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The rise of the bullpen: The next wave

Last week I looked into the growing monetary rewards for relief pitchers, and having the word "closer" on one's résumé may not mean as much in the near future. Now let's look at the next group of flamethrowers poised to take lineups by storm.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I pondered how and when baseball’s monetary tsunami will smash into the open arms of setup men and middle relievers. I even earned myself a grilling on MLB Network.

At the end of the article I noted that I wanted to identify possible breakout relievers for the upcoming season. My fellow sports fans, I return with good tidings. Here comes part two of The Rise of the Bullpen. The selected pitchers detailed in this piece will fall into one of three categories. There will be A) young standouts, B) late bloomers and C) the quietly effective. These pitchers were selected based on statistical track records, pitch quality, and projectability both in the needs of their team’s rosters and where their stuff may play up the most. Yes, that means you’ll be seeing a couple starters on this list, but they’re here for a reason. If I’ve missed a certain pitcher you see big things for in your crystal ball, feel free to sound off in the comments and on Twitter. On with the show!

Jacob Lindgren, LHP, New York Yankees

Let’s get the easy one out of the way. Lindgren, a second-rounder out of Mississippi State, was the Evil Empire’s top pick in last year’s draft after they forfeited everything remotely related to the first round in their free agent feast of an offseason. They didn’t grab themselves a Kris Bryant or a Carlos Rodon, but they did get themselves a relief arm that’s so stupidly good that many were projecting him to see big league innings before the season was out. He didn’t make it to the Bronx, but he did manage to strike out 48 batters in 25 innings as climbed the ladder from Rookie ball to Double-A. He started issuing more free passes the higher he went, but that’s to be expected from a pitcher as they move up the totem pole. It’s also important to keep in mind that Lindgren had already pitched a full NCAA season that year to boot.

Did I mention this kid is left-handed? He’s not a LOOGY, either. Lindgren’s slider makes both right-handed and left-handed hitters cry. Who does that sound like? Oh, right. Andrew Miller, whom the Yanks just threw a lot of money at to do the same thing. Lindgren will need to better his control a bit more before he can join the already Hulked-out bullpen at Yankee Stadium, but something will have to go ferociously wrong for him to not graduate to The Show in 2015.

Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

Sanchez has largely been a starter during his time in the minor leagues, but worked solely out of the bullpen in 33 innings at the end of 2014. The official Blue Jays depth chart, for what it’s worth, has the homer-happy swingman Marco Estrada and prospect Daniel Norris taking the fifth and sixth spots for the rotation, while Sanchez appears just behind Brett Cecil at the back of the bullpen. Scouts and analysts have been saying that Sanchez’s subpar control may leave him destined for a relief role for year now. After Toronto’s failure (thus far, that is) to sign one of the many big relievers from this winter’s free agent crop, it just simply makes sense to utilize Sanchez out of the bullpen. Here’s what Sanchez did in those 33 innings:

ERA FIP xFIP SIERA K%
1.09 2.80 3.00 2.53 22.3%

It’s a small sample, of course. Sanchez has yet to take on a full big league workload, along with all the opposition scouting and adjustments that come with the job. But when you’ve got a 65-grade fastball that averages around 97 MPH, a good curve, a slightly-less-good changeup, but only 45-grade command . . . doesn’t that just scream reliever? Check out the movement on those pitches, too. The Jays will most likely make some sort of move to fill the fifth spot in the rotation until Norris is ready. Sanchez can be a weapon in relief right now, and may even be the closer Toronto fans were desperate to find this offseason.

(Twins fans, you can pretty much insert Alex Meyer’s name wherever Sanchez’s appears here. He’s got blistering stuff but his control issues could throw him into the bullpen, where he’s going to be an absolute machine.)

John Holdzkom, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates

A lot of you may have heard the tale of John Holdzkom by now. For those who haven’t, Holdzkom was released by the Mets in 2011 without ever making the majors, bounced around indie ball and the Australian League for a while, then got picked up by the Pirates. He made his debut with the Bucs in September, and he was money. At 27, it seems Holdzkom has finally figured it out. He’s a massive man, his 6’7" frame providing all kinds of trajectory advantages for his high-90’s fastball and changeup. His nine innings of work with the Pirates didn’t provide a stable sense of if he’s the real deal (the 1.65 xFIP and 1.04 SIERA are encouraging, though), but the 11.22 K/9 and 2.99 FIP at Triple-A are certainly pretty. Bet on Holdzkom being an important part of Clint Hurdle’s late-inning strategy this year.

Josh Fields, RHP, Houston Astros

Josh Fields had a 4.97 ERA in 2013. He gave up 1.89 home runs per nine innings. He was worth -0.3 fWAR in 38 innings and was generally not a good pitcher.

Josh Fields had a 4.45 ERA in 2014, which would lead you to think that he was once again not a good pitcher. It is then quite fun to note that Fields was worth 1.5 fWAR over 54.2 innings in 2014. Fields has technically broken out already, but he did it while still having an undesirable amount of runs score under his watch.

SIERA suggests Fields pitched like the owner of a 2.47 ERA. It will point to the fact that his changeup went from being worth 0.4 runs above average to 1.6 runs above average, and that he went from throwing it 4.8% of the time to 13.5%. His curveball was 4.8 runs below average in 2013; in 2014 it was 1.1 runs above. Opposing batters slugged .333 against the change and .581 (!) against the curve in 2013; those marks were a respective .200 and .222 in 2014. The lack of hanging changes and curves lowered his HR/9 to 0.33.

In short, Fields mastered his secondary offerings. So why the unsightly ERA? Our old friend BABIP is to blame there. When batters put the ball in play against Fields, they hit .343. That’s mostly because the Astros were the worst fielding team in baseball, and also just plain bad luck (Astros pitchers only had a .299 BABIP as a group). Regression on that front should help Fields produce a much prettier ERA this year, and bring him notice as the great reliever he is.

There are tons of other names to keep an eye on, by the way. I recommend keeping tabs on Aaron Barrett of the Nationals, Kevin Quackenbush of the Padres, Carson Smith of the Mariners, and Alex Claudio of the Rangers. None of the pitchers in this article come attached with any guarantees, as relief pitching is a notoriously temperamental animal. These are probably your best bets in a world dominated by quotes like "Oh good God, why can’t he find the strike zone anymore? Why?"

Rex Brothers, we hardly knew ye.

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All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com and BrooksBaseball.net.

Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @StelliniTweets.