The Dodgers and Angels Have Bolstered Their Bullpens

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball season is almost upon us. Spring training competition has begun and the hot stove of free agency has cooled off a bit, though not entirely. Many players, especially on the relief market, have yet to be signed. But over the past week, two former starters with a recent track record of excellent relief performance have taken their talents to Southern California – one finding a new home in Anaheim while the other returns to the big city.

Angels sign Matt Moore to a one-year, $7.55 million deal

Moore’s path through professional baseball has been as interesting as any. A highly touted high school draftee, Moore was once ranked as the top prospect in the game by and Baseball Prospectus, ahead of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. He established himself in the majors at the age of 23, making the AL All-Star team in his second full season. He then missed almost all of 2014 and ’15 with a torn UCL. After returning, his performance quickly dipped from solid to disastrous. He bounced from team to team and posted a 5.99 ERA in 2017-18 while splitting time between the rotation and bullpen. He appeared in just two games in 2019 before a knee injury prematurely ended his season. With his track record of injuries and poor performance now six years long, Moore took a new path to rejuvenate his career, signing with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of NPB for the 2020 season. There he ultimately excelled, with a 2.65 ERA and 3.21 FIP in 13 starts. Moore’s performance impressed the Phillies, who brought him on in a hybrid starter/reliever role where his struggles continued, allowing almost two homers per nine innings and a walk every other frame. However, one team still saw something in him – the Texas Rangers. They signed him to pitch out of the bullpen, and he was excellent: His 1.95 ERA and 2.98 FIP in 74 innings were career bests, as was his 10.1 K/9.

Moore’s 2022 season was emblematic of the league-wide shift towards more secondary pitches, as he threw fewer fastballs and more curveballs than in any other season of his career. This shift was largely successful – not only did he scale up the usage of a good whiff and groundball pitch, it also led to a career best .289 xwOBA against his fastballs, which became less predictable as he threw them less often. The north-south separation of those two pitches led to hitters often swinging under the fastball, leading to a 15.5% popup rate. His skill in avoiding hard aerial contact was a big reason why he surrendered just three homers last year, though his 3.87 xFIP and 3.69 SIERA indicate that trend will be difficult to continue. However, his 17.8 inches of induced vertical break was a career best for his fastball, as was his 26.6% whiff rate on the pitch.

But Moore’s best pitch last year wasn’t the heater or the hook, it was his more infrequently-used changeup. Batters whiffed at 46% of their swings against it while putting up a pitiful .167 wOBA, and according to Statcast’s run value metric, it was one of the 10 best changeups in the league on a per-pitch basis. But while Moore threw 210 changeups last season, just five of them came against fellow lefties. A good changeup is an important weapon for a left-handed pitcher, especially a reliever who often has to deal with right-handed pinch hitters. And while most pitchers throw changeups more to opposite-handed hitters, few completely abandon them when they have the platoon advantage. In Moore’s case, his changeup was immensely effective not just in spite of the fact that he didn’t throw it to lefties, but because he only used it in advantageous situations. The end result was that Moore completely neutralized right-handed hitters (who represented 72% of his opposition), holding them to a .247 wOBA:

Matt Moore Pitch Arsenal By Handedness
Pitch vs. Left vs. Right
Fastball 50.8% 42.9%
Curveball 47.6% 35.0%
Changeup 1.6% 22.1%
wOBA .282 .247
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

After trading Raisel Iglesias nearly for free at last season’s deadline, the Angels have lacked a clear top man in their bullpen. They have a large variety of names competing for high-leverage appearances, including Jimmy Herget, Ryan Tepera, José Quijada, the newly signed Carlos Estévez, and now Moore. None of these guys are stars, but absent an elite closer, having a solid collection of average or better relievers who can pitch late in games is the next best thing. Moore reinvented himself last year in Texas, and he hopes to build upon that success for a division rival.

Dodgers reunite with Jimmy Nelson on a one-year, $1.2 million deal

If you copied and pasted the paragraph about Moore’s career trajectory to describe Nelson, a good chunk of the information would still be correct. Nelson came up in the Brewers system and spent a few years as a reliable but low-ceiling starter before missing time with multiple injuries, being converted to relief, and ultimately succeeding in that role. He’s pitched just 51 big league innings in the past five years – a shoulder injury cut short his last season in Milwaukee before he was non-tendered, then he underwent Tommy John surgery a few months into his stint with the Dodgers. Fully healthy entering the 2023 season, Nelson opted to re-sign with Los Angeles after rehabbing in their system for the past year and a half.

