The Next Man Up in the Rays ‘Pen

Since August 1, 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays have compiled the third best record in the majors, winning just over 60% of their games. Their pitching staff has been the stingiest in all of baseball during this period, allowing just 3.5 runs to score per game. Their rotation deserves a ton of credit, as their starting five— and openers —posted a league and park adjusted FIP 24% better than league average. But their bullpen, including their bulk pitchers, has been almost as effective, posting a league and park adjusted FIP 11% better than league average. That’s even more impressive when you consider the sheer number of innings their relievers have thrown due to their opener strategy.

Here’s a list of relievers who have thrown 20 or more innings for the Rays since the beginning of August last year, with bulk pitchers removed:

Rays Relievers, Aug 2018–June 2019
Player IP K% BB% ERA FIP gmLI
José Alvarado 43 1/3 37.9% 12.4% 2.70 1.91 1.70
Emilio Pagán 29 1/3 32.4% 7.2% 1.23 2.44 1.27
Adam Kolarek 53 16.7% 5.9% 3.40 3.36 1.25
Hunter Wood 31 1/3 17.3% 6.3% 2.87 3.78 0.82
Chaz Roe 38 1/3 26.3% 12.9% 4.23 4.14 1.38
Diego Castillo 48 27.7% 9.7% 3.38 4.26 1.49
Serigo Romo 20 28.2% 4.7% 5.40 4.61 1.53
(min. 20 IP)

With Sergio Romo off in Miami, José Alvarado and Diego Castillo have been handling most of the high-leverage opportunities this year. But with Castillo sidelined with a shoulder injury and Alvarado still working his way back after spending most of this month in Venezuela to attend to a personal matter, the Rays are suddenly without their two best shutdown relievers.

Enter Emilio Pagán. Cast aside by two West Coast teams over the last two years, Pagán had to earn his way onto the Rays roster. He was optioned to Triple-A to start the year and was yanked up and down a couple of times before finally sticking on the major league roster in late April. All he’s done since then is hold opposing teams scoreless in 23 of his 26 appearances. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is a very good 4.5, and his league and park adjusted FIP is 13th in the majors among all relievers.

While he was with the Mariners and the Athletics, Pagán relied heavily on his excellent four-seam fastball. His high-spin heater has a ton of ride and good velocity, and he threw it around two-thirds of the time before this season. He’s dropped his usage of his fastball to around half the time this year, but the effectiveness of the pitch has increased. In years past, opposing batters would swing and miss against his fastball around a quarter of the time they offered at it, a good rate but not elite. This year, they’re whiffing a third of the time they swing, a mark that sits in the 97th percentile among all four-seam fastballs thrown this year.

A strength and conditioning program during the offseason has helped him boost his average velocity by a full tick, from 94.6 to 95.7 mph. That alone could explain why he’s getting more whiffs with the pitch. But he’s also locating it more effectively too:

Last year, he was grooving a few too many fastballs and he paid the price in home runs allowed. This year, he’s elevating his fastball more often and batters just can’t barrel it up anymore. When a batter makes contact with his heater this year, the expected wOBA is just .243, a 113 point improvement over last year and the second best mark in the majors.

Pagán has also added velocity to his slider, going from 85.8 to 88.1 mph. But besides the added velocity, it appears as though the pitch has been slightly redesigned:

Emilio Pagán, slider
Year Velocity Spin Rate V Move H Move
2018 85.77 2431 0.6 2.86
2019 88.07 2377 1.64 2.04
Change 2.3 -54 -1.04 -0.82
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant

Even though he’s throwing it with more oomph, he’s throwing it with a little less spin than before. We know there’s a positive relationship between spin and velocity, so we’d expect to see a higher spin rate on his slider after adding more than two ticks to its average velocity. Instead we see the opposite along with a corresponding change in vertical movement. That tells me his slider is a little less spin efficient (which might be a good thing for sliders).

What’s more important than the minutiae of pitch design are the results he’s generating with his slider. His whiff rate is still impressive at 33% but he’s inducing much more contact on the ground with his new slider despite less vertical movement. Because he’s throwing his slider more often this season, he’s actually moved his overall groundball rate from well below average to right around league average. Perhaps all those additional groundballs are a result of him locating his slider lower in the zone:

Pagán was decimated by the home run last year; since joining the Rays, he’s allowed just two. All of the adjustments he’s made to his pitch selection and his pitch location seem like they’re geared towards trying to avoid the long ball. Batters already had a tough time simply making contact against him, but now when they do, it’s mostly weak contact. That’s helped him become one of the best relievers in the majors this season.

