In my previous life covering the Mets system almost exclusively, I would get a lot of questions about random minor league relievers. I know, I know, it’s an incredibly glamorous lifestyle. How do I do it? It became a bit of a running joke for me that the answer was usually some variation on, “He’s 91-94 with a slider.”
Now you can pluck that guy out of indy ball.
We know velocity is up across the game. The average reliever’s fastball clocks in at 92.6 mph this year. Ten years ago it was 91.3. But what does that actually look like? Naturally I only have anecdotes. I remember discussing with an evaluator what a big deal it was when Jeurys Familia was sitting 92-95 as a starter in the South Atlantic League. Now, I regularly see starters bump 95 and relievers bump 98 at that level. Every staff has a dude or two like that. Now, the vast majority of them won’t turn into Jeurys Familia, some
won’t shouldn’t even get out of A-ball.[i]
There’s a trope of folksy baseball commentary that likes to remind us that “velocity isn’t everything.” There are plenty of examples to point they can point to here too. Lefties from the Doug Davis/Randy Wolf school.[ii] Zack Greinke has been one of the best pitchers in baseball with velocity that nowadays is just average. At the extreme end, Jered Weaver still holds down a major league job. John Franco was a bullpen ace for years with just moxy and a changeup.
But these examples are outliers. Every organization has a Randy Wolf. They just don’t turn into Randy Wolf. The population of lefties that throw 89 and have a change is much larger than the dudes throwing diesel, and a much smaller percentage of them get access to the lifetime health plan. So you better have a good argument for Tommy Milone making playoff starts for somebody someday.[iii]
And context is important here. These A-ball relievers are likely not impact major league pen arms. The “closer as failed starter” narrative is starting to change some. Bullpen specialization has trickled down into college over the last two decades. Still, a quick demographic survey of save leaders shows us this:
Team Saves Leaders by last level as starter
Career reliever: 12
So inevitably the future relievers I see are guys like German Marquez.
|Born: 02/22/1995 (Age: 21)|
|Bats: Right||Throws: Right|
|Height: 6' 1"||Weight: 185|
|Essentially works out of the stretch. A bit of an aborted windup/foot shuffle to get to his real starting position. Shallow stride and compact arm action. Stiff and upright at landing, but repeats everything well. Lost arm speed as he tired.|
|Affiliate||Hartford Yard Goats (AA, Rockies)|
|Realistic||45: Low-end Setup|
|Pitch Type||Present Grade||Future Grade||Sitting Velocity||Peak Velocity||Report|
|Fastball||60||65||92-95||96||Was 94-96 early, but tired in the fifth and was more 90-93 at the end. The velocity is very easy, but the pitcjh can be true out of his hand. Will show some armside life down in the zone when he is finishing his delivery better. Would likely play up in short bursts with added effort, but command profile is fringy.|
|Curveball||40||50||79-81||82||Downer 11-5 curve that will have tight, late break when he is on top of the pitch, but can show a hump out of the hand and ride high when he slows his arm down/tires.|
|Changeup||30||40||84-86||86||Firm out of the hand, will slow his arm to try and turn it over and give it some fade.|
Marquez is a live arm with a present plus fastball that could play up further in a relief role or if he adds more stamina. In this look he gassed badly after about 50 pitches, losing even his early sitting velocity. That issue, coupled with the lack of projection in the changeup and the fringy command profile, makes him a better fit for a late-inning relief role where he can max out on the Fastball/Curve combo.
For a while my twitter bio included the line: “Watches too many short-season bullpens.”
I suppose this is a matter of aesthetics. And aesthetics are not my primary concern of course, but I am not here just to write for the crosschecker I ‘d rather be working for. Also, you have a lot of time to think during the third mound conference after the second reliever they brought in this inning falls behind 2-0 again in a 5-3 game that was a 5-1 game, and will end a 7-6 game an hour later than you thought it would two innings ago.
Another baseball aphorism we’re all fond of is that it is “the only sport without a clock.” And it can have a laconic tempo, but it should always have a rhythm. A pitcher’s duel can feel like “Take 5;” a slugfest, a hulking Grieg piano concerto. Minor league bullpens tend to disrupt that rhythm. It is more like that performance art piece where they played Beethoven’s 9th slowed down to play over 24 hours.
Or put another way:
“Boredom is rage spread thin.”
Overheard at an Appy League game, 2015: “I have never seen so many pitchers with 20 command and no chance to improve.”
As a corollary to the velocity discussion, it also seems like every bullpen suddenly has two low-armslot guys. This is likely due to the bullpen specialization in college I referred to above. There’s just more of those dudes in the demo. They would pop up before, usually in the upper minors as a way for a dude to hang around. The conversation went something like this.
