Relievers often emerge from the back end of the amateur draft, but that doesn’t diminish the heartwarming nature of Brad Ziegler’s rise to the big leagues. Drafted in the 20th round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2003, he barely made it through a half-season of professional ball before being cut and finding himself in the independent leagues. The Oakland Athletics quickly picked him up, though, and he battled his way up the organizational ladder.
Up until 2007, Ziegler wasn’t anything special as a pitcher. He served as a minor-league innings eater. He barely struck out five batters per nine innings once he reached Double-A. All of that changed, however, when he dropped his arm slot and moved to the bullpen. The right-hander found something that made him special.
Between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento, Ziegler compiled a 2.41 ERA in 78.1 innings as a sidearmer. It got even better the next year, when he allowed just a single run in 19 relief appearances before getting called to the big leagues in the middle of the 2008 campaign. And, oh by the way, he surrendered a mere seven earned runs in 47 relief appearances for the A’s — even earning 11 saves.
The eight-year veteran hasn’t returned to the minors since the 2008 season, and he’s been one of the most-underrated relievers in baseball the past half-dozen years. Ziegler has never posted an ERA over 3.49 and has accumulated 63 saves, including an even 30 saves in 2015 for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s not a prototypical closer by any means. The Missouri State University alum has proven that he’s more than capable of getting it done, though, and the Diamondbacks are once against poised to slot Ziegler into the ninth inning.
WHAT WENT RIGHT IN 2015?
In many ways, he showed more of what has made him successful in the past. His 72.8 percent ground-ball rate ranked second-best amongst qualified relievers—behind only Zach Britton—and he lowered his walk rate to a career-best 6.5 percent. Both of those factors allowed him to hold opposing hitters to a batting average below .200, and Ziegler’s 0.96 WHIP was 15th-lowest amongst qualified relievers. All good things.
He’s often had difficulty against left-handed hitters, which isn’t surprising for a guy who drops so low with his delivery. Lefties can easily pick up the baseball. Ziegler was largely a sinker-slider pitcher, too, which didn’t give him too many options against lefties, other than pounding the sinker down in the zone and relying on the batter to hit the top of the ball. It had worked well enough throughout his career, but his career 11.7 percent strikeout rate and 12.3 percent walk rate highlight the tenuous nature of that success.
As with many tenured pitchers, they try to commit to a changeup to combat a platoon split. Ziegler is no different. He threw his changeup 22.2 percent of the time, which is a career high and 10 percent above his career average. It helped him hold lefties to a .215/.271/.350 slash line and lower his walk rate to 6.9 percent against them. This was undoubtedly a big reason why he could hold down the ninth inning for the Diamondbacks, serving as a full-inning closer, rather than a ROOGY who could sometimes pick up a save if the matchup favored him.
WHAT WENT WRONG IN 2015?
Ziegler straight-up couldn’t miss bats, which is perhaps surprising given his increased changeup usage and a lesser reliance on his fastball. His 13.7 percent strikeout rate was the lowest since his rookie campaign. Moreover, his 8.3 percent swinging-strike rate was 13th-worst among qualified relievers—and, judging by the likes of Burke Badenhop and Christian Bergman leading the list, it’s not great company to keep.
Sure, he’s a ground-ball pitcher who has never really missed bats, but it’s important to keep perspective here. Ziegler posted a 19.2 percent strikeout rate in 2014. That plummeted to 13.7 percent. That maybe doesn’t mean that he was ineffective, per se, but strikeouts matter in fantasy leagues. The saves are great, but without an ability to miss bats, Ziegler is a very low-end fantasy reliever.
His numbers were also inflated due to his incredible .218 BABIP. Again, one should expect Ziegler to post better-than-average BABIP numbers. It’s the nature of his pitching profile. Not to this extent, though. His career BABIP over 528.2 innings is .277. He outperformed that by over 50 basis points, and that career average actually includes the massive outlier that was 2015. It was a big black mark on what was otherwise a fine season for the right-hander.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2016
First and foremost, that BABIP is going to come crashing down to earth, and if Ziegler isn’t able to miss more bats than he did a year ago, the correction in run prevention may not be pretty for fantasy owners. Remember: Fantasy owners need more than saves. If he lacks strikeouts and his BABIP regresses so his WHIP and ERA rise a bit, he’s suddenly very mediocre and a one-category contributor—unless he’s somehow able to outperform his FIP once again (note: he did not in 2014).
The Diamondbacks surely know this, as they brought in Tyler Clippard for insurance in the later innings. Ziegler should get the ball in the ninth inning to start the year. He will rely on ground balls and quality defense to lock down saves. If he scuffles or struggles with his command against lefties again, the Diamondbacks have a useful secondary option, and they don’t project to be a club who will have a lot of patience for blown saves. The organization is desperate to win now, as evidenced by their litany of offseason moves.
Fantasy owners should expect saves, but understand that Ziegler isn’t guaranteed to help in many other categories. Maybe he can recreate the luck he had a year ago and offer big help with ratios. That just doesn’t seem likely, though.
THE GREAT BEYOND
He’s 36 years old and will be a free agent after the 2016 season. His fantasy stock is essentially confined to this upcoming campaign. If he somehow lands in another favorable location where he could wiggle his way into the ninth inning, that would obviously change his fantasy outlook. As of now, owners are buying a one-and-done pitcher, and he may not even be that, depending on what his regression looks like.
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