The Padres Are Poised to Pull a Brewers

The bad news is that we have the Padres projected for baseball’s worst record. The good news is that’s not really surprising to the Padres, and Keith Law recently ranked their farm system at No. 3. They tried the whole go-for-it thing, and it blew up, so they reversed course. To this point, it’s gone well, and probably better than was expected. You can look at the Padres and see how they could eventually return to being competitive.

What that doesn’t mean is that the rebuild is complete. The Padres will have more selling to do, and as I look at their roster, I see a team poised to do one of the things the Brewers have done. Milwaukee has done well to sell off parts of its bullpen, bringing real prospect value back in exchange for Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith, and Tyler Thornburg. They’re all effective pitchers, but they don’t mean much to a could-be cellar-dweller. You might know the Padres for having a suspect pitching staff, but the bullpen should be of considerable interest. And if events go well enough, then come July, the Padres might end up in charge of the late-inning reliever market.

Around deadline time, there exists a sort of reliever premium. This is mostly because, by the deadline, teams know where they stand, and in the playoffs you can exaggerate a reliever’s usage pattern to squeeze the most out of him. Every year, no matter how much offseason preparation was done, there are always contenders who need to boost their bullpens. The Padres have several guys they could conceivably market, but the big three for now are Ryan Buchter, Carter Capps, and Brad Hand.

Buchter is under team control through 2021. Capps is under control through 2018, and Hand is under control through 2019. Relievers are generally considered shorter-term assets, no matter the contract status, just because of the volatility and injury risk. But control is control, and it doesn’t mean nothing. There’s value there, and there’s value in the performance.

Let’s start with Buchter. He’s already almost 30, so he’s been a late bloomer, but one thing he has going in his favor is his left-handedness. He has an extremely fastball-heavy approach that gets fly balls and strikeouts, and last year, out of the 129 relievers who threw at least 50 innings, Buchter’s strikeout rate ranked 16th. Importantly, Buchter isn’t just a specialist. Specialists do have their uses, but Buchter actually faced twice as many righties as lefties, and he got them out. He whiffed a third of all the righties he faced, making him one of the lefty leaders in that regard. As with everyone, there’s no guarantee that Buchter will perform as well in the season ahead, but if he does keep it up, any contending team’s manager would love to have him. With Buchter on the mound, you don’t have to think so hard.

Moving to Capps, you remember him, even if you might not remember how he wound up with the Padres. The big problem for Capps is that he missed the entire 2016 season because of Tommy John, and maybe some people thought that was inevitable. And returning effectively from elbow surgery is no lock, so Capps will have to re-prove himself. That being said, he’s somewhere around 100% at this writing, with spring training coming up. Capps’ delivery still hasn’t been ruled totally illegal. And the last we saw Capps regularly take a major-league mound, he struck out 58 opponents in 31 innings, with a paltry seven walks. David Price just put up a 90 ERA-. Two years ago, Capps had an ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP- that added up to 91. He was completely unfair, throwing 98mph fastballs that looked 102. Batters missed with almost half of their attempted swings.

I don’t know how many assets are more volatile than Capps. He throws so hard, in such an unusual way, and his numbers are outlandish. They’re almost impossible to believe. But say Capps comes into camp healthy. Say he stays healthy. He probably takes the closing job from Brandon Maurer. Even if he doesn’t, he’s working in the later innings, and he’s going to get his strikeouts. Teams would look at Capps and see shutdown innings in the playoffs. Few pitchers would seem so appealing.

At last, we have Brad Hand. Used to be, he was one of those pitchers you only really knew because of his name, like Fernando Abad, or Jeff Manship. Last April, the Padres grabbed Hand off waivers from the Marlins. He subsequently led all big-league relievers in innings, with 89.1, and he also led all relievers in appearances, with 82. What did Hand do to earn so much trust?

That’ll do it. Hand just struck out 31% of his opponents. Over his career before last year, he struck out 15% of his opponents. Even as a reliever, he was at 20%. Hand, like Buchter, is a lefty, and he just dominated lefties, but look at that red line above. Hand figured out how to strike out righties, too, and for that he has a new breaking ball to thank. Here’s the new Brad Hand slider:

I don’t know if that looks familiar, visually. But here’s a pitch comparison that’ll open your eyes:

A 2016 Pitcher Comparison
Pitcher Four-Seam% Velo H-Mov V-Mov Slider% Velo H-Mov V-Mov
Andrew Miller 39% 95.5 6.1 8.0 61% 84.6 -5.2 -2.0
Brad Hand 28% 93.9 7.4 8.5 31% 83.9 -5.1 -0.5
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

Hand’s percentages don’t add up to 100% because he threw other pitches, too, but by speed and shape, he threw pitches that looked a lot like Andrew Miller’s pitches. Miller’s fastball is a little bit quicker, and his slider has a little more drop, but that’s a hell of a comparison. Hand’s new slider looks similar to the pitch that turned Andrew Miller into Andrew Miller, and his slider control isn’t so bad:

Miller has gotten more comfortable with his slider each year, going from 39% usage in 2012 to 61% usage in 2016. Hand might benefit from a similar increase. He threw less than 30% sliders last year in the first half, but over the final month his usage shot up past 40%, and he had three walks and 26 strikeouts to show for it. Count Brad Hand as a breakout pitcher who could continue to improve.

Taken together, the Padres could have plenty to dangle. There’s some risk, because every pitcher still needs to survive spring training and another three or four months, but Capps could be one of the best strikeout arms in the game, while Buchter and Hand could be among the premier strikeout southpaws. Of those two, Hand might even take another step forward, given the similarities he shares with Andrew Miller. Almost every contending team in baseball would be interested in any of these pitchers, and prospects can get moved in a hurry in July. Sure, that would subtract from the Padres’ present bullpen. The Brewers’ bullpen doesn’t look so great right now itself. But the Brewers are thankful for having seized the opportunities they had. The Padres might be next. Their farm system is already strong, but it could and should get only stronger.

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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Sean Huff
7 years ago

If he replicates his 2015 numbers over a larger sample, is Capps the best RP in baseball? I think he is, but that article was refuted by most.