Since the beginning of the 2016 season, four pitchers who have thrown 100-or-more innings have an ERA under 2.00. Three of them — Zach Britton (1.38), Andrew Miller (1.72), Kenley Jansen (1.75) — rank among the most-accomplished bullpen arms in the game. The other name on the list might surprise you.
Since making his big-league debut on May 30, 2016, Baltimore Orioles left-hander Richard Bleier has boasted a 1.84 ERA in 112-and-two-thirds innings.
Bleier’s under-the-radar effectiveness has come over the course of 103 relief appearances, the first 23 of which came with the New York Yankees. His efforts went unappreciated in the Bronx. Despite a solid showing — five earned runs allowed in 23 frames — the Bombers unceremoniously swapped Bleier to Baltimore for a PTBNL or cash considerations in February of last year.
The 31-year-old southpaw attributes an August 2016 addition to his repertoire for his late-bloomer breakthrough.
“I added a cutter,” Bleier told me last weekend. “When I first got called up, my (two-seam) fastball and my changeup were my two main pitches, and everything was just away, away, away. You can’t really live on one side of the plate, so I needed something else.”
More specifically, he needed something that didn’t move arm-side with a mind of its own.
“My ball just naturally moves that way,” Bleier told me. “Even my four-seamer. I remember when I was younger, I’d be playing center field and I’d have to throw the ball toward third base to get the ball to home, just because my ball had so much tail. Once I started pitching in high school… I mean, it’s just always been there.”
So has the sinking action. Bleier has a 63.3% ground ball rate for his career, which helps offset a scarcity of Ks. Somewhat remarkable given his otherwise boffo numbers is the fact that he’s fanned just 4.07 batters per nine innings Inducing soft contact is his M.O. Of the 373 pitchers with at least 100 innings under their belt since opening day 2016, only 22 have a lower hard-hit rate than Bleier’s 26.5% mark.
Bleier, who claimed he doesn’t want strikeouts, pointed to his delivery as an explanation for how his ball moves.
“My arm action is three-quarters and across,” the lefty explained. “You see a lot of guys who have spin rate, and they throw down through the ball. They’re backspinning the ball and I throw across the ball and on top of the ball. At release point, the ball comes off of my hand with spin that causes it to go (arm side) and down. Again, it’s just natural. Sinkers are hard to throw, so I’ve never really looked into messing with it or changing anything. I don’t want to risk losing the sinker that got me here in the first place.”
As for the pitch that helped him return to the big leagues, and subsequently thrive out of Buck Showalter’s bullpen — let’s call it a matter of good fortune. The Florida Gulf Coast University product discovered his cutter by accident.
“I got sent back down in August of 2016 after a few months in the big leagues,” recalled Bleier. “Warming up before a start — I was starting in Triple-A — I offset the ball a little bit and threw a fastball in that I wanted to stay true. I wasn’t trying to create movement, I was actually trying to negate it. I wanted to offset the natural arm-side run that my four-seamer had, so it didn’t leak back over the plate to a righty. Instead of going straight, the ball actually cut. That’s how I learned my cutter.”
Earlier attempts to master the pitch had failed for the opposite reason.
“Before, I was trying to make it move,” admitted Bleier. “That’s the hardest thing. If you get on the side of the ball it basically turns into a bad slider. It’s funny, I just saw something on how Mariano Rivera held his cutter, and it’s very similar to how I hold mine. It’s just a four-seam fastball held slightly offset. There’s just a little bit of spin, because you don’t want the hitter to see spin. If he sees a dot on a cutter, it’s not a cutter;. You don’t want that dot, that slider dot.”
Fifteen months ago, the Yankees decided they didn’t want a soon-to-turn-30-year-old lefthander with a nondescript minor-league track record and a modicum of success in the majors. Their loss was the Orioles’ gain. Baltimore took a flier on Bleier, and thanks in large part to his accidental cutter he’s gone on to put up some pretty darn good numbers. You’re excused if you didn’t know this.
Emilio Vargas is flying under the radar — he got only a cursory mention in Eric Longenhagen’s Arizona Diamondbacks Top Prospect list — but the 21-year-old Visalia Rawhide right-hander is worth keeping an eye on. Vargas leads California League pitchers with a 1.41 ERA, and he’s fanned 67 while allowing just 37 hits in 51 innings.
I recently asked Visalia pitching coach Jeff Bajenaru for a snapshot scouting report on the high-ceiling Dominican.
