It’s Not Your Imagination: A Lot of Relievers Are Really Good Now

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a growing stereotype that even the most unheralded reliever coming off the shuttle from Triple-A can pump triple digits and throw wipeout secondary stuff out of nowhere. We’ve seen plenty of examples of this phenomenon in the pitch data era, from the Rays developing Jason Adam into a high-leverage ace to Yennier Cano improving his ERA from 11.50 to 0.35. Baltimore and Tampa Bay are known for turning people off the street into elite relievers, but nearly every team is light years ahead of where the industry was just a few years ago. Of course, not every pitcher can have a 200 ERA+, but I wanted to see just how many replacement-caliber relievers really are the real deal. Let’s take a look at a nondescript game from earlier this week and find out.

On Tuesday, the Angels and Red Sox faced off. The two teams had played a rather close game through the end of seven innings. Boston starter Brayan Bello surrendered just two solo shots in the longest start of his young career, while his opponent, Griffin Canning, one-upped him with seven shutout frames. As the bullpens came in, the Sox still had a fighting chance to win… at least until Mike Trout clubbed a two-run homer off Joely Rodríguez, who would then allow two more runners to reach base. While just a one-run swing would make it a save situation, the leverage index sat at a measly 0.07. At this point, both teams went to the back of their bullpens, with the Sox summoning Justin Garza and the Angels letting Jacob Webb complete the game.

There’s a solid chance you thought “Who?” when you saw those two names. Don’t worry, the pair have combined for just 100 career big league innings and neither appeared in the majors in 2022. But both are currently employed by teams with winning records, so let’s learn who they are. Garza came up in Cleveland’s system as a starter and was converted to relief in 2021, the season when he was first called up to the show. He pitched 28.2 innings in a low-leverage role but struggled with his command, as he had in the minors. The Angels signed him to a two-way contract this offseason, but he was claimed off waivers by the Red Sox without throwing a pitch in Anaheim. Webb (not the Red Sox minor leaguer of the same name) was developed by the Braves and had a stellar rookie year in 2019, but vastly outperformed his peripherals. After a more average 2021, he spent all of last season in the minors before being brought up by the Angels this week.

Garza was first to take the hill against his hometown team (both pitchers were raised in Southern California). Despite inheriting a dirty inning from Rodríguez, Garza stayed cool and collected, inducing a fly out from Brandon Drury on his first pitch. With two outs, catcher Matt Thaiss, who’s having his best offensive season to date, stepped up to the plate. Earlier in the game, he’d clubbed a solo homer to raise his OPS above .800. While Thaiss has improved in many facets of his game, he still shows a vulnerability to fastballs at the top of the zone, with a whiff rate above 40% on heaters this season. Luckily for Garza, Thaiss’ weakness represents the game plan he loves to execute.

Garza’s fastball isn’t special in terms of its velocity or movement – in fact, classification systems can’t decide if it’s a four-seamer or a sinker. Statcast calls it a sinker, but it lacks the characteristic horizontal run and he spots it up in the zone like a four-seamer. Regardless of what we call it, Garza’s fastball is an outlier in one way – his low release height combined with its consistent location up in the zone makes it one of the flattest pitches in baseball. With a vertical release point of 5.5 feet and a VAA of -3.7 degrees, his nearest compatriots include Jacob deGrom, Paul Sewald and Alexis Díaz – pretty solid company to have. After a called strike one, Garza ran it up to the top of the zone at 96:

The pitch doesn’t have Spencer Strider-levels of vertical carry, but the low release caused it to sneak up on Thaiss faster than he was likely expecting. Three pitches later, Garza threw the exact same pitch and earned the exact same result. Pretty good stuff for someone claimed off waivers a few weeks prior. As Garza walked off the mound, the Angels coaches may have been thinking “Huh, why did we let this guy go for free?” Well, if it’s any consolation, they were about to see an arguably even more impressive performance from another former castoff.

It was Webb’s turn to pitch, making his Angels debut and first big league appearance since 2021. He started Justin Turner off with three fastballs above the zone that Turner didn’t chase, then claimed a strike with a get-me-over heater. Then he threw the exact same pitch in a prime hitter’s count and Turner crushed the ball, good for a 2.780 xSLG and a 50% chance to leave the yard. Unfortunately for him, the ball was hit to the deepest part of the park and settled harmlessly into Trout’s glove. So far Webb had offered a fastball with unimpressive specs that allowed a barrel because he threw it right down the middle. While he recorded an out, it wasn’t a great start in terms of process.