INT. MINOR LEAGUE CAMP- MARCH
Sorry son, but we are going to have to let you go.
25-YEAR-OLD DOUBLE-A DUDE
Oh, but I’m a sidearmer now.
And hey, it worked for Brad Ziegler, among others.
I think the first bullpen guy to get drafted reasonably high as a lower armslot guy was Joe Smith.[iv] And it worked out well. He got to the majors quickly, has been an effective reliever for a decade, and made almost 20 million dollars without ever really being a “proven closer.” The (side)arms race felt like it started shortly after.
The sidewinders threw harder as well. Smith was also notable for being one of the first low armslot guys to consistently hit 90. Steve Cishek followed a year later in the draft and sat in the low 90s. Now, every bullpen has two low-90s low-slot arms.
Appalachian League games rarely rise to the level of national attention. That is, unless the manager forgets to put any relievers on his lineup card.[v] This was at the end of a long look for most of the scout section, so they booked it once they confirmed what had happened with a Mets roaming guy.[vi] I stuck around because it was my first day on the team, and I knew I would probably get a column out of it someday (or at least 4.545% of one).
The amusing thing is every single one of the position players brought into pitch, all of whom were bench players that got, uh, very little notice, were throwing in the 80s. One (Jose Figuera) even touched 88 a couple times. At the risk of unironically using the phrase “new market inefficiency,” I wonder why more teams aren’t aggressively converting guys to pitching in the low minors. Figuera was released after a second year in Kingsport under the Mendoza line, but it costs nothing more than an extra bunk in extended to see if you can ring a bit of value out of him on the mound.[vii] Or maybe I just watched Christian Bethancourt and his very easy 94 too recently.
That’s not a plus slider
Flashes plus is not plus.
Here’s a major-league bullpen bildungsroman:
He was a top prospect a decade ago, an up and down starter for a while.
Then, a Triple-A starter.
Then, he was hurt.
Then, he was an NRI and hurt again.
Popped up in the Mexican League.
Back into organized ball after a strong Venezuelan Winter League performance.
A couple good seasons in the PCL.
A sixth starter/swingman now, logging major league innings again.
Next, a playoff hero.
Finally, a multi-year, guaranteed major-league deal as a pen arm.
Okay, this might describe more than one pen arm out there, actually. But the one I was thinking of is below.[viii]
I have seen Mets farmhand Paul Sewald about a dozen times across three different stops since he was an underslot senior sign in 2012. This is now de rigueur with the strict bonus pools that they instituted for that year’s draft. It’s an easy way to bank a couple extra hundred thousand. Sign a couple college seniors in rounds 9 and 10 for ten grand. If nothing else, it gives you a little guaranteed wiggle room. If you are feeling a bit more miserly, offer them five. Sewald got one grand, a grand, one thousand smackaroos, 1.87 bitcoins.[ix] After taxes he probably had to pay for some of the flight from San Diego to Port St. Lucie out of pocket. This is not specifically a call to reform the CBA when it comes to draft bonuses and minor league pay, although they should do that. It’s not much more than a pithy lead for the first beat to write about him if he makes the majors.
But he might make the majors.
Most of these non-priority senior signs spend a Summer in short-season, get a minor league camp, a bench role in a bus league, and are out of organized baseball soon after. It’s the baseball version of a gap year, with worse public transport and more burritos than if you’d just backpacked around Southern Europe like your buddy Hayden.
I made notes on Sewald the first time I saw him Brooklyn, then saw him another half dozen times before Double-A. I suppose I was a little surprised he got to the Eastern League, but he went right after guys with a decent slider, and that will get you to the upper minors. Nothing changed there. He was still throwing 87-88, a bit of deception, but mostly that slider over and over again.
I don’t pay much attention to minor league stats. I couldn’t have even told you Sewald’s until I started writing this last section. He’s struck out better than a batter per inning, doesn’t walk anybody,[x] and only has started to get touched up a bit in the thin, dry air of Vegas. There aren’t a lot of 40 FB, 55 SL guys in major league pens. But sometime all you do need is moxy and a slider.
I guess there’s your lead:
“With just a thousand dollars in his pocket, armed only with a slider and a bit of moxy…”
[i]When you throw 98, you get chances.
[iii]Mine may have been related to the two Genny Scotch Ales I had while watching him for Syracuse after a bowling tournament.
[v]This is not even entirely true. Manager Luis Rivera did put one reliever on his lineup card, Nabil Crismatt (not an alias), who mercifully threw the last two innings of the game. This makes it all somehow weirder.
[vi]So note that the scout quote from 9 was not in reference to this game.
[ix]As of 2:27 PM, 6/2/2016
[x]Which as a regular watcher of minor league bullpen, makes him a sight for sore eyes.
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