“He’s got a sneaky fastball,” Bajenaru told me. “He sits 91-95, but it plays up big time. It’s got some major ride to it. He’s got above-average spin and his extension is pretty good. His slider kind of plays as a curveball — it could probably even be classified as a curveball — and his changeup is kind of a split change. He’s had some command issues (25 walks), but that’s the youth in him.”
Speaking of Bajenaru, he was one of the coaches cited by Brad Keller when I asked the Kansas City Royals Rule-5 rookie who most helped him coming up through the Arizona Diamondbacks system.
“One of the most beneficial guys, as far as pitching mechanics, was Doug Bochtler,” Keller told me. “He was my low-A pitching coach. He taught me my sinker. From there I had Jeff Bajaneru and Doug Drabek, and they taught me a lot as well, including mental-side stuff. It was kind of a collective thing. I have nothing but good things to say about the Diamondbacks organization.”
Charlie Culberson had a memorable October. Added to the Dodgers’ postseason roster because of a Corey Seager injury, the 29-year-old infielder proceeded to go 5 for 11, with a pair of doubles and a triple, in the NLCS. He then went 3 for 5 in the World Series, with his most-memorable hit a home run that had him rounding the bases with boyish glee.
Culberson is now an Atlanta Brave, and when I spoke to him on Friday, I admittedly couldn’t recall how that came about. So I asked.
“I came over in the Matt Kemp trade, although I like to call it The Culberson deal,” was his smiling response. “It brought me home — I grew up in Georgia and live in Atlanta — and at the end of the day it was nice for me and my family to have me playing for the hometown team.”
That his hometown team is sitting in first place in the NL East with a record of 29-20 is a pleasant surprise, and Culberson knows it. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize that he’s surrounded by some of baseball’s best young talent.
“We’re supposed to be rebuilding — we’re not supposed to win — so we are kind of shocking everybody,” said Culberson. “But there are a lot of good players here, so I don’t see it as a shock. We have everyone pulling at their own end of the rope. This team can win ballgames, we just need to take it a game at a time and not look ahead. We need to just enjoy the moment, which is what I think a lot of us are doing.”
Whether or not the Braves can shock the world by getting Culberson to the World Series for a second year in a row remains to be seen. Regardless, his memories of last fall are something he’ll always cherish — despite his team falling just short of a title. That’s especially true of the long ball he hit in Dodger Stadium. When I asked Culberson if he’ll ever tire of being reminded of it, his answer was “No, absolutely not.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Jumping back to the Orioles, Caleb Joseph was shipped off to Triple-A Norfolk in mid May. Lack of production was the primary reason. The veteran backstop was batting just .182 with a .528 OPS in 80 plate appearances at the time of his demotion. I happened to be on hand when Buck Showalter addressed the decision with the media, and expressed that offense has historically been a low priority for catchers.
“That’s changed a little bit,” the Baltimore manager responded. “A lot depends on what club you’re playing on, and teams that are really good offensively might lean a little bit the other way. But it’s like the evolution of the shortstop, second baseman, and even center fielder — any time you can separate yourself offensively from what everybody else is doing at that position. Catching… it’s always a priority to be able to catch, throw, and call a game, especially with all of the information that’s available about pitching to people. You need to have a certain amount of baseball intelligence to put it all into play. So it still leans toward the defensive part of it, and all the entities that includes, but you still want to be some sort of offensive force.”
The FanGraphs 2018 Staff Predictions were published on the eve of opening day, and like many of my colleagues, I presented mine with a certain amount of trepidation. No one wants to look the part of an idiot (Carson Cistulli being a possible exception), and if I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that players and teams don’t always perform as expected.
With Memorial Day weekend upon us, here is how my selections are doing (through Friday):
AL East: Red Sox 35-16, first place
AL Central: Indians 24-25, first place
AL West: Astros 34-18, first place
AL Wildcard: Yankees 32-15, second place, 1 back in East
AL Wildcard: Twins 21-25, second place, 1.5 back in Central
NL East: Nationals 27-22, third place, 2 back
NL Central: Cubs 26-21, third place, 3.5 back
NL West: Rockies 27-24, first place
NL Wildcard: Dodgers 23-27, fourth place, 3.5 back in West
NL Wildcard: Brewers 32-20, first place in Central
AL MVP: Mike Trout: .293/.449/.644 16 HR
NL MVP: Nolan Arenado: .320/.414/.556, 9 HR
AL CY Young: Trevor Bauer: 4-3, 2.35, 10.1 K/9
NL CY Young: Aaron Nola; 6-2, 2.37, 7.9 K/9
AL RoY: Franklin Barreto: .235/.352/.445, 6 HR in Triple-A
NL RoY: Victor Robles: Disabled list with elbow injury after four Triple-A games.
