Reliever Roundup: Cubs and Angels Edition

© Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Free agent signings come in several flavors. There are the big splashy ones – ooh, Kris Bryant and Freddie Freeman are in the NL West now! There are good-fit signings – Mark Canha on the Mets and Yusei Kikuchi on the Blue Jays fill necessary roles on exciting clubs. There are even feel-good reunions, like Zack Greinke returning to the Royals.

There are also reliever signings. So, so many reliever signings. Not every team can sign a star first baseman, but everyone needs a flock of middle-inning arms. There are nine innings every game, and starters don’t pitch as many frames as they used to, and – well, you get the idea, there are a ton of reasons to go out and find some innings, even if you’re not planning on winning 257 games like the Dodgers or overthrowing the established order of things like the Blue Jays.

To that end, the Cubs signed three relievers yesterday, and the Angels signed two of their own. Chicago gave Daniel Norris one year and $1.75 million plus incentives, David Robertson one year and $3.5 million plus incentives, and Mychal Givens one year and $5 million plus incentives. For their part, the Angels signed Archie Bradley for one year and $3.75 million, but also went up-market and signed MVP vote-getter Ryan Tepera to a two-year, $14 million deal.

For the Cubs, this is basically about math. Chicago doesn’t have enough pitching, and they know it. Their rotation starts off strong with Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks, but then things get weird quickly. Wade Miley, Alec Mills, and Steven Brault are the next arms up, and they’re five-and-dive types. That makes the ones behind them… I don’t know, four-and-dive types? The point is, there will be plenty of relief innings to pick up, particularly when the wind starts blowing out in summer and leads to more scoring.

Coming into the offseason, the Cubs featured Rowan Wick, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, and a whole host of question marks. Forget winning the division or competing for a Wild Card spot; that bullpen might not be able to finish 162 games without the liberal use of position players pitching.

Of course, the Cubs aren’t trying to win the division or compete for a Wild Card spot. They’re in the early stages of a rebuild; we project them for a win total in the 70s this year, and the playoffs aren’t that expansive. There wouldn’t be much reason to shop at the top of the reliever market; a 75-win team that adds Kenley Jansen would probably result in a lot of Jansen sitting in the bullpen while the team trails heading into the ninth. Instead, they’re adding competence in bulk.

Norris had a forgettable 2021 – 6.16 ERA, 4.87 FIP, a career-high 12.1% walk rate – but he looked great during the 2020 season, his first full-time foray into relieving. He mixes a low-90s fastball with a slider and changeup exactly the way you’d expect – he’s mostly fastball/slider to lefties and fastball/changeup to righties. Both of his secondary pitches miss a ton of bats; he’s always run solid strikeout rates despite the aforementioned middling fastball.

Will his control rebound enough to put together another solid season? I have no idea, and the Cubs probably don’t either. But he might be great, and he’ll certainly be serviceable, and if things work out well he might fetch a prospect at the trade deadline.

Robertson is even more of an enigma. After a long string of effective years of relief, things have fallen apart for him recently. He blew his elbow out in 2019, missed all of 2020 rehabbing, and only got a major league job after pitching well for Team USA at the Olympics. He struck out 32% of his opponents in a brief stint in Tampa Bay, threw four scoreless innings in the postseason, and hit free agency.

Robertson lives or dies with his cutter, which he throws 75% of the time. He complements it with a two-plane curveball that hitters simply can’t pick up; the pitch sports a career 20.6% swinging strike rate, which is downright outrageous. At 36, he’s one elbow injury or velocity decline away from looking quite ordinary – but he looked excellent last year, and the money is certainly right from Chicago’s side to take a chance on him and see what they find.

Givens walked 12.5% of his opponents between stops in Colorado and Cincinnati last year, and looks far removed from his peak years in Baltimore. But – stop me if you’ve heard this before – he still throws hard, and his fastball/slider/changeup pitch mix gives him the tools to attack lefties and righties, and he misses a ton of bats when he’s right. Will he be good this year? I have absolutely no idea. But if the alternative was some non-roster invitees and career minor leaguers, I like the idea of trying to catch lightning in a bottle with three pitchers who have shown they can put up good numbers at the major league level.

