It’s August 3rd, and the Phillies are still in first place in the National League East with a 60-48 record. They’ve slid a bit off of their June 1st pace, but that’s not totally unexpected. Despite this, they still remain in good position among teams in the playoff hunt. According to our playoff odds, they have a 45.3% chance of winning the division and a 59.9% chance of making the postseason in general.
One key that has helped drive the Phillies to their first-place position is the success of a few rookie relievers in a bullpen that has already exceeded preseason projections and generated 3.5 WAR with 55 games to go. The group was expected to be led by Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, and Hector Neris — projected to put up 1.1, 0.8, and 0.6 WAR, respectively. But these three relievers have combined for just 0.4 WAR so far, with Neris demoted to Triple A. Instead, it’s two rookies who have been the premier relief options for the team. Seranthony Dominguez has been discussed here before, and has ascended to the closer role since Neris’s demotion. However, it’s the emergence of Victor Arano that has put the Phillies bullpen in a position to help push the team toward the playoffs.
Arano has never been a heralded prospect. He was signed out of Mexico at age 18 — remember that, while the signing process is sometimes different for Mexican prospects playing on pro teams there, most highly regarded international prospects, even from Mexico, sign at age 16 — and has never ranked in the top 10 of his organization’s prospects. But he has often put up average or better numbers. Arano’s first three professional seasons were spent primarily as a starter, with reasonable-if-uninspiring results. The Phillies acquired him as the Player to Be Named Later in exchange for Roberto Hernandez in 2016, then moved Arano to the bullpen in 2016, where he took off, to the tune of a 10.73 K/9 and a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in High A and Double A. A year later, Arano found himself in Philadelphia for a brief September call-up, throwing 10 innings with 13 strikeouts, four walks, and a 1.69 ERA.
Arano has continued his good results in 2018. His 9.96 strike outs per nine is solid for a reliever. His 2.88 walks per nine are, again, good for a reliever. And he has a top-30 FIP among qualified relievers, something that is decidedly beyond merely good.
Arano’s arsenal contains an interesting combination of pitches. Unlike many relievers, Arano is not pumping an upper-90s fastball past hitters. His four-seam fastball averages 94.2 mph, pretty much right on the major-league average for a fastball. Despite this lack of exceptional speed, the pitch has top-25 armside movement (-6.3 inches of run) and over 9 inches of vertical movement. Combined, Arano’s fastball has top-20 movement paired with average velocity. To complement the four-seam fastball, he adds a two-seam fastball with equally impressive movement. Thrown at a similar 93.9 mph, it also features top-20 movement, running over 9 inches to the armside and vertically moving more than 6 inches.
The one breaking pitch Arano employs is a heavily-used slider, and that pitch is notable in that it doesn’t really move like a traditional slider. First, the spin axis on the pitch is 172 degrees, nearly perfect backspin. The result is that there is very little horizontal movement on the pitch (1.04 inches) and top-20 vertical movement (2.28 inches). In reality, this 84-mph pitch moves like something more akin to a slow cut fastball than a traditional slider.
In the off-speed department, Arano throws an occasional changeup with equally impressive armside run and, unsurprisingly, top-20 movement on the pitch. The velocity gap with his four-seam fastball is a little small at 5.9 mph, but that doesn’t keep it from being effective. On these three pitches, the amount of armside run generated is not unexpected due to the low three-quarter arm slot he employs, but generating the vertical movement in combination with his plus horizontal movement is impressive.
Despite their eccentricities, all four pitches are highly effective. He ranks 11th in the majors for swinging strike rate at 15.9% and 14th in chase rate at 36.3%. Even better, each of Arano’s four pitches — 26.8% four-seam, 15.7% two-seam, 4.2% changeup, and 53.3% slider — have positive runs per 100. This makes Arano one of six relievers in 2018 to have four pitches with positive runs per 100 that are thrown at least 1% of the time (stats through August 2).
To go with these weapons, Arano has long been lauded for his plus pitchability and command. He has always been a strike-thrower, as his highest walks-per-nine for a whole year at any level is this season at 2.88 BB/9. While he might not fit a traditional closer profile, he definitely can make a mark in the Phillies’ bullpen as a setup man or high-leverage reliever.
That’s not to say that Arano is without fault. His 2.62 FIP is aided by only allowing two home runs on the year, despite the fact that he only generates 38.5% ground balls and has an average launch angle of 15.5 degrees. While he definitely has the ability to miss bats up in the zone, one would have to expect his home run per fly ball rate of 5.1% to regress back a bit. If so, his FIP may soon look something more like his 3.56 xFIP, akin to a middle or long-relief option rather than a high leverage option.
Arano has made a long, quiet trip to the majors. First an underrated signing, then a fringe prospect. First a mediocre starter, now a shutdown reliever. He has molded unique movement and pitchability into an effective arsenal, one that has kept major-league hitters guessing this season. Despite concerns about regression, the Phillies, who have a 20-10 record in one-run games, have trusted Arano in high-leverage situations throughout a competitive season. This trust and Arano’s ability have put him in position to reside at the back end of Phillies bullpens for years to come.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.