Tall guys, short guys, and even starters can all profile as potential bullpen pieces.
Relievers are the byproduct of deficient starters, much like second basemen are to shortstops, or left fielders are to center fielders, or reality television “stars” are to the failures of human development. However, inherent deficiency doesn’t preclude potential value, because let’s face it, somebody has to pitch in relief (and be good at it), and somebody has to slide over to second base, and somebody has to get paid for candid promiscuity and binge drinking for our amusement.
When it comes to ranking relievers, I wanted to step away from the establishedconstruct and craft specific tiers to compartmentalize such an abstract pool of talent. After all, every pitcher in the minors could be considered a reliever, depending on the evaluation linked to each player. For this exercise, I spent a week talking to scouts, asking them about current relievers, current starters that could become relievers, and failed position players that have become relievers. If a scout mentioned a potential relief future, I documented it. If a scout failed to mention a reliever, despite his sparkling numbers, or your admiration for his services, I didn’t force the name into the mix. This article would require 10 parts to properly detail every arm that could have an impact in relief. That wasn’t the goal.
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The Mets' fireballing setup man can hit 100 mph on the radar gun, but it's his improved slider that he hopes will give him an unstoppable arsenal.
When your fastball has been clocked as high as 102.5 mph, you don’t necessarily need a plus secondary pitch. Much to the chagrin of National League hitters, Bobby Parnell has one, and it is getting better. The Mets closer-in-waiting has been fine-tuning his slider, and the offering may be what takes him from overpowering to almost unhittable.
The 26-year-old right-hander was already no fun to face in 2010, as he logged an 8.4 K/9 and an even more impressive 4.1 K/BB out of the New York bullpen. Despite an abnormally high .374 BABIP, his ERA was a strong 2.83. He promises to be an even bigger challenge for hitters this year with an improved slider augmenting his heater.
Better and Better
“His breaking ball is getting better, as I think everybody will see,” said Josh Thole, who has established himself as the Mets' primary catcher. “Toward the end of last year he started becoming more aggressive with it, and this year I feel he’s refined it a little bit. You can see how it has improved.
“He gets good action on his slider, down and in to lefties,” continued Thole. “He can use it as his put-away pitch. When you throw that hard, having a put-away pitch that you can bury in the ground and get some swings and misses—it’s a great thing to have in your repertoire.”
According to Mets skipper Terry Collins, the pitch could be a difference maker for the hard-throwing right-hander.
“He’s got one of those special arms where late in the game he can do some damage,” said Collins. “But he doesn’t have to throw 100. He’s worked very hard to make sure that his secondary pitches are effective, and I think that will really help him.
“You have to have something that breaks. Against major-league hitters, you need something that moves, you can’t go just fastball, changeup. You have to get something that’s going to go away from some of these guys, or in to some of these guys, so I think the slider is a good idea for him.”
More and More
Parnell threw his slider just 15.7 percent of the time last year, a number that should increase markedly in 2011. While a pair of outings represents far too small a sample size to give a meaningful projection, PitchFX data shows that he has thrown 41.4 percent sliders to the seven batters he has faced this season. The pitch has averaged 84.3 mph, down from 87.3 last year, and the increased frequency at which it been used has been by design.
“I’m throwing my slider more and in different counts than what I was used to,” explained Parnell late in spring training. “I’m using it as a pitch to get ahead of hitters instead of just trying to strike them out with. In the past it’s been an 0-2, 1-2 pitch and now I’ll even use it on the first pitch of a count."
“I’m trying to throw strikes with it more consistently," Parnell continued. "It’s the same slider, I’m just starting it out in a different location in order to throw it for a strike. I’m not going to float one in and give them something good to hit, but in the same respect, I’m not going to throw one in the dirt. I need to find that happy median and throw the same pitch that I throw on 0-2, for a strike.”
While opposing hitters can expect to see more sliders from Parnell, they can mostly stop worrying about his changeup. He hasn’t completely scrapped it, but it won’t be seen often.
“My changeup is still there,” said Parnell, “but it’s more of a third pitch now. In my situation, having two good pitches is better than having three average pitches, so I’m focusing on fastball-slider. If I’m facing somebody who has seen me several times, my split-finger changeup is something I might pull out of my pocket, but only on occasion.”
Faster and Faster
Parnell averaged 96.4 mph with his fastball last season, hitting triple digits numerous times. Even with the improved slider, it remains his signature pitch, as only five hurlers threw it with a higher average velocity in 2010. Despite that, the flamethrower downplays the importance of his radar gun readings.
“Velocity really isn’t all that important,” opined Parnell. “It’s a side factor for me, I think, more than anything. I have to focus on location and pitch movement to be successful. Velocity comes secondary.
“My four-seamer is going to run a little bit in on a righty, and the more you can make it move, the harder it is on the hitter to see it and hit it. Movement is very important for me, more so than velocity.”
Thole doesn‘t necessarily disagree, but he knows what makes Parnell such an intimidating presence on the mound.
