My Favorite Under-the-Radar Trade Deadline Target

With Tyler Thornburg traded to Boston today, we’re re-featuring this post, since it is now relevant again.

We are now officially two weeks away from MLB’s non-waiver trade deadline, and one thing is clear: over the next 14 days, you’re going to see a lot of relievers on the move. The teams that are definitely selling don’t have many starting pitchers to move, and the crop of walk-year hitters isn’t so great either, but what these non-contenders do have an excess of are relief pitchers.

Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller from the Yankees. Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno from the Rays. Tyler Clippard and Daniel Hudson from the Diamondbacks. Ryan Madson and John Axford from the A’s. Jeanmar Gomez from the Phillies and Joe Smith from the Angels will probably be on the move, and that isn’t even counting guys like Mark Melancon or Steve Cishek who could get moved if things go south for their teams over the next couple of weeks. With nearly every contender looking at bolstering their bullpen, there’s enough demand to clear the supply of available relievers, but we’re definitely not looking at a shortage at the position like there are at other spots this year.

But yet, if I was hunting for a relief pitcher over the next two weeks, my first call would be to the Milwaukee Brewers. They’ve been baseball’s most aggressive team in remaking their roster since David Stearns took over last year, and you know that front office is looking for any opportunity they can to add long-term value, knowing their chances at contention over the next few years are slim at best.

Jeremy Jeffress, the team’s closer, is already generating plenty of trade chatter, as you’d expect from a closer with 23 saves, a 2.35 ERA, and a 96 mph fastball, but he’s not the guy I’d be after. Will Smith would have been a really interesting name if he hadn’t blown out his knee in Spring Training, and while he’s recovered enough to get back on the mound, he doesn’t really look like his old self right now; missing velocity and strikeout rates lead me to guess that the Brewers hold onto Smith and hope he rebuilds some value as he gets further away from the injury, then look to move him over the winter or next summer.

No, the guy I’d want is Tyler Thornburg.

Don’t worry, you’re not supposed to know much about him, given that (up until this year) he was a busted pitching prospect on a bad team, a guy who spent more time on the DL than he did getting big league hitters out. Last year, in the team’s final attempt to get something out of him as a starter, he ran a 5.28 ERA/5.91 FIP in Triple-A; he was bad enough down there that they pulled the plug on that experiment in August, calling him up to serve as bullpen depth after the team traded Jonathan Broxton at the deadline. And he wasn’t anything special down the stretch.

So unless you’ve been paying close attention to the Brewers bullpen this year, you may not have noticed that he’s quietly turning himself into a very interesting reliever.

For one, there’s the always-useful velocity spike. After pitching with elbow pain the last couple of years, Thornburg has declared himself fully healthy, and the radar guns are agreeing with the assessment.

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This isn’t just a fastball spike, like we sometimes see. Everything Thornburg throws is harder this year, with his curveball up a remarkable four miles per hour. And along with throwing more of a power curveball, Thornburg is now getting significantly more movement on the pitch.

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No reliever has thrown at least 100 curveballs this season and is getting more vertical movement with the pitch than Thornburg. And forget just relievers for a moment; here’s the 10 best swinging strike rates on curveballs for all pitchers who have thrown at least 100 curves this year:

Curveball Whiff/Swing Rates
Pitcher Whiff/Swing%
Craig Kimbrel 61.3%
Jon Lester 54.8%
Arodys Vizcaino 54.4%
Noah Syndergaard 54.4%
Gavin Floyd 51.4%
Jose Fernandez 51.1%
Tyler Thornburg 48.8%
Dellin Betances 48.8%
Madison Bumgarner 47.9%
Zach Duke 47.8%

Gavin Floyd aside, that’s a pretty amazing list of pitchers. Guys who can get swinging strikes with their curveballs at that rate are generally pretty awesome, and seeing Thornburg in that group has to be an eye-opener. As a guy who has always had a knockout changeup, improving his breaking ball would give him a legitimate option against right-handed hitters, something he’s lacked his whole career.

There is a catch, though: Thornburg is getting whiffs on his curveball in part because he just doesn’t throw it for strikes.

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Because he’s burying it out of the zone so regularly, hitters aren’t chasing it that often, so his whiff rate on swings is a little bit deceptive. At just a 26% swing rate, Thornburg has the 11th-lowest rate of hitters chasing his curveball, again among pitchers who have thrown the pitch at least 100 times this year. But with improved velocity and break, Thornburg’s curveball is at least showing potential as an out pitch, and is giving right-handed hitters something to look for besides just his fastball, since he doesn’t really throw his changeup to right-handed batters.

Because of the excellence of his changeup, Thornburg has always been better against lefties than righties, even though he’s a right-handed pitcher. While platoon splits can be deceptive, especially in small samples, Jared Cross identified Thornburg as having the largest projected reverse platoon split of any RHP last year, and with his velocity spike this year, he’s been even better than usual against lefties; they’re hitting just .123/.194/.193 against him, and he has the second highest strikeout rate against LHBs in baseball this year, sandwiched between Betances and Clayton Kershaw.

The key for Thornburg this year has been the ability to hold his own against right-handed batters; he’s still not great against them, but thanks to the swing-and-miss curveball, he’s getting enough whiffs against them to be a decent right-on-right guy, which combined with dominance of lefties, that has made him a very effective reliever for the Brewers. And because of his reverse-platoon splits, Thornburg doesn’t need to be a match-up specialist; you can bring him in for multiple innings, and let him face whoever is coming up, especially if the opposing manager isn’t going to buck tradition by sending up an RHB to pinch-hit for an LHB with a righty on the mound.

Thornburg might not have the track record or name value of many of the other bullpen options out there, but for a team looking for help getting the ball to their closer, he could be a very interesting addition. Given that he has three years of control remaining after this season, the Brewers don’t have to trade him, but they’re also not likely to see a 27-year-old reliever with a history of elbow problems headed into his arbitration years as a long-term building block. But unlike with many of other veteran relievers on the market, Thornburg wouldn’t just be a rental for his new team, and there are signs here of improvement that could lead to him being a valuable reliever for as long as his elbow holds up.

And for a team with a manager willing to deploy him in an unconventional manner, Thornburg could actually be better for another team than he has been with Milwaukee. To this point, Craig Counsell has used Thornburg much like he would most any regular setup guy, and because of that, Thornburg has faced 81 RHBs and 62 LHBs this season. The team that acquires him has a chance to be more aggressive in using him against lefties, the side he’s better against, giving him better match-ups by putting him in against more opposite-handed hitters. Or at least, removing him from the game when an LHB comes up less frequently.

If a team thinks that their field staff is willing to deploy a righty as they would a dominant left-hander who can also handle righties well enough to not need to be a LOOGY, then Thornburg could actually be an interesting secondary option for a team that doesn’t want to pay the price for Andrew Miller. Thornburg is certainly not as good as the Yankees dominant lefty, but he’s darn good against them, and his improving stuff has made him a quality reliever. If he can ever figure out how to throw his curveball for strikes, he might yet take even another step forward, and with three controllable years left after this one, there might be some long-term value associated with getting Thornburg now as well.

Of course, relievers are fickle, and Thornburg’s history of arm problems make him a high risk bet. But for a team with some risk tolerance and a desire to think outside the box, Thornburg could be a pretty great addition to a contender’s bullpen.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

This piece does a nice job of highlighting Thornburg’s appeal, but I presume that his emergence is a big reason why Milwaukee is open to dealing Jeffress. They have the same amount of team control remaining, but Jeffress will cost more and probably fetch more in a deal.