Why the Diamondbacks Might Have Their Answer

There are two ways of looking at this. One, the offseason has been so slow that this is a full-length article devoted to a Diamondbacks trade for Brad Boxberger. Baseball needs to get going. Under ordinary circumstances, this might not get much attention at all. Two, thanks to the baseball offseason being so slow, this trade can get the attention it deserves. Every major-league trade is interesting, because every major-league player is talented. And Boxberger in particular could answer the Diamondbacks’ biggest problem.

Both angles have some truth to them. If things were moving faster, this might not be written as it is. But I’m still glad to be able to shed some light on what the Diamondbacks might be thinking. So: the trade!

Diamondbacks get:

  • Brad Boxberger

Rays get:

For the Rays, it’s a matter of cashing in a player running out of team control. You know how they operate. For the Diamondbacks, it’s about trying to upgrade on the cheap. As you don’t need to be told, there’s no such thing as a truly reliable reliever. Everyone comes with a certain amount of risk and unpredictability. Boxberger might be more unreliable than average. Still, the promise is legitimate.

The Diamondbacks arguably have too many starters, but they also have too few relievers. That was true even last season, and now Fernando Rodney, David Hernandez, and Jorge de la Rosa are free agents. The bullpen isn’t empty, certainly not as long as Archie Bradley is around, but this is a part of the roster that needed help. Furthermore, to complicate things, the Diamondbacks don’t seem to have so much financial flexibility. They set out to find affordable bullpen help in a market that’s making bullpen help decreasingly affordable.

Boxberger hasn’t been great over a full season since 2014. He was great, then he was good, then he was bad, then he was good. Boxberger has thrown barely over 50 innings over the last two seasons combined, and that’s a problem. The upside: He has two more years of control, and he’s projected to make just $1.9 million for the year ahead. The Rays get nervous about any seven-figure contract. The Diamondbacks don’t have to be that budget-conscious. They’re taking on what the Rays wanted to lose.

Boxberger had core muscle surgery. Then he strained his oblique. That presumably explains why his 2016 was so lousy. And in this most recent year, Boxberger missed most of the first half with a flexor strain. Again, ideally, a pitcher wouldn’t have this recent record of inconsistent health. The Diamondbacks can’t afford what might be ideal. And, besides, ideal might be an illusion, anyhow. A healthy pitcher can just be a pitcher who hasn’t gotten hurt yet. I assume the Diamondbacks focused on what Boxberger did in the second half. I can say this much: The most recent version of Brad Boxberger was really quite terrific.

You’re looking for a sign that Boxberger might be getting back to 2014 form. Here’s one.

Boxberger just improved in terms of getting whiffs on pitches within the strike zone. Here’s another indicator.

Boxberger just rebounded in terms of pitches in the strike zone in the first place. Pitches in the zone, along with whiffs in the zone — that’s a promising combination, and, indeed, you can see Boxberger in yellow in the following plot for the 2017 season. Boxberger is within the best quadrant.

Based on pitches and whiffs in the zone this past season, Boxberger was most similar to Sean Doolittle and Tommy Kahnle. That’s some good company to keep, as whiffs in the zone are a sign of being overpowering or deceptive. Boxberger doesn’t possess an overwhelming fastball by any means, but when he’s at his best, he gets swings and misses over the plate. That ability started to come back to him.

Overall, in his partial season, Boxberger was well above-average in ERA, FIP, and xFIP. By expected wOBA allowed, he ranked in the 92nd percentile among all pitchers, and he ranked in the 87th percentile among all relievers. Then there’s the matter of how he improved. Over the season’s final two months, Boxberger had the fifth-best K-BB% in the game. He was below only Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Chad Green, and Ken Giles. The obvious counter-argument would be that this is making a small sample even smaller. Totally true. That’s the risk. The counter-counter-argument would be that perhaps Boxberger was just rounding into form after coming off the disabled list. We can’t pretend to know how to project pitchers that well. The Rays might be less convinced that Boxberger will hold up moving forward. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, see enough to believe.

Therefore, from Arizona’s perspective, Boxberger might be their answer. Or a big part of their answer, anyway. They’ll still add another reliever or three, but the hope is that Boxberger builds on how he finished. If he keeps himself healthy, he could pair with Bradley to make for a strong late-inning tandem. Boxberger has never reached even 65 innings in a major-league season, so it’s fair to question his durability, but, if he’s used carefully enough, he should plug a worrisome hole.

This isn’t a pick-up that was made for free. Taylor is a tall 22-year-old righty who just pitched well in Single-A. I could lie to you about knowing anything about how he profiles, but thankfully, I don’t need to.

It’s a return that, one time out of every five or ten, looks really good a few years down the line. It’s almost impossible to know what Taylor will be; all that matters for now is that he’s big and he throws kind of hard. Could start, could relieve, could sell used cars. If the demand for Boxberger were higher, the Rays could’ve gotten a stronger prospect, and I’m sure they understand Boxberger might’ve fetched more in July. They didn’t want to risk it. That could tell you something about how they perceive the reality of Boxberger’s arm. Alternatively, they could just like Taylor an awful lot.

The Rays have had Brad Boxberger. In theory, they understand him better than anyone else. That’s one legitimate point. Another legitimate point is that no team understands its own pitchers perfectly. Even in the year 2017, pitchers are loaded with uncertainty, in terms of their performance and in terms of their health. The Diamondbacks are in a position where they want to find premium pitching without being able to afford known premium pitching. They need, you could say, the next Tommy Kahnle. It’s not an easy hunt. Boxberger’s indicators, I guess, are encouraging enough.

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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6 years ago

And so it begins….