Reds Sign Pagán, Risk Giving Up Emilion Home Runs

Emilio Pagan
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Emilio Pagán has heeded the call. Whose call? The guy in the red tank top in Angels in the Outfield, who yells, “Go back to Cincinnati!

Pagán, 32, is the second-best right-handed pitcher in this free-agent class who played college baseball in North Carolina and pitched for Puerto Rico in this spring’s World Baseball Classic. (Marcus Stroman remains unsigned as of this writing.) He’ll slot in nicely in the Reds’ bullpen, setting up for Alexis Díaz, the second-best Díaz brother who pitched for Puerto Rico in this spring’s World Baseball Classic.

The Reds like Pagán enough to sign him to a one-year, $8 million contract with a player option for an additional $8 million in 2025. Bob Nightengale noted at the time of the signing that Pagán had just become Cincinnati’s highest-paid player. Fortunately, Pagán held that distinction for just 12 hours before the Reds added Nick Martinez as well. But it was pretty bleak there for a minute.

Pagán might seem like a journeyman — this will be his sixth team in eight major league seasons — but he was once one of the best relievers in baseball. It’s been a minute, sure, but he was the lynchpin of an excellent Tampa Bay bullpen in 2019, when he posted a 2.31 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 7.38 in 70 innings. He also led the Rays with 20 saves.

Since then, Pagán has been a serial trade participant. He was swapped for Manuel Margot and spent two forgettable seasons in San Diego, then found himself bound for Minnesota along with Chris Paddack in April 2022. The 2023 campaign was Pagán’s best since that excellent 2019 season; he dropped his FIP by more than a run and his ERA by close to a run and a half. A one-inning reliever with an ERA in the mid-4.00s? That’s a league minimum guy. But a reliever who can pitch high leverage and get his ERA down under 3.00 is worth throwing a multi-year guarantee at.

Here’s my concern: Pagán is coming off a strong season, for sure, but the three before that were basically replacement-level. And between his mediocre 2022 and his excellent 2023, his strikeout rate actually fell by almost a quarter, from 30.7% to 23.8%. So what is Cincinnati’s highest-paid player doing differently?

Back in 2019, Pagán was basically fastball-cutter only. He’s always had some form of breaking pitch, but he’s never thrown it more than 2.5% of the time. Upon arriving in Minnesota, he started throwing a splitter as well. Let’s take a look at how these three pitches work together, and how they changed from 2022 to ‘23.

Emilio Pagán’s Fastballs
Four-Seam Fastball
Year Usage Velo Spin Rate wOBA Whiff% K% xwOBA Hard Hit %
2022 51.7 95.6 2517 .320 29.4 33.3 .328 51.5
2023 55.0 95.8 2545 .265 24.6 28.4 .306 47.9
Splitter
Year Usage Velo Spin Rate wOBA Whiff% K% xwOBA Hard Hit %
2022 24.7 88.4 1531 .341 35.1 35.3 .257 41.2
2023 12.3 85.9 1533 .395 41.4 35.0 .324 41.7
Cutter
Year Usage Velo Spin Rate wOBA Whiff% K% xwOBA Hard Hit %
2022 19.2 85.8 2363 .442 25.3 14.3 .376 42.1
2023 30.1 87.7 2447 .187 18.8 14.6 .272 38.9
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Basically, Pagán took about two and a half miles per hour off his splitter, which increased the velocity differential to his four-seamer, the pitch with the most similar movement profile. He also started throwing his cutter harder and with less glove-side break and a little more rise. This change was revolutionary. He held opponents to a .187 wOBA off his cutter in 2023, which was down more than 250 points from his 2022 mark. If you want to say some of that is batted ball luck, I wouldn’t necessarily argue, but his opponent xwOBA also dropped by 100 points from 2022 to ‘23.

As you might expect, Pagán started moving away from his splitter as the season progressed. By September, he was only throwing it about once every 13 pitches, down from one in five in June and one in four in 2022. He lost a lot in terms of strikeouts, but he generated more weak contact, particularly popups. Among the 276 players who threw 1,000 or more pitches last year, Pagán ranked 28th in percentage of pitches that ended up as popups. He allowed 186 balls in play last season; 65 of those were categorized as poor contact/under, the 18th-highest percentage among the 314 pitchers who allowed at least 150 balls in play.

If you can’t get a whiff, a popup is the next-best thing, and I don’t see any reason why Pagán can’t continue to be effective by getting hitters to swing under the ball. Well, there’s one reason. Travis Sawchik pointed this out on Twitter, and it’s worth keeping in mind: A pitcher who works in the air as much as Pagán does might not be an ideal fit for Great American Ball Park. Out of the 357 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings last year, Pagán had the 18th-lowest GB/FB ratio and the 16th-highest fly ball rate. And here’s the kicker: He had a HR/FB rate of just 5.3% last season. That was the 14th-lowest mark in the majors last year (minimum 50 innings pitched).

It’s also less than half his career HR/FB rate, and less than a third of his HR/FB rate from 2022. Pagán allowed just five home runs in 2023, by far a career low for a full season. If he’d carried over his HR/FB rate from 2022, he would’ve allowed 17. Even if you assume those 12 extra home runs would all have been solo shots, adding 12 runs to Pagán’s 2023 stat line would take his ERA from 2.99 to 4.54 — in other words, almost exactly where it was from 2020 to ’22.

Pagán’s brand of popup-heavy, low-BABIP pitching is fun; it’s a bit of a poke in the eye to the conventional wisdom that soft contact has to be on the ground. And it was quite effective in a pitcher-friendly park last season, and before that in a pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. But in Cincinnati (to say nothing of a schedule that’s going to include two trips to Wrigley Field), Pagán is going to have quite a fine tightrope to walk. Maybe he’ll be fine, but there’s a significant possibility that he’ll give up roughly a million home runs.

So it’s a calculated risk. Is that how most teams would like their second-highest-paid player to be described? Probably not. But that’s life in Cincinnati for the time being.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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russellbomember
4 months ago

This is maybe the greatest article title in fangraphs history

O'Vottomember
4 months ago
Reply to  russellbo

I don’t see why.