Nelson made some significant pitch mix alterations after joining his new team and entering his new role. The biggest change was that he completely ditched his sinker, a pitch that he once threw over half the time in Milwaukee. As a Brewer, he was primarily known as a groundballer with subpar strikeout stuff and middling control; grounders made up over half of his batted balls allowed from 2015-17, his full seasons in the rotation. In 2021, that groundball rate dropped to just 37% to go along with a career-high fly ball rate, but what he sacrificed in contact quality was more than made up for by his massive boost in strikeout stuff. While Nelson fanned 21.3% of batters in his three-year run as a starter, his 2021 strikeout rate was 37.9%, which would have ranked sixth among qualified relievers had he pitched the full season.

Nelson’s pivot away from his sinker allowed him to emphasize his best pitches. His curveball had always been his putaway pitch as a starter, but he had never thrown it more than a fifth of the time. As a Dodger, he threw fastballs, curveballs, and sliders in near-equal proportion, leading to career-best whiff and strikeout rates. But his improvements didn’t just come from a change in pitch mix; he also made alterations to his pitch shapes that allowed them to be more successful than ever.

The pitch data on Nelson’s breaking balls is nothing short of incredible. First, his slider, which the Dodgers’ coaching staff transformed into a lethal sweeper. With the Brewers, the pitch had some sweeper characteristics but was used as a hard breaker in the upper 80s. After learning a new slider grip, his spin rates spiked from about 2,400 to nearly 3,000, consequently doubling the pitch’s horizontal movement while only sacrificing about a tick of velocity. Nelson was one of just three pitchers to average at least 86 mph and 13 inches of sweep on their slider, joining Dillon Maples and Blake Treinen (who also reworked his slider after joining the Dodgers). In 2021, Nelson had 43 plate appearances end with a slider, resulting in 16 strikeouts and just one hit.

Nelson’s curveball experienced a similar spin rate increase, leading to improvements in both its vertical and horizontal movement. According to Baseball Savant, the pitch had 5.6 more inches of drop and 4.3 inches more sweep than the league average, especially impressive considering only a handful of hurlers threw curves as hard as him. Nelson is one of just five pitchers to earn an 80 stuff grade from Cameron Grove’s pitch data model, and from viewing the movement profiles of each pitch side by side, it’s easy to see why:

Specs of 80-Grade Curveballs
Name Velocity IVB HB
Jimmy Nelson 85.1 -14 10.8
Craig Kimbrel 86 -6 10.3
Tyler Glasnow 83.5 -17.6 4.6
Dustin May 86.1 -4.3 15.9
Jimmy Herget 74.4 4 16.7
SOURCE: Statcast
2021-22, min. 100 pitches

Nelson is bested in velocity by only Kimbrel and May (who have both spent time with the Dodgers), but he blows both out of the water in terms of vertical drop. Only Glasnow beats him there, but Nelson’s curve is thrown harder with better two-planed break. In short, Nelson’s curveball and slider make him one of the best relievers in baseball from a pure stuff perspective. The biggest knock on his game is his subpar command, as he has the tendency to miss up in the zone often with his breaking balls. He walked 11.2% of hitters in his brief relief campaign, and no projection system forecasts a free pass rate below 9.7% in the upcoming season.

Due to the lack of big name upgrades, our playoff odds project the Dodgers to have merely average pitching in the upcoming season – a major regression from a team that allowed the fewest runs in baseball in 2022. A return to form for Nelson would certainly help bolster that staff, but the structure of his contract indicates the Dodgers might have more lofty goals about his role on the team. In 2021, Nelson almost exclusively made single-inning relief appearances, but his experience as a starter signals he could be made available for longer appearances if necessary. His contract has playing time escalators where he earns a “point” for each start or relief appearance of 10 or more outs, maxing out at $4 million in bonuses for 30 such appearances. Nelson could serve as the long man in a bullpen with many other Dodgers pitching development successes, and possibly help them over-perform their surprisingly mild pitching projections.

Kyle is a FanGraphs contributor who likes to write about unique players who aren't superstars. He likes multipositional catchers, dislikes fastballs, and wants to see the return of the 100-inning reliever. He's currently a college student studying math education, and wants to apply that experience to his writing by making sabermetrics more accessible to learn about. Previously, he's written for PitcherList using pitch data to bring analytical insight to pitcher GIFs and on his personal blog about the Angels.

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1 year ago

Hey there,
Thanks for the write up! A long time fan of Jimmy Nelson. I was wondering if you think that Nelson has the dreaded “injury prone” label or if the last few years of IL stints were fluky?

Nelson was very strong as a one inning pitcher last year, but seemed to get in trouble if he went longer than one inning. I wonder if he can get back to multiple innings and still be effective.

Smiling Politelymember
1 year ago
Reply to  Kyle Kishimoto

Maybe he thinks he does some opener duty here and there (considering the likelihood of the Dodgers having many, many bullpen games this year)