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How Alex Colome quietly became effective using his new cutter

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How did the Tampa Bay Rays new reliever Alex Colome utilize a cutter to fortify the Rays bullpen? Also, did anyone outside of Tampa Bay notice how good he was in 2015?

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Offseason baseball is weird. It’ll make you do things. Things that you weren’t consciously aware you wanted to find out suddenly come to the forefront of thought as great findings. In a way, looking for quirky things people didn’t notice becomes our pastime as we patiently await the return of our favorite pastime. It helps replace our baseball nostalgia for about four months. Nevertheless, here we are with an article that promises words on Alex Colome, who I’m sure non-Tampa Bay Rays fans have heard of before.

#WellActually, you might have. Two years ago Colome was ranked seventh in the Rays farm system by MLB.com’s top prospect list. He had been a prospect for a couple of seasons, even breaking into the bigs in 2013. Then, in 2014, he got suspended 50 games for the use of the steroid Boldenone. This took a chunk out of his season, as he made just three starts and two relief appearances for the Rays—totaling 23.2 innings. Not a lot, but next season was going to be the year Colome would make the jump and stick in the majors. He had to. Out of options, Colome could not be sent down without passing through waivers. Needless to say he had a lot riding on 2015.

Much like the start to his previous season, 2015 didn’t go as planned. First he missed a portion of spring training due to visa problems. Then he got pneumonia. Plagued for the second straight season with setbacks, after everything was said and done the righty made his first start of the season on May 1st, which isn’t awful. Lots of pitchers can still have successful seasons after missing a month. That isn’t what happened to Colome. Problems with a high ERA, low strikeout rate, and high walk rate combined to create a less-than-ideal scenario for the 27 year old. Things looked bleak for the former top prospect.

Bleak, but what other place is there to turn for a struggling starter out of minor league options? If you said the bullpen, congratulations. You deserve a pat on the back and a refund* for that losing lottery ticket you bought. Oh, you won the lottery? Well congratulations to you, too. See, I’m a college student who could use some of that sweet, sweet lotto dough tossed my way for books and student loans. Yeah, that’s what I’ll use it for. Books and student loans. Definitely not a humongous pile of food and a flat screen as big as my dorm room wall.

*not actually a refund

So, following a start on July 1st, the Rays moved Colome to the bullpen. It was a move that could not have worked out better for either side. Colome thrived in his new role, pitching better in nearly every facet of his game. Not only was he pitching well, but he joined a top of the bullpen consisting of Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee, two relief aces already pitching lights out.

Now my guess is that you’re thinking something along the lines of: Shawn, 40.2 innings is a small sample size, and 69 innings as a starter isn’t exactly something to write home about when determining sustainable effectiveness. Obviously we have to be careful when looking at portions of seasons and drawing too hefty a conclusion from them. However, the results are so vastly different that it is hard to ignore:

IP ERA FIP xFIP TBF K% BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA
69.0 4.70 4.64 4.59 294 15.0% 8.2% 0.271 0.334 0.428 0.327
40.2 2.66 1.71 3.12 163 27.0% 4.3% 0.255 0.302 0.282 0.259

The difference between the two is night and day. As a reliever, his FIP sparkled due to huge strides in the right direction for all three components (K, BB, HR). Not only did he cut his walk rate in half, Colome struck out 44 guys in 40.2 innings, nearly doubling his strikeout rate. Don't forget that he did not surrender one single home run. In fact, he didn’t allow much more than just singles. Out of the 39 hits he surrendered, just three were extra base hits (all doubles). Three XBH in 40.2 innings. That’s pretty good. That is outstanding.

How did he Colom-ake such a turnaround? In large part, it is thanks to his cutter. Maybe not so much his cutter, per se, but his ability to consolidate down to one pitch that moves in on a left-handed hitter.

After all, a cutter and slider both fit that classification. The only difference is that a cutter is thrown faster than a slider and typically has less movement. It's all about supination with the breaking pitches. At the end of the day, if you can find an effective balance between velocity and movement there really is no need to have both pitches, whether it be trading movement for velocity by way of lowering spin rate or vice versa.

Excuse me if I tipped my hand, but that is exactly what Colome did. He threw a slider in 2013 and 2014, although by the start of 2015 it had mysteriously disappeared. The thing is, I’m not sure it really went anywhere. Maybe it entered some type of witness protection program for pitches, assuming the pseudonym 'cutter' for his starts in 2015. That is my working theory, because his ‘cutter’ basically fits the same description. It stayed that way until he became a reliever, after which it underwent a change.

