the top of the sixth, with the Angels down a run, and promptly slammed the door. In his three innings of work that night, he set down all nine Giants’ hitters that he faced, striking out four in the process.

It netted him .248 WPA, easily the highest in that game among pitchers, and the second-highest pitcher WPA in the Series among pitchers overall after Russ Ortiz’s performance in Game 6 (sorry, Giants fans). Anaheim would regain the lead in the bottom of the eighth on a Tim Salmon home run, and three outs later, we had a World Series on our hands.

Now, there probably won’t be any such heroics from our newly christened relievers this season. For one, the days of relief pitchers tossing three high-leverage innings in a postseason game are probably a thing of the past, and probably only happened in that particular instance because Mike Scioscia didn’t really have much choice. Still, it’s fun to think about, and if we do nothing other than familiarize ourselves with some new faces, this exercise won’t be a total waste.

Pedro Baez
The Dodgers bullpen has been kind of a mess this season. It’s safe to stay that any team that has had to entrust high-leverage innings to Brian Wilson and his 122 FIP- is desperate for a better solution. Enter Baez. In just his second year pitching (he was converted after hitting just .248/.309/.392 in five seasons as a minor league third baseman), Baez jumped from Double-A to the majors. He has just 22.1 innings under his belt, and he has greatly outperformed his peripherals during them — his 4.03 FIP is double his 2.01 ERA. But, as we all know, the chickens don’t necessarily come to roost in the same season when it comes to a pitcher rocking a low batting average on balls in play.

To his credit, Baez has exhibited good control — he has walked just five of the 85 batters he has faced thus far, and gets strike one an above-league-average 62.4 percent of the time. Still, as Daniel Brim noted on Tuesday at Dodgers Digest, Baez not only gives up a lot of fly balls but also has seen his velocity dip, so this fairy tale might not have a happy ending. But if Baez spares us the sight of watching Wilson every eighth inning this postseason, it will still be a victory for all baseball fan.

John Holdzkom
I mean, you’ve got the world “hold” right there in his name, he’s a born set-up guy! Sorry, I’ll be good.

A few teams have had a crack at the 26-year-old Holdzkom. He pitched originally in the Mets’ system, though they released him back in 2011. He then spent six months with the Reds, before being released in June, 2012, and then spent nearly two seasons pitching in the independent American Association (and for multiple AA teams as well). During that time, he figured something out, and someone in the Pirates’ pro scouting department must have noticed. His improvements appear legitimate. He struck out 37 batters in 27.2 minor league innings this season, and once promoted to the majors on Sept. 2, he has proceeded to strike out 12 in 8 big-league innings.

It’s not much to go on, but judging by his pLI, it seems as though he has already supplanted John Axford in Clint Hurdle’s eyes. That still might leave him only fourth or fifth on the reliever depth chart as the Bucs enter the postseason, even after being entrusted with the eighth inning in a 1-0 ballgame on Tuesday, but Hurdle is not shy about using his relievers, so Holdzkom might just have plenty of opportunities to shine.

Hunter Strickland
Strickland probably has the chance to go full K-Rod on us this October. Since being called up on Sept. 1, Strickland has struck out eight of the 22 of the batters he has faced, and walked exactly zero of them. Manager Bruce Bochy has mostly kept him in low-leverage situations, though he did sneak into a high-leverage situation last night. Still, the Giants bullpen is searching for answers. As a unit, their 101 FIP- ranks 21st on the season, but over the past 30 days, their 139 FIP- has been the worst in the game. During that time, Strickland has been the team’s only above-average reliever. Strickland pumps 98 with aplomnb, and generates a slew of ground balls. That’s the right recipe for October.

Perhaps in our 24/7 sports media world, it’s harder for players to sneak up and surprise us than it was back in 2002. But if there are any players who slip through the cracks, it’s non-closer relief pitchers. None of the relievers new to their team this October are likely to do as well as Francisco Rodriguez, be it Brandon Finnegan, Pedro Baez, John Holdzkom, Hunter Strickland, or even other new faces like Blaine Hardy in Detroit or Yoslan Herrera in Anaheim. But this is the time of year when the importance of the bullpen is magnified, so there’s definitely a chance that one of these relatively unknown pitchers will emerge from October as a household name.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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The Humber Games
8 years ago

Dang, I clicked on this hoping it meant we were in for another locker room brawl between a closer and his father in law.