The Padres Have an Unusual Bullpen – Might It Also Be Super?

The Padres are interesting because they have one of the game’s best farm systems. Talents like Fernando Tatis Jr. could be difference-makers and change fortunes.

The Padres are interesting because they gave Eric Hosmer an eight-year deal when similarly productive corner bats went for far cheaper this winter.

The Padres are interesting because they raided this very site of its previous managing editor and Face of the Franchise, Dave Cameron. The Padres were all about acquiring Faces of Franchises this offseason.

But the Padres are also of interest because they have one of the game’s more intriguing bullpens. As you might be aware, bullpens continue to gain a greater share of regular-season innings. Last season, relievers accounted for 38.1% of innings thrown in the regular season, a major league record. In the postseason that jumped to 46.4%. So if the Padres are really going to turn things around, they’ll probably need a quality reliever corps and they just might have one.

Brad Hand has emerged as one of the top left-handed bullpen arms in the game. At a projected 1.7 WAR, only Kenley Jansen, Felipe Rivero and Corey Knebel where projected by FanGraphs to be better among NL relievers this season. (Knebel suffered a hamstring injury Thursday night.) Rather than deal him at the deadline last summer, the Padres held onto Hand and extended him. But the Padres bullpen is about more than just Hand. In an era when super teams often have super bullpens, the Padres ranked in the top half of our positional power rankings at No. 13. They’ve done it on the cheap, ranking 22nd ($11.1 million) in payroll committed to bullpen, according to Spotrac. And there’s room for the Padres to beat that FanGraphs’ projection.

Hand is supported by two of the more interesting yet relatively unknown — and certianly unusual — relief pitchers in the game entering 2018, Kirby Yates and NPB import, mysterious submarine-arm Kazuhisa Makita.

The Athletic San Diego published a piece on the Padres’ bullpen Friday afternoon and noted the Padres have the second-lowest average fastball velocity (91.9 mph) at a time when super pens are breaking velocity records.

Yates is not a reason the velocity is an outlier. We’ll get to that curious velocity in a moment.

Yates doesn’t come with the same name recognition Hand does but his underlying numbers were even better last season.

Selected off waivers from the Angels last April, Yates was quietly one of the more dominant relief arms in the National League. His swinging strike (17.4%) trailed only Craig Kimbrel, Jansen, and James Hoyt. He posted elite 29.9 K-BB% and a 38% strikeout marks, with his strikeout percentage ranked seventh among all pitchers.

Last season, Yates had three bat-missing offerings. Among all major league pitchers, Yates ranked 17th in whiff-per-swing rate on his fastball (31.7%), according to Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards. That’s an unusual rate. His split-changeup ranked sixth among all pitchers in whiff rate (46.8%). And his breaking ball, a slider, missed batts at a 42.8% mark, 98th among all pitchers.

His 2017 velocity remained constant from earlier in his career, but Yates began to attack up in the zone with his high-spin, four-seam fastballs last season. The pitch features above-average arm horizontal movement (-7.4 inches) and spin: 2,329 rpms last season, and a 2,318 average since Statcast has been monitoring him. The MLB average is around 2,200. The pitch was 4.4 runs above average last season according to linear weights.

While his 94 mph velocity remained steady last season — it’s slightly down to 93.4 mph early this season — in 2016 his fastball crossed the plate at an average height of 2.46 ft, according to Baseball Savant data. Last season his average fastball height increased to 2.67 ft (The league average was 2.27 feet via Savant). There seems to be some intent to pitch more up in the zone.

A pitcher learning to better utilize a fastball isn’t so unusual, but his split-changeup usage is. He increased usage of the split-change from 3% in 2016 to 12.8% last season; it’s up to 16.7% in the early going this season. The pitch was 3.3 runs above average last season, according to linear weights.

The changeup is typically used against batters holding a platoon advantage due to its fading action, but Yates trusted his enough to use it at a 10.8% rate against righties last season and a 13.8% rate early this season.

He has consistently buried the pitch, fading it away from lefties and back-footing it against righties.

Consider this fall-of-the-table, right-on-right changeup against Nolan Arenado last week:

Beyond Yates, the 25-year-old Phil Maton is probably the third most talented arm in the San Diego bullpen, whom Steamer projects for a 25.3% strikeout rate and 8.8% walk rate this season. But Makita is arguably the most interesting arm in the bullpen because of his rare delivery and skillset.

His vertical release is the second-lowest in baseball (2.35 ft.) trailing only Adam Cimber — another Padres’ bullpen arm, a non-roster invite who made the team — in releasing pitches lower.

And Makita’s average pitch height upon reach the plate ranks sixth in baseball, according to Savant, early this season (2.87 ft.)

Makita’s ball actually does rise from its release point. MLB hitters simply don’t get many looks like this. But the Padres have multiple such looks in Makita and Cimber. Cimber ranks 13th in average height at the plate (2.68 ft.) early this season.

A look at Matika’s release point:

Makita’s fastball also averages 79.7 mph; Cimber’s average is 85 mph for reference. Makita’s curveball advances forward at such a methodical pace, sometimes around 50 mph, it’s not even registering a speed, according to PITCHf/x (0.0 mph). Pitch-labeling systems are having trouble marking his pitches. Can a pitcher be effective with such a velocity? Early this season, in a very small sample, Makita has generated a 20.4% swinging strike mark.

Here’s a three-pitch strikeout against Ryan McMahon last week:

Good morning

Good afternoon

Good day, sir

And check out this knee-buckling curveball– I say “curveball,” though PITCHf/x didn’t track it –facing DJ LeMahieu.

In Makita and Cimber, the Padres have cornered the market on submarine-style arms.

Facing Makita — and Cimber — appears to be an awkward proposition for major league batters. Will batters better adjust in the NL West with more looks? We’ll see.

He’s probably not going to maintain the 6.3% swinging strike rate he produced last year in the NPB, or his 6.6% mark from 2016, though former FanGraphs compatriot Eno Sarris found plate-discipline and batted-ball trends in the NPB and MLB are remarkably similar.

Still, when Makita transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen after the 2015 season he became a better pitcher — an excellent command pitcher. He walked five and struck out 35 in 62 innings last year with the Seibu Lions. He posted a 2.30 ERA/3.29FIP last season in Japan. Will it translate? The season will tell. But even if he’s just a mid-innings, mid-leverage arm, that’s a find at $3.8 million spread over two years. The entire Padres’ bullpen could be a cheap find.

The Padres are slowing turning things around and when and if they do, the bullpen, with this group, could have played a significant role. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating group built at low cost.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

Thanks Travis!