That’s been a consistent direction for the Cubs this offseason. Norris, Robertson, and Givens are joining a bullpen that already features Chris Martin and Jesse Chavez. That’s five of eight bullpen spots reserved for make-good journeymen. If Chicago is right on two of them and secures a few prospects in trade this summer, the experiment will have more than paid off. If not? Well, again, someone had to pitch those innings.

The Angels are in a different position; with Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Anthony Rendon anchoring the team, they’re right on the cusp of playoff contention. Like Chicago, however, they need to fill some relief innings. Several of their six planned starters look like candidates for short starts, and while Raisel Iglesias and Aaron Loup are a nice one-two punch at the back of the ‘pen, we’re projecting the team for a lot of innings thrown by sub-replacement-level relievers.

That’s just a horrible way to shepherd your superstars to the playoffs, and to their credit, the Angels are attempting to do something about it. Loup joined the team earlier this offseason on a two-year deal. Iglesias returned after declining a qualifying offer from the Halos. But those two weren’t enough, so the relief pitcher acquisition drum beats on.

Bradley looked cooked in 2021; his fastball plays a lot worse at 94 mph than 96, which led to a scary-low 7% swinging strike rate. He attempted to counter by featuring a sinker more often, and it kind of worked. While he didn’t strike many batters out, he did a good job limiting hard contact, and adding an extra look with his fastball let him throw fewer curveballs, a good thing given that he seemed to completely lose feel for the pitch last year.

He might not be the bullpen-anchoring force that he was in Arizona, but for $4 million, he doesn’t need to be. If he can provide the Angels with 50 innings of better-than-replacement-level relief, that’s a big step up from what they were working with before. The best setup for improvement is starting with a bad baseline, and that’s definitely the case here.

Tepera is more than just an innings sponge. His MVP vote might have been from a writer who was trying to vote for Trea Turner, but his performance was no mistake; he has a 3.07 ERA and 2.88 FIP over the last two years, and a gaudy 31.9% strikeout rate. He even improved on his weakest point, command, in 2021, after walking a pile of batters in 2020.

He does it with a pitch mix that hardly sounds reliever-ish: four-seamer, sinker, cutter, and splitter, with the cutter the highlight of the bunch. The other pitches do a good job keeping batters from sitting on the cutter, the cutter does a good job turning hitters into off-balance caricatures of themselves, and that’s basically the whole game.

Could his cutter-heavy plan crumble? Oh, most definitely it could crumble. Tepera sometimes needs a map to find the strike zone. He improved on it in 2021, but in 2020, he threw pitches in the strike zone only 31.7% of the time (or 38.8% of the time if you use Baseball Savant’s formulation – our “Plate Discipline” and “Statcast Plate Discipline” tabs disagree on what’s a strike at the extreme border of the zone). When he can’t get ahead in the count, his cutter loses its teeth; he can’t reliably spot it for a strike, which turns from feature to bug when opponents aren’t forced to protect the zone.

Our projections on Tepera are relatively tepid: a 4.23 ERA in 68 innings of work. There’s definitely upside here, though: when he’s commanding his cutter and at least one other pitch, he has back-of-the-bullpen upside. Along with Loup and Iglesias, that’s a reasonable top three relievers, and Tepera and Loup complement each other by throwing with opposite hands (Iglesias is so good that he’s basically a lefty and righty specialist).

None of these five signings is likely to tip the balance in a divisional race. None is going to get covered on SportsCenter. But in aggregate, bulking up your bullpen is a worthy goal, and one that every team has to do now and then when the bullpen shuttle isn’t churning out prospects who can relieve effectively. All five of them are good signings – even if any individual signing is unlikely to pan out.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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10 months ago

Question Ben – does the delta between FG’s “Plate Discipline” and “Statcast Plate Discipline” suggest that Tepera is particularly adept at hitting the far corners of the zone? Is there a skill there, or something to look into?