Marlins Reel In Anthony Bass

It’s become a common narrative in baseball recently: the veteran player, struggling to secure a job in America, heads overseas to play in Japan or Korea. They spend some time there, rediscover or reinvent part of their game, and return to America to find much greater success in the majors than before. Anthony Bass made his way to Japan in 2016 after toiling away for five years on three different teams. In his one season in Nippon Professional Baseball, he played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters during their championship season. He ended up pitching in five of the six games in the Japan Series that year and was the winning pitcher in the championship clinching Game 6.

After getting a taste of winning in Asia’s highest league, he returned to the States in 2017 but continued to struggle to earn a regular job in the majors until latching on with the Mariners in May of 2019. By the end of the season, he had worked his way into high-leverage innings for Seattle. He was claimed on waivers by the Blue Jays after the season and continued to work as a late-inning reliever in 2020. On Friday, he signed the first multi-year contract of his career, a two-year deal with the Marlins worth a guaranteed $5 million with a club option for 2023. The 33-year-old has taken the journeyman moniker to it’s extreme but finally found a school to call home in Miami.

The success he found in Japan gave Bass a huge boost of confidence. Getting over that mental hurdle was a significant step toward realizing his talent on the field. In an interview from February of last year, he recounted that mental process to Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic:

“Cause I was having success there and I was like, ‘I can do it. I can come back to the States and do exactly what I’m doing here in the States and have success. When I really started telling myself I’m a really good pitcher, and just attack the strike zone with everything I have, a switch turned on in my head and it just completely changed my career from pitching almost passively and a little timid, trying to stay in the major leagues versus, ‘No, I can do this and I want to dominate at this level.”

His career numbers from before heading to Japan compared with after his return speak for themselves.

Anthony Bass, pre- and post-Japan
Timeframe IP K% BB% GB% ERA FIP WAR
2011-2015 278 1/3 15.7% 9.0% 47.8% 4.40 4.26 0.2
2017-2020 94 2/3 20.7% 7.6% 53.7% 4.09 3.71 1.2

Bass improved in every metric shown above. He increased his strikeout rate by five full points, lowered his walk rate, induced more groundball contact, and lowered his FIP by half a run. In nearly a third of the innings, he accumulated a full win more than he had prior to playing in Japan, and nearly all of that success has come in the last two seasons.

Since joining the Mariners in 2019, Bass has narrowed his pitch mix down to two pitches, a sinker and a slider. He first established himself as a starter in the Padres organization, where his repertoire featured a full arsenal of pitches. But all those extraneous pitches have been left by the wayside in favor of two plus pitches.

Even though he talked about attacking the strike zone more often, his zone rate has actually fallen since returning to MLB. Some of that is due to honing his pitch mix towards his slider. His fastball zone rate — combined four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters — has actually increased from 34.6% to 52.9%. He’s been much more aggressive with his fastballs while locating his slider on the outer edges of the plate more often.

He relies on his slider to get the majority of his swinging strikes. Among all sliders thrown at least 100 times in 2020, his generated the eighth highest whiff rate at 52.2%. That was a 15 point jump from his whiff rate in 2019 and led to a career high swinging strike rate. But all those added swinging strikes didn’t translate into a higher strikeout rate. In Toronto, his strikeout rate dropped by a couple of points from where it was in Seattle and that’s likely due to his sinker.

He increased the usage of his sinker up to 54% in 2020 and it’s decidedly not a swing-and-miss pitch; batters whiffed just 8.7% of the time they offered at it. But it’s true strength lies in its ability to generate tons of groundball contact. Nearly two-thirds of the balls put in play off Bass’ sinker are ground balls. Among all fastballs — four-seamers, sinkers, two-seamers, and cutters — put in play at least 25 times in 2020, his sinker’s groundball rate sat in the 94th percentile. In addition to all the whiffs, his slider was just as good as his sinker at inducing grounders. His slider’s groundball rate was nearly identical to his sinker’s and was the fifth highest among all sliders put in play at least 25 times in 2020.

With two pitches that batters regularly pound into the ground, Bass posted the sixth highest groundball rate among all qualified relievers in 2020. Even better, when batters put the ball in play off Bass, they had an expected wOBA on contact of just .244, a mark that sat in the 98th percentile. Batters simply cannot make solid contact against either of his two primary pitches. Even though his sinker holds back his strikeout potential, the combination of his batted ball profile with his deadly slider has earned him plenty of success the past two years.

With relatively few in-house alternatives and a multi-year commitment, Bass should find himself pitching in high-leverage innings for the Marlins in 2021. Entering spring training, the closer’s job is likely his to lose. His profile is actually fairly similar to that of Brandon Kintzler, the Marlins’ closer in 2020. Both were journeyman, groundballing relievers with below average strikeout rates. Bass’ slider gives him a slightly higher ceiling however. The investment is low for the perpetually cash strapped Marlins, but there are far worse relievers out there, especially when you’re focused on the bargain bin. Bass might actually turn out to be a solid addition to the Fish’s bullpen, something they desperately needed after churning through so many arms in 2020.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Lunch Anglemember
3 years ago

where else would a Bass sign but with the Fish

3 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

Most excellent name.