“His fastball is hard,” said Thole. “Not too many guys can say they throw 100 mph. When you’re throwing a heavy ball like he does, it makes it tough on the hitters. He throws a sinker, too, where he takes a little off his velocity, but when you’re throwing a sinker at 96 and then you can go up top at the letters with a 100-mph fastball, you’re going to get a lot of swings and misses. Then you add in the slider, and what you have is a guy you’d rather not face.”
Our latest guest contributor makes the case for changing the frame of reference in PITCHf/x analysis to reflect the way pitches actually appear to the batter.
Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Matt Lentzner has carved out a (very) small niche in the baseball analysis world by examining the intersection of physics and biomechanics. He has presented at the PITCHf/x conference in each of the last two years and has written articles for The Hardball Times. When he’s not writing, Matt works on his physics-based baseball simulator, which is so awesome and all-encompassing that it will likely never actually be finished, though it does provide the inspiration for most of his articles and presentations. In real life, he’s an IT Director at a small financial consulting company in the Silicon Valley and also runs a physical training gym in his backyard on the weekends.
UCLA's tremendous duo can deal, but how will they do after they're picked in June?
After catching a few tracking sessions on the back fields of Surprise, I made the trek to Los Angeles to scout UCLA’s Friday and Saturday starters: Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. Scouting elite talent is always fun, and despite being easier than scouting talent that elicits a wide-range of opinion, it never gets old watching professional scouts, cross-checkers, scouting directors, and writers all look giddy after witnessing something special.
Cole, UCLA's ace, took the loss on Friday, but nobody really cared. He was dominant through six innings, with front-rotation stuff, a major-league body, and more poise and polish than I was led to believe he owned. As inarticulate as this might seen, Cole was just awesome, and seeing him throw three 70-grade pitches made the long drive to worth it.
A look at PitchF/X data illustrates how important it is to the Bronx Bombers that the left-hander put off retirement for at least one more year.
Three out of the last four years, the American League pennant winner has emerged from the East Division: Boston in 2007, Tampa Bay in 2008, and New York in 2009. The Red Sox and the Yankees took home World Series championships in 2007 and 2009. As the Rays cut payroll this offseason, conventional wisdom has focused again on the battle between the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Honing his slider has helped make the Braves' right-hander one of the top young pitchers in baseball.
When Tommy Hanson faces the Giants tonight in Game One of the NLDS, one of the Braves' right-hander's biggest weapons will be the slider. According to PITCHf/x, Hanson threw his slider 27.8 percent of the time this season, up from 18.7 last year, and one of the highest percentages in the National League. Just how that impacted his performance is a story for another day; the focus here will be the development of his slider, which was reintroduced to his repertoire just two years ago.
Cubs closer Carlos Marmol is striking out batters at an amazing rate.
It might seem like something out of a Hollywood script or the latest iteration of your baseball video game of choice, but there's a pitcher out there who's recorded nearly two thirds of his outs via the strikeout this season. What's more, he's not Sidd Finch's younger brother, nor has he been toying with immature batters in the low minors. He's as real as you or I, and has accomplished his heroics at the highest level (well, OK, so maybe just the National League). I'm talking, of course, about Cubs closer Carlos Marmol, who boasts an incredible 16.9 K/9 through his first 45 1/3 innings of work in 2010. The breeze off of Lake Michigan may be responsible for Chicago's "Windy City" moniker, but opposing batters have been generating gale-force winds of their own with Marmol on the mound.
Marmol has faced 197 batters, and struck out an almost unfathomable 85 (43.1%). To put that into perspective, the man has walked nearly seven batters per nine, a rate that would ticket almost any other pitcher for a bus back to the bush leagues, and still sports a respectable 2.6 K/BB ratio, better than those of CC Sabathia, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Johan Santana, to name just a few Cy Young hopefuls. No fewer than 54 pitchers have thrown at least (and in most cases, significantly more than) twice as many innings as Marmol without equaling his strikeout total; Carl Pavano has more than tripled Marmol's innings pitched total, and still fallen short of his strikeout tally.
The Phillies closer talks about the importance of the eight warm-up pitches, how he throws his slider, and many other subjects.
Brad Lidge, as most fans know, is a power pitcher. If you sit down and talk baseball with him, you will learn that he is also a technician and a bit of philosopher. Blessed with an overpowering slider, the Phillies closer has had a spectacular, albeit somewhat tumultuous, career, having logged 200 saves and a 12.2 K/9 rate that is unsurpassed in big-league annals. Drafted by the Astros, in 1998, Lidge grew up in Englewood, Colorado and played his college ball at Notre Dame.
The Angels left-hander talks about his evolution as a pitcher and breaks down his repotraire in great detail.
Scott Kazmir is not unlike the little girl with the little curl. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. When he’s bad, he’s usually out of the game with a high pitch count by the end of the fifth inning. The Angels left-hander has unquestionably flashed brilliance since coming up with the Rays as a 20-year-old wunderkind in 2004, but just like the girl in the nursery rhyme, he has been maddeningly inconsistent. His first seven starts this year tell the same story, but the hard-throwing southpaw sees a light at the end of the tunnel. Only time will tell in which direction that train is headed.