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A PITCHf/x Look at Eight Rookie Relievers

This guy throws one of the filthiest pitches in the big leagues.
This guy throws one of the filthiest pitches in the big leagues.

Last week, I took a look at the PITCHf/x results for eight of the most prominent rookie starting pitchers in 2012. This week, I’m going to delve into the PITCHf/x of eight rookie relievers. All of these guys have thrown at least twelve innings this season, and four of them also got some late-season work in in 2011, so while the sample size is still quite small, it’s large enough that we can start to get a feel for what the members of this octet bring to the mound.

If you’re curious about other rookie pitchers, feel free to ask me about them in the comments.

Kelvin Herrera

Herrera has the incredible distinction of being the hardest thrower in MLB right now and ranking second in changeup usage (to Jared Burton). That’s not a combination that one expects to see, but it has led to exceptional results for the young righthander, who gets strikes on right around 2/3 of his fastballs and changeups, with the latter offering also generating swinging strikes a quarter of the time.

Herrera throws his fastball anywhere from 96-102 mph, and it has some riding life up in the zone. The changeup comes in at 84-89, featuring plus-plus movement and velocity separation. To top it all off, Herrera also tosses a 79-83 mph curveball with bigtime two-plane movement. This pitch takes a backseat to the elite fastball/changeup combo, but it certainly looks like it could emerge as a third weapon for the flamethrower if he cares to further incorporate it.

Two less favorable trends that are worth watching with Herrera—his release point:


And his locations:


It seems that Herrera drops his arm on the changeup, something batters will pick up as time goes on. He also could stand to work more to the glove side, particularly with his fastball.

With guys like Joel Zumaya and Stephen Strasburg being prominent examples, it appears that many pitchers working at this velocity tend to run into injury problems, and Herrera has a checkered past in that regard himself; however, as long as his arm stays attached, he should be very effective. Even if he loses a bit of his velocity over time, the changeup and curve will be more than enough to complement any velocity that starts with a ‘9.’ Herrera has a 4.35 ERA and 4.32 FIP thus far, but that’s mostly because he’s flukily allowed four homers in spite of a 59.7% groundball rate. His 2.74 xFIP is a better indicator of where he is right now, and he should only improve from there.

Nate Jones

Jones is another power arm; one of his pitches crossed the 100-mph mark this year. Unlike Herrera, he’s rather reliant on his fastball, unleashing it at a 68% clip. The pitch features good armside run from his ¾ arm slot, with Jones’ 6’5" frame creating some nice plane on the offering as well. With upper-90s velocity (averaging 97), deception (from Jones’ awkward, long arm action), movement, and command, the pitch has absolutely terrorized batters thus far, with a 69% strike rate and an 11.6% whiff rate.

Jones’ second pitch is an 85-89 mph slider with good two-plane movement. He doesn’t get too many strikes with it (53.5%), but many of those strikes are swings and misses (18.3%). Played off the fastball when he is ahead in the count, it can be a useful pitch.

Jones also tosses an 82-88 mph straight changeup and a 78-81 mph sweeping curveball, though neither pitch is a major part of his arsenal, and as with the slider, he doesn’t get a whole lot of strikes with either pitch, using them mainly as changes of pace.

With the dominant fastball in tow, Jones has rushed out to a 1.33 ERA; certainly, he appears to be a pitcher with a bright future. However, he’s not perfect. The main issue with Jones going forward is that he has yet to master the command of his fastball. Sure, he throws it for strikes, but look at where the ball is:


On one hand, throwing 95-99 with movement is going to be tough to hit in any location, which is why Jones has been successful. But he seems to still be at the stage where he’s just trying to get strikes by aiming down the middle of the zone. As the league sees him a few times, they’re going to start sitting on the fastball in the center of the plate, and Jones is going to need to either a) spot the pitch on the corners with more frequency or b) come up with offspeed pitches that can better disrupt batters’ sequencing and find the zone with some frequency themselves.

I can see Jones having an Aaron Crow 2011 sort of year, where he’s electric in the first half but slumps down the stretch. Still, though, some struggles are to be expected—Jones skipped Triple-A, after all. There’s plenty here for Jones to carve out a long career as a very effective fireballer.

Rhiner Cruz

I know the Rule 5 Draft is really inconsequential, but every year I get really worked up over the selections. With the Rule 5, I strongly advocate selecting either a) players that would have figured to step into the majors immediately anyway or b) players with very high upside. Therefore, it’s always maddening to me when a team picks a player who isn’t major-league ready and only has the upside of a middle reliever or utility player.

At the time of the most recent Rule 5, Cruz was one of these problematic selections. He was coming off a season in Double-A where he had a 4.40 ERA, 4.58 ERA, and 1.25 K/BB, and he’s a relief pitcher. Not only was he picked in the draft, he was picked first; needless to say, I saw this as a misstep by the organization after they made perhaps the most astute 2010 Rule 5 selection with Aneury Rodriguez.

But then, I guess that’s why Jeff Luhnow runs a team and I don’t, because while many of the Rule 5 picks have been returned, Cruz remains with the Astros, and he hasn’t seemed out of place in a middle relief role, posting a 2.57 ERA and 3.18 FIP.

