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August 23, 2013
The RP-Funk All-Stars
Starting pitchers tend to receive most of the attention devoted to pitchers, both in Raising Aces and within the general community of baseball evaluators. Yet some of the most intriguing pitchers in the major leagues hail from the bullpen. Starters tend to adhere to a prototypical build designed for stamina, but relief pitchers come in all shapes and sizes, often earning their roles as a direct result of the perception that they cannot withstand the rigors of a 200-inning season or a seven-inning appearance.
There are a multitude of reasons why a pitcher might be assigned to relief work, including body type, pitch selection, and/or mechanical trends. When it comes to mechanics, a pitcher with a funky delivery can be sent to the pen just as quickly as one whose motion is perceived as dangerous. These attributes can be intertwined, as the same elements that make a delivery look goofy can also present the risk of injury. Other times, a pitcher's mechanical approach is geared toward deception, creating strategic angles that are designed to exploit platoon splits or to exaggerate downhill plane.
At the Sabermetrics, Scouting, and Science of Baseball conference that took place last weekend in Boston, former pitcher Brian Bannister spoke glowingly of the advantages inherent in an eccentric motion. The potential downsides of an unusual delivery are minimized in the bullpen, with lower workloads and short stints acting to minimize the risk of overexposure. So with a nod to Bannister and George Clinton, I present the RP-Funk All-Stars of the 2013 season.
Walden's delivery is pretty normal during the lift phase of his delivery, but just when it looks like he’s about to hit foot strike, the right-hander’s back foot leaves the ground. The bunny hop acts to extend Walden's stride, but the disruption to his balance is a precursor to inconsistency at release point. He essentially leaps onto the front foot, with all of his weight coming down on the unstable foundation at foot strike, while the back ankle looks like it might snap as it touches down.
Walden also has some flail to his delivery, with heavy flexion and a soft glove side into release point, but the hip-hop stride is trademark funk. One would expect that he would never hit his targets, and a lack of command did define the first several years of Walden's career, but he has been able to harness the leap of faith in his first season with Atlanta. His walk rate is three points lower than his previously established mark of 10.5 percent, yet he has maintained a strikeout rate a tick above his career average.
The fastball has always been Walden's greatest weapon, but his average velocity of 96.3 mph is the low point of a downward-sloping career trend. The diminished velo is paired with a decreasing frequency of heaters, and his recent success could very well be tied to a varied pitch mix that includes more sliders and a career-high rate of 12 percent changeups. Both of his secondary pitches have been much tougher to hit than his fastball this season, and the net result is a career-low rate of walks, hits, and homers allowed.
“Statue of Liberty”
Pac-Rod has emerged from relative obscurity to become the stingiest arm in the Dodger bullpen, which is made all the more impressive by high-K closer Kenley Jansen. Rodriguez’s delivery is exemplified by an unusual arm action in which he holds the ball high above his head as if he’s showing it off to the center-field camera prior to triggering the rotational phases of his delivery.
On episode 12 of TINSTAAPP, Paul Sporer observed that Rodriguez keeps the arm in the air like a torch, daring batters to try to read the identity of the incoming pitch, thus bestowing upon him the apt “Statue of Liberty” label. The southpaw taunts batters with his weapon raised before he defies the reliever stereotype with an eclectic pitch mix that includes a modest 90 mph fastball, a devastating slider, an occasional changeup, and an 86-88 mph cutter that he brings to the table at a 35 percent clip.
The second-round pick out of the University of Florida needed fewer than 20 innings in the minors before making an impression on the National League. He shuts down lefties and righties alike, defying the LOOGY label in addition to every other preconceived notion of what a left-handed reliever is supposed to look like. Pac-Rod has allowed just three extra-base hits through 197 opponent plate appearances to date, and he has been equally effective from the windup and out of the stretch. No matter how you slice it, this southpaw has been simply dominant out of the bullpen.
Say hello to Chad Bradford version 2.0, a groundball-inducing machine who submerged himself for years in the waters of the marina at Oakland's Jack London Square. Ziegler has resurfaced as a closer in the Arizona desert, relying on an extreme submarine delivery that he’s used to produce a higher rate of grounders than any other pitcher in baseball over the last three years.
Ziegler earns few points for balance in his delivery, with the crouched approach that is a hallmark of pitchers who seek such low release points. Side-arm throwers are relatively common from the left side of the mound, but right-handers are a much rarer breed due to the platoon splits that commonly arise from low arm angles and the lack of a ROOGY role in the typical pen. True to form, Ziegler has allowed an OPS 140 points higher against left-handers this season, but even those bats who’ve enjoyed a platoon advantage carry the slash line of a glove-first middle infielder (Ziegler has allowed no homers to lefties this season).
Only an RP-Funk All-Star could manage such an impressive stat line on the heels of an 86 mph fastball that is thrown 70 percent of the time, a frequency that includes 95 percent of his initial pitches to right-handed batters. His no. 2 pitch is a changeup that is virtually nonexistent against same-side hitters, and the pitch sequence is also relatively predictable versus left-handers, as Ziegler basically saves el cambio for situations in which he is ahead in the count.
Pitchers with K-to-walk ratios of nearly 4-to-1 don't exactly grow on trees, but this former 40th-round pick managed to toil in obscurity for the past decade. The minor-league veteran with 10 years of professional service benefits from a new dimension of funkadelic pitching mechanics, and his unusual technique stands behind an impressive 2013 performance that is nearly invisible in the context of Milwaukee's lost season.
Kintzler has an extremely odd lift pattern that involves multiple stages. His arms rise in connection with leg lift, and at the height when most pitchers would reach the top of their deliveries, the right-hander invokes a slower, secondary lift of his leg, arms, and glove. It is the hydraulic '64 of leg lifts, and though most pitchers would struggle to simply coordinate such a delivery—let alone repeat it—Kintzler does a remarkable job of maintaining balance and stability throughout his consistent motion. His overall efficiency would earn high marks on the mechanics report card, and the 5'-10” right-hander's high angle of shoulder abduction allows for a taller release point without sacrificing posture, a trait that should please even the Brewers.
Kintzler’s stuff is legit, ranging from a sinking fastball at 92-94 mph that keeps the ball on the ground to a sidewinding slider that can make Andrew McCutchen look foolish, in addition to a fading changeup that keeps lefties honest. Kintzler exemplifies the concept of “functional funk,” and his leg lift acts to both distract opposing batters and to extend his stride. The end result is a release point that has depth, height, and consistency.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of Alex Wood, a video might just leave you speechless.
Wood's delivery invokes the chaotic spin cycle of Taz, and yet somehow the southpaw seems to know where his pitches are going, with a shocking ability to paint targets around the strike zone. His motion goes way beyond funk, and the erratic nature of his whirlwind delivery gives the impression that Wood is merely dancing with the devil. He no longer qualifies within the relief pitcher category, having made six consecutive starts for the Braves over the past month, but his 15 appearances out of the bullpen merited an honorable mention. His bizarre mechanics will be a subject of discussion on episode 13 of TINSTAAPP, as Paul drew the assignment for podcast homework this week. Tune in to a BP channel near you to hear all of the gory details.