José Alvarado should be returning from his long absence soon. When he does, he’ll likely slot into the back of the Rays bullpen. But Diego Castillo’s shoulder injury doesn’t have a diagnosis or a projected timetable for recovery. The Rays have always been flexible with their reliever usage. Pagán’s improvements this year have given them another elite option to use in high-leverage situations.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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4 years ago

The staff is predictably falling apart. The one guy that isn’t is the import (Morton), with an injury history that would make anyone blush. That is the problem with a short-sighted strategy such as the opener. It is a good contingency plan, but a very poor long-term one. If all TB wants is money then it is a great strategy as they will have a competitive staff on a given day, which is more than what most teams are doing but it comes at a cost to the players that get abused. Those are the players that you need down the stretch, but if you don’t really care about the end of the season and all you are really trying to do is win some games on a budget that doesn’t really matter. Flawed SP with 2 pitches can always be converted to the bullpen, or a guy with one pitch can throw it until it doesn’t work anymore but long-term it ain’t going to work out well. They can churn through arms for a good while but this is what the absolute best-case looks like – there will be miserable failures as you can see in many current organizations haphazard attempts at overuse of the bullpen. Maybe there are enough tanking teams in the league and plain greedy teams that TB will be able to keep back-filling the inevitable overuse injuries at a reasonable rate and cost. The problem is that RP are so volatile that they need a few proven guys to function at a time, otherwise it will look like the embarrassing attempts that we have seen this year from TOR and a few others.

4 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

I’ve read your comment multiple times and I’m still not entirely sure what you’re getting at.

4 years ago
Reply to  otis

I think his complaint is twofold

1) Using openers is bad for relievers
2) Going cheap on the pitching staff is bad because when the real starters break you end up having to use more openers, and then see #1

4 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Except for the best reliever hasn’t broken down. His country has fallen apart. So he went home for personal reasons.

4 years ago
Reply to  otis

Yeah, it’s a mess, but I think I agree with it (if I’m reading him correctly). There’s a reason why inning-eaters are valuable, and the Rays only have four real starters when everyone is healthy (Glasnow, Snell, Morton, and Chirinos and now they’re not. Ryan Yarborough seems like he’s functioning more like a starter now, so that helps a little bit, but even so I have no idea how this bullpen is going to avoid getting run into the ground.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The Rays are not unique in overtaxing their bullpen. Running bullpens into the ground is the theme around all of baseball now. With each passing year starting pitching is used less and less and the bullpens are treated like a rented mule and sent out there for several innings every day. Even the good relievers break down if they are called upon four or five times a week and the back end of most bullpens are littered with Quad-A or less quality pitchers. It strikes me as weird, bizarre, call it what you want, that teams, most notably the Nationals and the Mets, continued to follow the same tired routine of yanking the starter at a pre-selected spot in the game, (Brodie VanWagonen makes a call) often regardless of pitch count, and lose game after game when the same relievers stunk up the stadium. Saving the top of the rotation doesn’t do much good if the team is out of the race before the All-Star break.

4 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Who on Tampa’s staff is being abused or overused? In looking at their roster, the only one I see that you might have an argument for is Ryne Stanek. He has currently pitched 44 innings and is projected for 88 total IPs for the season. Last season he pitched 76 innings between AAA and MLB. Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough and Jalen Beeks were all SPs in the minors. I don’t see how giving them “false” starts instead of true starts causes them to be abused or overused. Other than Stanek (opener), the reliever with the most IPs is Diego Castillo with 34 IPs so far and a projection of 69 IPs for the season. He last pitched on June 22nd. So, his recent IL really only adds one or two more innings to his projection. After Castillo is Emilio Pagan with 30 IPs so far, which projects to 60 IPs for the season. Then it’s Kolarek with 28 IPs. Then Chaz Roe and Hunter Wood with 24 IPs each. Jose Alvarado has only pitched 23 innings so far this season.

Regarding openers and false starters, surely you don’t think using an opener strategy had any impact on Glasnow’s injury, do you? Or, are you saying they should have traded for established starters instead of using Chirinos, Yarbrough and Beeks? If so, I don’t understand how this alleviates any concerns about injuries or fatigue any more than their current strategy. I also doubt the Rays are very confident that they would perform any better than with the Opener/FS strategy (which has proven to be quite effective). I’m sure they had high expectations for Brent Honeywell this season, but his injury stopped that. However, Brendan McKay is rumored to be coming up by early July.

4 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

So…you predicted Snell’s meltdown? Wow!