What makes Cruz interesting, and what got him picked at the top of the Rule 5, is that he brings a fastball in the mid-90s from a low-three-quarters arm slot with a deceptive motion.

Cruz works the fastball anywhere from 92-97 mph. Like most low arm slot guys, he gets good sink on the ball, though he lacks the big running action one would expect. The ball really seems to jump on hitters at the plate thanks to his deception, so the pitch gets a healthy 9.6% whiff rate. Belying his wild reputation, he’s managed a credible 62.4% strike rate with the pitch, and in fact, he has a first-pitch strike rate of 67.4% overall.

He’s thrown only four changeups all season, so Cruz works mostly with his fastball and his hybrid breaking pitch, a big, sweeping offering he’ll throw anywhere from 78-84. It is with this pitch that his wildness manifests itself, as he has gotten strikes on just 34 of the 67 he’s thrown. Ten of those strikes were whiffs, so the pitch clearly has bat-missing potential.

Given that he’s a fastball/slurve guy with a low arm slot, it’s surprising that Cruz actually has a significant reverse platoon split this year. Of course, we’re talking about a 14-inning sample, which is totally inconsequential, but it’s worth noting his fastball has gone for strikes just 54.9% of the time to righties but 72.2% of the time to lefties. If that’s for real at all, then Cruz can definitely be more than a situational guy.

While the Astros have done a nice job cleaning up Cruz’s mechanics, which formerly looked like a more exaggerated version of Jose Valverde’s already exaggerated delivery, he still seems to struggle with keeping his front shoulder closed at times. That leads to his arm occasionally dragging through release and causing the ball to fly up and to the arm side. This is quite visible looking at his location chart—just think how many of these pitches would send a righty batter running for cover:


So, there’s still more work that needs to be done here, as his 39.8% Zone Percentage attests. Furthermore, he has a similar issue to Herrera, using a different arm slot for his two pitches:


Certainly, though, there are encouraging signs that Cruz can step into a high-leverage role with more seasoning. The strides he’s made from last year to this campaign are quite impressive.

Ryan Cook

Speaking of guys who improved from 2011 to 2012, Cook allowed six runs in 7 2/3 innings with Arizona last year, but has allowed zero in 20 2/3 innings with Oakland this season. He’s also allowed only four (!) hits, while striking out a quarter of the batters he’s faced.

Cook seems to have junked the splitter that served as his secondary offering last year, instead turning almost exclusively to his slider to support his fastball. Like Cruz, he parks his heater at 92-97 with a touch of sink, and its strike rate (61.3%) and swinging strike rate (9.4%) are very similar to Cruz’s. Also like Cruz, his slider comes in with bigtime drop and horizontal sweep, almost looking like a curveball at times. Cook’s breaker is the superior pitch, however, because it arrives with more convincing velocity, at 82-86 mph. Also, he gets strikes 63.9% of the time with it, including a stellar 19.3% whiff rate.

As with Cruz, that makes for a nice two-pitch mix, and it’s enough to make Cook playable against lefties as well as righties despite his limited repertoire. However, his scoreless run doesn’t suddenly make him one of the game’s top relief pitchers—he’ll need to get first-pitch strikes a lot more than 44.4% of the time if he is to join that elite group. It’s not even that he doesn’t hit the strike zone—his 44.3% Zone% is fine—but he’ll need to get ahead of batters more reliably as time goes on, as his ten walks attest.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about Cook, but he’s another guy who will need to make adjustments his second and third time around the AL.

Steve Delabar

Delabar was a nice story in 2011, right out of the Bobby Cramer "nobody expected him to be here" files, but it didn’t seem like he had any staying power, at least to me. I mean, sure, he threw hard, but he also walked 26 batters in 30 2/3 innings as a 28-year-old…in Double-A.

But here he is for a second time; not only was he not DFA’d in the offseason, but he made the Mariners’ Opening Day roster. And not only did he make the Mariners’ Opening Day roster, he’s racked up 24 strikeouts and only six walks in 19 1/3 innings thus far. In spite of that, he has a 5.12 ERA and 5.92 FIP, mostly because six of the 21 fly balls he’s allowed have left the ballpark.

Like Cook, Delabar has struggled to get ahead of batters, getting a first-pitch strike just over half the time. He’s another guy who basically owns just two pitches, though in his case it’s a 92-97 mph fastball and 85-90 mph splitter. He mixes in a mid-80s slider on very rare occasions.

With just a fastball and a splitter, there’s not a whole lot of horizontal movement in Delabar’s arsenal, which makes his vertically-oriented location pattern make a lot of sense:


Generally, Delabar’s pitches are either a) in the zone, b) a fastball up above the zone, c) below the zone, or d) just off the corners, and that’s quite sensible given his arsenal.

Delabar’s fastball gets strikes 61.5% of the time, which is acceptable but certainly not optimal; however, he does get a nice 8.8% whiff rate. It’s the splitter that truly shines, however, with a 62.7% strike rate and a ridiculous 30.1% whiff rate. No wonder he’s punching out 30% of opposing batters.