Colome traded off about 200 RPM’s of spin rate and lowered his spin angle from 139 degrees to 132 degrees. Essentially that meant, from a spin rate and angle perspective, the pitch resembled something closer to a slider. In theory. Practically speaking, the pitch gained an inch of vertical movement (4.86 inches to 3.62 inches - it sinks more) and lost a slight amount of horizontal movement. In that sense, it took a step toward becoming a slider. But what was very un-slider-like about the new version of his cutter was that it saw an uptick in velocity, as evident in this velocity chart created by Ian Malinowski over at DRaysBay:

Colome used this tweaked cutter eight percentage points more as a reliever (from 20.5 percent to 28.7 percent), and this translated to immediate results. Opponents went 9 for 36 (.250 AVG) on the pitch as a reliever, which was a slight decrease from when he was a starter. The big change lies in the power hitters generated off the pitch—going from an ISO of .177 to a .028 ISO. That’s right. This was the only cutter put in play off Colome out of the bullpen that went for extra bases. If pitch type linear weights are more your thing, El Caballo’s cutter went from -0.1 wFC to a 3.5 wFC, accurately summarizing how much more effective this pitch was during his time out of the bullpen.

All that, combined with a 95 mph fastball and plus change-up, helped Colome flourish in his new role. Oh yeah, and he started missing bats. A lot of bats.

Not the kind that fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas at dusk. I’m talking about the wooden weapon MLB players wielded at the plate in a futile attempt to hit a flying sphere thrown by Colome, the reliever. Evidence of the whiffing can initially be seen very generally in his contact percentage. As a starter it was 81.2 percent, whereas that number fell to 68.4 percent as a reliever. The main culprit here was that contact on his pitches outside the strike zone dropped nearly 30 percent. At the same time he owned an O-Contact rate of 36.5 percent as a reliever, he also saw hitters swinging more at pitches outside the strike zone, a nearly seven percent increase.

Remember that cutter I brought up earlier? That new-and-improved pitch thrived on whiffs. In all of 2015, Colome’s cutter led the league in whiffs/swing out of all pitchers who threw said pitch at least 200 times. When he became a reliever, it got better. The fact that, out of the pen, he induced a whiff/swing 54.12 percent of the time he threw his cutter is incredible.

What is even better? The z-scores for the whiffs he generated on his cutter. Over the course of Colome’s time spent as a reliever, the z-score on his cutter's whiffs/swing was 5.04 (0 being average). For a point of reference, during his time spent as a starter his cutter's whiffs/swing z-score was 1.52—still above average, but nowhere near the same as when he was a reliever. That is ridiculous. His cutter generated a whole lot of whiffs after joining the bullpen. I know some of the high percentages can be attributed to the small sample size, but it is still impressive. Getting a whiff more than half of the time a hitter swings at a pitch is typically a decent indicator of how tough it is to hit.

One of the more surprising aspects, to me, is that Colome went through this impressive resurgence with a much higher than normal .358 BABIP working against him. Owning such a high BABIP is interesting, but it isn’t without a logical reason.

Fly balls and line drives did not hurt Colome much more than they typically do, but ground balls? Those ones stung a little. As a matter of fact, in the time span that he was a reliever, Colome’s .429 BABIP on ground balls was the second-highest such total out of the 200+ pitchers who saw at least 40 grounders go into play. To where did these ground balls primarily get hit? To shortstop and/or up the middle of the field, where Asdrubal Cabrera called home. Cabrera isn’t exactly the greatest defender, as shown by his poorly rated range (-7 rPM and -4.9 RngR) and poorly rated overall defense (-7 DRS and -6 UZR) last season. Now Cabrera is a New York Met, and the Rays project to have Brad Miller start at short on opening day. Miller’s defensive metrics rate a little closer to average, so it will be interesting to see if Colome’s BABIP on grounders falls a bit.

If he is able to repeat this performance going forward, which I suspect he will, Colome, McGee, and Boxberger form one of the more potent bullpen trios in baseball. It isn’t quite the super-bullpen trios created by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals, but it looks to be more than able to accomplish the job of taking the reins from their starters. In addition, Colome is one of the reasons the Rays could move McGee or Boxberger and still be generally confident in their ability to close games.

In the end, we saw a resurgent Alex Colome thrive in a relief role down the stretch for the Rays due to an improved cutter and ability to induce whiffs, and he wasn’t all that harmed by a higher than normal BABIP. The former top prospect finally found a place where he can be effective.

--Thanks to Ian Malinowski and Daniel Russell over at DRaysBay for all the help

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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.