Andrew Albers is 6-1 with a 2.13 in eight starts for NPB’s ORIX Buffaloes. The left-hander out of North Battleford, Saskatchewan went 5-1, 3.51 in nine games with the Seattle Mariners last year.
Frank Herrmann has a 1.80 ERA and a pair of saves in 16 appearances for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. The former big-league reliever — we featured him here last August — appeared in 56 games for the same NPB club last season.
Randy Messenger is 7-2 with a 2.22 ERA in his ninth season with the Hanshin Tigers. The 36-year-old righty appeared in 173 games before taking his talents to NPB.
Daric Barton ranks second in the Mexican League with a .393 batting average. The former first-round pick — now playing first base with Pericos de Puebla — slashed .247/.356/.365 for the Oakland A’s from 2007-2014.
Desmond Jennings is hitting .313 with 10 home runs for Acereros del Norte. The former Tampa Bay Rays outfielder signed with the Mexican League club in April after spending last season in Triple-A with the Mets.
Dave Garcia, who managed the California Angels in 1977-1978, and the Cleveland Indians from 1979-1982, died earlier this week at the age of 97. A player, coach, minor league manager, and scout for multiple teams over the course of 65 years of professional baseball, Garcia signed his first contract with the St. Louis Browns in 1938.
Bartolo Colon, who turned 45 on Thursday, went for his 243rd career win on Saturday, which would have tied him with Juan Marichal for the most by a native of the Dominican Republic. He got a no-decision. The only Latin American native with more wins is Nicaragua’s Dennis Martinez, who had 245.
The National Pastime Museum, which launched on March 31, 2013, announced earlier this week that the site will be closing at the end of this month. I’ve linked several of their informative articles in this column, and they will be missed.
Russell Martin started at shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday. It was his second time playing the position, and his first as a starter. Martin has started 1,415 games as a catcher, 22 games as a third baseman, and one game as a right fielder.
A number of MLB players are involved with charitable endeavors and/or outreach programs. Orioles right-hander Mike Wright is among them, and his efforts hit very close to home. The mission statement for Wright State of Mind is “To love and care for those affected by dementia and promote keeping your head in the game, for life.”
“At age 50, my mother got diagnosed with a super-early onset type of dementia called Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia,” Wright explained. “My sister (Tiffany) is the main care giver. She works a full-time job and then goes home and takes care of her. That’s not easy, and there are other people dealing with the same things we were. We decided we want to do some good in the world, in the dementia realm.”
Wright State of Mind is currently awaiting formal accreditation as a non-profit. Once the legal process is completed, one of Mike and Tiffany’s first goals is to host a care-giver conference in their home state of North Carolina. As Wright told me, “We’re anxious to help people out as much as we can.”
Big Hair and Plastic Grass, Dan Epstein’s entertaining and informative book about baseball in the 1970s, includes a fascinating piece of what-if regarding the Oakland franchise. In December 1977, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that ‘an all-black ownership cartel” was looking into in buying the Charlie Finley-owned A’s. The group included Bill Cosby, George Foreman, Redd Foxx, Don King, and Curtis Mayfield.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Over at The Seattle Times, Geoff Baker wrote about how 40 percent of the MLB-roster players suspended since PED testing was implemented were born in the Dominican Republic.
Tyler Kepner of The New York Times laid out why Max Scherzer is the perfect P\pitcher for this baseball era.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners batters have reached base 29 times via HBP, the most of any team. Minnesota Twins batters have reached base via HBP seven times, the fewest of any team.
Texas Rangers pitchers have allowed 39 batters to reach via HBP, the most of any team. Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers have allowed nine batters to reach via HBP, the fewest of any team.
The Atlanta Braves are an MLB-best 12-3 in day games, including 9-2 on the road.
On May 24, 1957, Chicago Cubs outfielder Frank Ernaga homered off of Warren Spahn in his first big-league plate appearance. Two innings later he hit a run-scoring triple against Spahn in his second big-league plate appearance. Ernaga finished his career with 12 hits in 43 at bats.
On May 30, 1969, Cincinnati’s Clay Carroll hit a tenth-inning home run off of Bob Gibson to give the Reds a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the only extra-base hit the longtime reliever — Carroll appeared in 731 games over 15 seasons — had in his career.
Dave Kingman played eight of his 1,941 career games with the New York Yankees. His 27 plate appearances with the Bombers, in 1977, included four home runs, two walks, and 13 strikeouts.
The 1979 Houston Astros went 89-73 while hitting 49 home runs and 52 triples.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.