Kyle Crick’s Return to Relevance

Growing up, the closest minor-league club to me was the Richmond Braves. This was the late 90s and many top prospects who would go on to major-league careers came through town for a season. My scorebook from those years is filled with games that included former major leaguers Andruw Jones and Bruce Chen, along with lesser luminaries such as Wes Helms and Odalis Perez. The Braves moved to Gwinnett after the 2008 season, and the Flying Squirrels — the Giants’ Double-A affiliate — would move to Richmond in 2010.

The parade of prospects slowed a bit after the Flying Squirrels arrived. Buster Posey skipped Double-A, Brandon Belt’s 2010 breakout helped propel him to a top-100 prospect. However, without question, the biggest prospect who stayed in Richmond for any length of time was Kyle Crick. He arrived in 2014 as the 32nd-best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. He proceeded, however, to stay in town for three seasons without being promoted or demoted. Needless to say, his prospect light dimmed during that period.

When Crick was promoted to Fresno in 2017, it was more out of a need to see if he had any chance of reaching the majors that season, as he was eligible to become a minor-league free agent at the end of the year. He would eventually make it to the Giants’ bullpen and then, later, to Pittsburgh as part of the Andrew McCutchen deal.

In Pittsburgh, Crick has become a serviceable bullpen option, combining with Richard Rodriguez and Felipe Vazquez to helm a bullpen unit that ranks among the league’s top 10 in K/9, FIP, and xFIP. The success of all three has been unexpected — Crick included, despite his prospect pedigree. By leaning on his long-held strengths and gaining a modicum of control over his weaknesses, Crick has been able to end his long minor-league odyssey and has found success in the majors, albeit in a role which he had hoped to avoid.

What’s missing in this story is why Crick required three years in Richmond. The Diamond — the home of Richmond baseball teams since 1985 — has long been a pitcher’s park, with its deep alleys and low elevation. So Crick wasn’t getting knocked around in some PCL bandbox. As a top-100 prospect, his stuff was naturally not lacking. FanGraphs’ own Marc Hulet noted in 2012 that Crick had the upside of a frontline starter. Even after some of the shine was off Crick in 2015, Kiley McDaniel still noted in 2015 that Crick had No. 2/3 starter stuff.

What has long been lacking for Crick, as noted by most every scout who has seen him, is control. Not just commanding his pitches in and around the zone, but exhibiting the capacity to put a pitch near the zone. This has been known, and theories about why Crick struggled with control abounded. A scout in Hulet’s piece thought that Crick may have been trying to constantly “make the perfect pitch” rather than just trusting his stuff. Kiley posited that sometimes guys with big stuff require more time to make their delivery — and thence command — consistent.

Kyle Crick in Double-A
Season Ball % BB/9 WHIP FIP
2014 39.4% 6.08 1.54 3.96
2015 45.2% 9.43 1.79 4.84
2016 40.4% 5.53 1.62 4.85

Whatever the reason, the results showed that he struggled with it throughout his three years in Double-A. The numbers ranged from bad to downright awful for a prospect of Crick’s caliber, culminating in 2015 when Crick walked 9.43 batters per nine innings. Yes, you read that correctly: over a whole season of 63 innings pitched and 11 games started, Crick walked more than one batter per inning. Over the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Crick threw over 4.5 pitches per batter faced, which was three-quarters of a pitch more than the major-league average at the time. It seemed like Crick’s walks would be like Joey Gallo’s strikeouts, a nearly Shakespearean tragic flaw in an otherwise impressive prospect profile.

Crick regained a measure of control in 2017, recording a 3.99 BB/9 at Triple-A Fresno and 4.73 BB/9 in San Francisco. While nothing like 80 control, this — in combination with an uptick in strikeouts — represented a major step forward for Crick. So far this season in Pittsburgh, Crick has put up his lowest BB/9 rate (4.03) and lowest percentage of balls (35.3%) in his career at any level, minors or majors. Combine this improved control with a strikeout an inning and you have a highly effective reliever.

What has led to this improvement, besides of course his improved control? What in Crick’s arsenal has sustained his success this season and will allow him to continue going forward? First, he has leaned on one of the weapons that got him noticed in the first place: his four-seam fastball. Long rated as a 60 to 70 pitch, Crick’s four-seamer averages 96.3 mph — topping out near 100 — with good movement and life. This was his bread and butter as a prospect and continues to be a focal point for him. He’s thrown it over 55% of the time in 2018 and recorded 1.49 runs per 100 pitches with it.

The second change to Crick’s arsenal has been the refinement of his secondary pitches. He mostly dropped a fringe changeup from the repertoire and instead concentrated on his slider. Initially throwing it as a curveball when he was an amateur, Crick tightened the spin and increased the pace of the pitch to yield a slider, although an inconsistent one. In 2017, the pitch was worth -1.16 runs per 100, which would hardly make it a weapon. In 2018, he has upped the spin resulting in a pitch that can wipe out away especially from right-handed batters.

Crick’s Slider Movement
Metric 2017 2018
Frequency 21.9% 24.0%
Velo 82.94 82.43
Spin Rate 2741 3163
H-Move 6.71 10.16
V-Move 0.35 -1.17
Runs/100 -1.16 2.32

Finally, Crick essentially added a pitch to his arsenal that complemented his four-seam fastball, namely a two-seamer. He had thrown the two-seamer on occasion previous to 2018, Baseball Savant noting that the pitch was heavy and featured good sink. Now throws the pitch 18.6% of the time, and the way this pitch complements the fourseam fastball is impressive. Coming out of an identical slot with identical velocity, the pitch moves six inches more to the arm side and sinks three inches compared to the four-seamer. This makes it tough, especially on right-handed hitters, to read the pitch coming out of Crick’s hand.

Crick will always have the threat of wildness on the horizon. Just three weeks ago against the Padres, Crick threw 17 balls in 37 pitches, resulting in two walks. However, in that same appearance he recorded two strikeouts to get himself out of the jam. Even with the walks, his raw stuff is still impressive enough for there to be a hope for a potential shutdown reliever. If Crick can continue to monitor his walks, he could be the linchpin for the Pirates bullpen in a potential run to the playoffs.





Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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southie
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southie

How is Kyle Crick NOT a southpaw??