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Joe Biagini, the best Rule 5 pick of the year

Originally taken from the Giants’ system in December, Biagini has added a cutter and become a dominant reliever for the Blue Jays.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

While researching last year’s Rule 5 selections for last week’s piece on Luis Perdomo, the season of one of the picks really stood out. Joe Biagini, a right-handed pitcher selected by Toronto out of San Francisco’s system, turned dominant after a move to the bullpen. Naturally, he immediately struggled through two BABIP-fueled outings this week (four singles and a hit batter contributed to three runs scored), but his season line remains excellent, particularly for a Rule 5 pick.

He’s been good in the typical key areas across his 54.1 innings, with an above-average 53.3 percent groundball rate, a very low 5.6 percent walk rate, and a usable 20.1 percent strikeout rate. He has a 91 DRA- on the year, and is also among the league leaders in both hard-hit rate and swing rate outside of the zone.

Biagini was picked from the Giants following something resembling a breakout in 2015 as a Double-A starter, owing mainly to a 3.11 RA/9 over 130.1 innings (although his 15.8 percent strikeout rate offered little excitement). Reports at the time indicated that Biagini owned a good fastball, and consistent changeup, and an inconsistent curveball. Baseball America’s Rule 5 review indicated that his “average arsenal and pitchability makes [his] average stuff tick up”. In explaining the pick, Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins commented on his three pitch mix and said Biagini was a pitcher “we’ll shorten up, put him in shorter stints and see if there’s a little bit of upside to his stuff.”

That is exactly what ended up happening. Toronto moved him to the bullpen, and immediately saw an uptick in his velocity. What was previously reported to be a fastball sitting 92-93 now averages 95 and hits 97. His strikeout rate has improved, despite the jump to the Majors, but it hasn’t been because of his fastball and changeup mix. In fact, what was a trusted changeup is now the least frequently used pitch in his arsenal.

Instead, he’s gotten by relying heavily on his fastball, throwing a harder curveball with a lot of depth, and the addition of a new slider/cutter whose existence was first mentioned by Biagini in Spring Training. Brooks Baseball classifies them separately, but calls the vast majority of pitches sliders. However, due to both classifications featuring similar hard velocity, similar movement with little run, and never appearing in the same place at the same time, I think they might be the same pitch – a cutter.

This cutter is the most used of his secondary offerings, and for good reason – its 39 percent whiffs per swing rate and 62 percent groundball rate have been elite figures. It’s fueled by his ability to consistently throw the pitch low in the zone, like he did when generating the below swing from Brian McCann on May 25.

That is just one pitch, and the above cited rates are still over a fairly small sample – how good might the cutter (and his other pitches) be moving forward? To answer this, I’m employing an “objective” scouting report using Biagini’s PitchFX data. I’ve used this methodology before, here and here. The gist is that this is a simple attempt to create objective 20-80 scouting grades on pitches, by comparing features of a pitch to the rest of the league while following the 68-95-99.7 Rule. The data comes from Baseball Prospectus’ PitchFX leaderboard, and below are the results.

Usage Velocity xMove zMove Strike % Total
Fastball 61.4% 55 55 50 60 55
Cutter 16.9% 55 40 50 55 50
Curveball 16.7% 55 45 60 30 50
Changeup 5.0% 55 50 45 30 45

The velocity scores may appear low, but that is due mostly to being compared to other relievers as well as starters. Based on the four basic criteria above, the cutter looks like a roughly average pitch. However, it is possible that his low-in-the-zone command of the pitch is underrepresented by solely using his strike percentage. Regardless, while it is a good pitch, we’re not looking at quite the elite pitch that his partial season whiff/groundball rates imply.

The fastball looks like a really good pitch, with good velocity, run, and command. The curve is thrown hard with great vertical drop - he just hasn’t been able to throw it in the zone, or generate enough swings to increase his strike percentage. In the very small amount of time it has been used, Biagini has seen a similar problem with his changeup. However, the sample is small enough (only 44 pitches) that the most telling indicator of the pitch’s problems is the sample size itself – a more trusted pitch would be used more often. Even against opposite-handed hitters, it is still the least-used offering.

However, the changeup is thought of as a “feel” pitch, and as the reports were positive throughout the Minors, it is possible that he can regain any command lost while focusing on the development of his cutter.

Given Biagini’s past, his four pitch repertoire, and results, an obvious area of intrigue entering 2017 will be possibility of his return to the starting rotation. He’s got the size and track record to handle a starter’s workload, and even if moving to the rotation lowers his velocity, he’d still likely be roughly average or better relative to other starters. Given his current combination of three average pitches and good command, it is reasonable to expect a successful back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher in 2017. If he can regain command of his changeup, four average or better pitches may indicate a slightly higher ceiling as well.

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Spencer Bingol is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. He can also be read at Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.