But then the changeups start raining in. Take a look at this pitch to Rafael Devers. Notice anything interesting about it?

It might be a bit hard to see with the off-center camera angle, but look at how much arm-side run that pitch has. Twenty inches of it, to be exact. Here’s an exhaustive list of every hurler averaging at least 20 inches of changeup break in 2023:

Pitchers With 20+ Inches of Changeup Run
Name Velocity Horizontal Break
Devin Williams 84.4 mph 20.8 in
Jacob Webb 86.3 mph 20.3 in
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Being the only other guy on a list with Williams, a man known for throwing a devastating changeup, seems like a good thing. And Webb actually throws his slowball a couple ticks harder than Williams, meaning the pitch has less time to move laterally. After fouling off another changeup for strike two, Devers, who has a better run value on changeups than any other pitch, went down with a big swing as he anticipated the fastball. With two outs and Jarren Duran at the dish, Webb didn’t even bother starting off with the fastball. Here’s how the at-bat went:

Jacob Webb vs. Jarren Duran
Pitch Type Velocity Horizontal Break Result
Changeup 85.9 mph 21 in Good morning
Changeup 86.1 mph 19 in Good afternoon
Changeup 86.6 mph 19 in Good night
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Game over for Boston. After starting his outing with fastballs, Webb threw six consecutive changeups to record the last two outs in impressive fashion. The PitchingBot score on those changeups? An 80. Okay, I need to pump the brakes a little bit – the elite grade comes primarily from the command grade, which we know is far from reliable in a six-pitch sample. The 59 stuff grade indicates the pitch looks merely plus rather than off the charts, likely due to the minimal vertical separation from his fastball. The changeup he showed on Tuesday was significantly reworked from the one he threw in his previous stints in the majors – since 2021, he’s added four ticks of velocity to it as well as two inches of horizontal break. Two inches of movement often separate the Pitching Ninja GIFs from the monster home runs on hitters’ highlight reels. What seem like subtle improvements can be the difference between a big league stud and a minor league journeyman, and the adjustments Webb has made to his changeup have elevated him to major league status, even on a staff that ranks in the top 10 in bullpen ERA and WHIP.

So the claim that nearly every middle reliever is basically unhittable seems to hold up when looking at two pitchers in a random game. But what about when we consider a larger population of these players? To investigate this, I hopped over to The Board and looked at every pitcher with a single inning relief designation and a 35+ FV (the up/down relief bucket). There are 79 such names currently on The Board; let’s see what kind of scouting grades these guys have:

35+ FV Relievers
Characteristic Count
Tops >100 mph 10
Sits >94 mph 47
Number of 60+ Pitches 81
Number of 70+ Pitches 9
Pitchers with Multiple Plus Pitches 2
SOURCE: literally us, FanGraphs

First, let’s look at velocity. Over half of the pitchers on the list sit above the major league average fastball speed of 93.8 mph. It’s not a guarantee that each of them will hold that velo throughout their careers, but an impressive number meet a minimum threshold to be above average by big league standards. Ten can reach back for triple digits, and that doesn’t even include the guys in the higher FV tiers. Of the 81 plus or better pitches among the 35+ FV guys, about half are fastballs, but an impressive 39 are breaking balls, 31 of which are sliders. Pitchers throw about twice as many sliders as they did when the pitch tracking era began in 2008, and the fact that so many pitchers can throw one at a high level is certainly a leading cause.

Of course, there are plenty of threes and fours in the command grades for these pitchers – again, not everyone can be elite. But the sheer amount of high-octane stuff throughout even the bottom of organizational prospect lists speaks to the proliferation of pitching talent. No longer are replacement-level relievers a clear step down from the echelon of established big leaguers; the immense strides in player development have significantly raised the bar for even the last guy in an eight- or nine-man bullpen. Watching Webb and Garza flash excellence on Tuesday was quite impressive, especially after diving into the data. But as it turns out, guys just like them can be found all around baseball.

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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Shirtless George Brett
10 months ago

i always found sliders to be pretty easy to throw. Even my miles away from MLB caliber talent could spin a pretty good one. So I’m not too surprised in this day and age of spin rates, tunneling, specialization drills etc etc that so many relievers are able to throw a filthy one.

10 months ago

They follow the natural rotation of the hand, unlike a lot of other pitches, so yeah pretty easy to throw.

That changeup from Webb is fantastic. Exactly what you want that pitch to do, but ever so much more so.