The Mariners’ Own Secret Weapon

The other day, I had the opportunity to introduce some of you to Mychal Givens. Based on the response, it was actually a chance to introduce most of you to Mychal Givens, who the Orioles love as a potential major contributor to the bullpen. Givens pitched well, but because he pitched later in the season for a go-nowhere ballclub, he didn’t draw himself a lot of attention, which is why many found the Givens post so surprising. We all feel like we have a pretty good understanding of the game, and of the players involved. It’s unusual to be caught off guard.

That wasn’t a one-off, though. Not that this was intended to be a series, but the Mariners happen to have their own comp. If you love what Givens did in a pretty small sample, you’ll love what the other guy did in an even smaller sample. Like Givens, the mystery pitcher took a big step forward in the minors. Like Givens, he came to the majors and struck a bunch of people out. Like Givens, in the majors, he issued precious few walks. Like Givens, we have a righty with a fastball and a breaking ball; unlike Givens, the mystery pitcher can dial it up even more. Based on track record, the Mariners would currently appear to have a mediocre bullpen. But they might be expecting some major assistance from Tony Zych.

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard about him. That’s the whole point. Most people haven’t heard about him, and by the time he arrived in the majors last season, the Mariners were irrelevant. There was little reason to pay attention to them, and there was even less reason to pay attention to their middle relief. So Zych pitched, quietly, and ever so quietly, against 76 batters, he struck 24 of them out, walking just three. The 25-year-old righty put himself on the radar, and the results did make some sense — Zych was formerly a fourth-round pick by the Cubs, and he always had a heater. He just didn’t have location, which is why he was picked up by the Mariners for nothing in April. The Cubs gave up an unpolished live arm. Then Zych and the Mariners did the polishing.

The Givens backstory is that he’s a busted prospect shortstop. He converted to the mound in 2013, and last year he broke out. Zych was drafted as a pitcher. He was always supposed to pitch, but last year something just clicked. In interviews, Zych hasn’t been too specific — he’s referred to just ironing some things out in his mechanics, going back to how he used to throw, and I’ll take his word for it, given the dearth of pre-2015 Tony Zych video. I don’t know what he did to his throwing motion; I just know what happened to his statistics. Consider the following plot. I’ve combined minor- and major-league data to add to the 2015 sample size.

zych-stats

Zych was all right in 2012, though he had some more struggles upon being promoted from High-A. He spent the next two years in Double-A, and his strikeouts plummeted while his walks didn’t plummet with them. Zych at that point didn’t look like much of a prospect, hence the Cubs letting him go. With the Mariners in Double-A, Zych racked up 18 strikeouts without a single walk. He moved to Triple-A for the first time, and he maintained an excellent ratio. Then he forced his way to the majors, and the numbers held up. In all last year, Zych pitched in 53 games. He faced the most advanced competition of his life. For every two walks, there were 13 strikeouts. There were also just a combined three home runs.

Zych had one of the biggest year-to-year K-BB% improvements in professional baseball, and of the few pitchers above him, some were starter-reliever conversions, and some were in the very low minors. Zych, in a sense, just did what Givens did, in the minors, and then in the majors. Sure, the major-league opponents were working without histories or advanced scouting reports. But the numbers were phenomenal, and Zych can throw 96-97. He’s not up there relying on trickery. If you’re a major leaguer, and you’re facing a new righty reliever, you should probably expect a fastball and a slider. Zych complied. He got his numbers anyway.

He really took off against right-handed hitters. Between 2013 and 2014, in the minors, Zych walked 27 righties, with 47 strikeouts. Last year, between the minors and the majors, he walked five righties, with 58 strikeouts. All that is is hot death. He was worse against lefties, sure. Almost all of them are. He still held his own, so he needn’t be just a specialist.

If you want to know what he looks like, here’s Zych’s first-ever big-league plate appearance. He starts with a fastball at 95, then he goes to opposite edges with a breaking ball in the lower 80s.

That’s all there for illustration. You can’t learn much of anything from one at-bat, but it’s just nice to see Zych at work, instead of just thinking about words and numbers. This way you see what Zych looks like when he succeeds. His fastball is fast, and it wouldn’t be considered flat. His breaking ball has a big speed differential, which Marcus Semien wasn’t expecting. Like a lot of righty relievers, Zych throws tons of breaking balls in two-strike counts, but then they wouldn’t do that if it weren’t effective.

Running some pitch comps, the strongest comps for Zych’s fastball last year are Mark Lowe and Yordano Ventura. Lowe is fitting, because he had an excellent bounceback year out of the bullpen after little was expected. The breaking ball is differently interesting. Pulling from the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, Zych’s averaged 83.6 miles per hour, with 6.7 inches of horizontal movement, and 2.7 inches of vertical movement. Of other breaking balls in baseball that averaged the same horizontal movement, they had an average velocity of 78.9, with -4.3 inches of vertical movement. Meanwhile, of other breaking balls in baseball that averaged the same vertical movement, they had an average velocity of 85.6, with 2.3 inches of horizontal movement. To put it more simply: Zych’s breaking ball has curveball horizontal break, slider vertical break, and in-between velocity. It’s not a run-of-the-mill righty-reliever slider, so it’s more unfamiliar, and it might make Zych a little better against lefties than you’d expect.

This past season, Tony Zych kept throwing his fastball hard. That part, he always had in his back pocket. But due to some kind of mechanical simplification, Zych started throwing strike after strike, even as he faced progressively more challenging competition. So he got ahead in counts, and he leaned on his somewhat unusual breaking ball. For the first time he combined major-league stuff with major-league location, so he resembled a major-league pitcher. If that’s how he looked in 2015, it stands to reason that’s how he ought to look in 2016.

There’s always the risk he could get worse, as opponents grow wise to his act. There are going to be scouting reports, so there’s going to be better preparation. But Zych isn’t throwing funky pitches at 88 miles per hour. His velocity is way up there, and he has a real second weapon, so he seems perfectly cut out for important relief. Maybe this made it a little easier for the Mariners to trade Carson Smith. At first, it doesn’t feel like the bullpen is going to be all that reliable. But there’s clear upside in Evan Scribner, and there’s clear upside in Tony Zych. The best relievers are ones you already know. It’s harder to know all of the next-best. There are just so many baseball players.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Dayton Moore
Guest
Dayton Moore

Man how bad are the Ms gonna be again this year? Any progression from anyone will likely be offset by Cruz’ regression.

Cory Settoon
Member

Gotta think a full, healthy season from Cano would off-set it a bit.

Not to mention going from a -1.9 WAR at catcher to a projected 2.6 and a -0.7 at 1B to a projected 1.8 will help.

Basebull
Guest
Basebull

They’ve plugged some gaping holes at C, RF and CF, albeit with 1-2 WAR players that lack a whole lot of upside. They’re probably just as good of a team as last year, when they were a consensus playoff team. That seemed pretty bullish back then and looks silly now, but they’re still probably an 85-win team that could make the playoffs if a few things break right.