As long as he’s getting strikes over 60% of the time with both of his offerings, Delabar should be effective. One can even make some Jose Valverde comparisons.

Rafael Dolis

Dolis has risen to the closer role in Chicago this year with four saves, but he’s perhaps more notable for his ineffectiveness. After all, this is a guy who has walked eleven batters while striking out just nine in 24 innings. He has gotten grounders at a 50.7% clip, but his 4.80 FIP and negative WAR paint the picture of a hurler who needs a lot of fixing.

Dolis is pretty easy to analyze from a PITCHf/x standpoint—he’s basically a sinker guy, throwing his running, sinking fastball a whopping 90.1% of the time. His other pitch is a 79-83 mph breaking ball with similar movement to Cruz’s.

Not only does Dolis have only one pitch, he also has one main location:


Yes, the ball is 92-97 with bigtime movement, but a batter stepping in against Dolis doesn’t have to worry about what pitch is coming nor where it’s coming; he merely needs to decide whether he wants to swing at it or not. And when batters do decide to swing at Dolis’ fastball, they only swing through it 4% of the time. They occasionally swing through the breaking ball (four times in 33), but that’s only enough to kick Dolis’ overall SwStr% to 5.1%, a paltry number.

He might be able to get away with that as a double-play specialist if he was constantly pounding the zone a la Bartolo Colon, but Dolis only gets strikes with his fastball 59.1% of the time. Perhaps if he got some absurd groundball rate, it might mask these deficiencies somewhat, but right now, Dolis isn’t much more than a harder-throwing Scott Munter.

Tony Watson

Tony Watson actually threw 41 innings for the Pirates in 2011, but nobody noticed. Or, at least, I didn’t notice, and since I follow baseball fairly closely, I’ll bet a lot of non-Pirates fans also didn’t notice. Those who did notice probably wish they hadn’t, as Watson racked up -0.4 WAR in those 41 innings.

He’s back for Round 2 anyway this year, so perhaps it’s time to unmask this guy. Watson’s a big lefty with a smooth and slightly deceptive motion who brings a sinker/slider mix out of the pen. His sinker is more of a running fastball with a bit of sink than vice versa, but the point is that it moves, and at 90-94 from the left side, it can get on hitters quickly. Problem is, he lives too high in the zone with it:


He’s in the zone enough to get a 65.1% strike rate with the pitch, and its 6.2% whiff rate is decent (hey, better than all of Dolis’ pitches combined), but this is why Watson has allowed eight homers in 55 1/3 MLB innings.

Watson relies on the fastball heavily, throwing it over three quarters of the time. His second pitch is a short 81-86 mph slider. He works the pitch exclusively to the glove side:


Still, because he throws the pitch so rarely, it can surprise when he does turn to it, and 25 of his 33 sliders have gone for strikes, including five swinging strikes.

If he could just get the fastball down more and use the slider a bit more, Watson could be a top LOOGY; the control problems that led to an elevated walk rate in 2011 don’t seem to be recurring, and he’s got two nice pitches. He’ll stay a fringe option until he learns how to get the ball down, though; even with careful situational usage and the benefit of a .231 BABIP in his career, he’s barely kept his ERA under 4.00.

Robbie Ross

Unlike the other seven pitchers, Ross actually has a chance of graduating from the bullpen to a major league rotation someday, perhaps even this year, though one wonders how the Rangers are going to make room for him as a starter. He was a starter throughout his minor league career, but he’s being broken into the majors as a reliever after skipping Triple-A.

It’s largely been a successful introduction, as he’s walked just four batters in 21 innings while posting a 2.14 ERA. Ross always had strong walk rates in the minors, so it comes as little surprise that he’s continued to avoid free passes in the majors; however, he hasn’t gotten a ton of strikeouts.

Ross operates mostly with a cutter/slider combination, occasionally throwing some sort of hard changeup/splitter that is close enough to his fastball velocity that PITCHf/x often mistakes it as a fastball. Like Watson, he works with his 90-94 mph fastball—though Ross’ cuts while Watson’s runs—around ¾ of the time, getting credible results, in this case a 65.7% strike rate and 8.5% whiff rate. Unlike Watson, however, Ross pounds the bottom part of the zone, and also runs a lot of his pitches to the extreme glove side of the zone:


As a result, Ross has a fantastic 66% groundball rate.

Ross’ other pitch is an 82-86 mph slider with average movement that hasn’t been especially effective. It won’t play especially well off of Ross’ fastball, because it’s essentially just a bigger, slower version of the cutting fastball, so it doesn’t really change a batter’s eye level.

Clearly, the cutting fastball should give Ross an effective career as a groundballing bullpen specialist. One can dream of him being an Al Leiter-esque starter, though it’s fair to question how effective he’ll be if his velocity slips in that role and he can’t come up with a reliable pair of offspeed offerings. Still, though, we shouldn’t forget that this guy barely saw the upper minors, so it’s pretty neat that he’s found major league effectiveness already, regardless of role.


Again, none of this work would be possible without the great Pitch F/X databases at Texas Leaguers, Brooks Baseball, and FanGraphs.