Why do I love relief pitchers so much? Perhaps it's because I'm a fan of the Orioles, a club that is simultaneously incapable of developing starting pitchers and adept at constructing a bullpen. Or maybe * job interview voice * I just like looking at things from a different perspective — I never like to go with the pack, you know?
Whatever the reason, relievers always fascinate me — which is why I hate this time of year, when the samples are small for everyone, but especially the pitchers who work an inning every other day. Nevertheless, we can extrapolate a bit from the first two weeks, if we look at the right metrics (and hedge our bets).
After already looking at an established reliever who appears to have made a comeback, I’d like to analyze three new faces on the upswing. These relief pitchers have shown some promising results thus far, and while it’s still pretty early, this might be the year they make a name for themselves.
In Game 4 of the 2016 NLCS, with the Dodgers trailing the Cubs 5-2, Dave Roberts turned to Stripling in the sixth inning. By the time the frame was over, Chicago had put five runs on the board, increasing its lead to 10-2. Stripling had an up-and-down rookie year as a swingman for L.A., but it concluded on a serious “down.”
This year, he’s been more on the “up” side of things. On Thursday against the Cubs, Stripling struck out four batters in 1 2⁄3 innings of scoreless relief, continuing a trend. In 6 1⁄3 innings for the Dodgers, he’s pitched to a 1.42 ERA, with no walks and 10 strikeouts. His O-Swing rate is up, his Z-Swing rate is down, he’s getting more whiffs — everything’s going right for this righty.
As a full-time reliever, Stripling has upped his velocity by a bit, yet he still sits in the low 90s. He’s instead tinkered with his pitch mix to fit his new, limited role:
No longer facing hitters a second or third time in one game, Stripling doesn’t need a third pitch as much. He’s thrown his four-seam fastball and slider a combined 75.8 percent of the time this year, up from 64.2 percent last year. And he’s changed the location of both those pitches — the slider is going lower than before, while the fastball is rising to new heights:
Stripling’s fastball has a lot of vertical movement — with an 11.4-inch rise, it’s in the 81st percentile among relievers — and when he throws it up at the letters, hitters have a tendency to miss it. Whether they’ll continue to do so, we’ll have to see, but the early results are certainly promising. The Dodgers will play the Cubs three more times this year, giving Stripling plenty of time to redeem himself.
The Padres don’t have much — like, of anything — but they do have a ton of relief pitchers. Brad Hand is one of the better late-inning arms in baseball, and Ryan Buchter and Brandon Maurer can hold their own. The most interesting hurler in the San Diego bullpen, though, might be Torres, who’s put up incredible peripherals (37.9 percent K rate, 0 percent BB rate) despite pedestrian results (3.38 ERA, 3.81 FIP).
Before we dive into how Torres has done that, let’s take a step back. Think about pitchers who pound the strike zone: They’re usually not especially talented, which is why they try to avoid walks and pray their defense will work behind them. They almost never have swing-and-miss stuff, so their whiff rates are usually super low. Usually — yet not always:
You can see Torres on this graph. He’s that dot with the arrow, waaaay over in the upper right — the pitcher who throws strikes and gets whiffs. Understandably, that’s a beneficial combination.
For the most part, Torres is a one-pitch pitcher — he’s thrown his four-seam fastball 76.0 percent of the time this year. His heater has 8.2 inches of glove-side horizontal movement, the fourth-most among left-handers (trailing Sean Manaea, Adam Conley, and some dude named Chris Sale). Together with its average velocity of 95.6 mph, that’s given his fastball a 69.7 percent strike rate and 17.1 percent whiff rate. When hitters can’t take your heat, you’ll usually fare pretty well in the kitchen.
Torres has one weakness — he almost never gets grounders. Playing in the expansive Petco Park helps, but with an 18.8 percent ground ball rate, he’s bound to have some problems with home runs. The high-strikeout/low-walk 1-2 punch could compensate for that, though, and potentially make him a bullpen stud for the Padres.
Strikeouts, strikeouts, strikeouts — it seems like that’s all we ever talk about. This is a democracy, damn it! (For now, at least.) Let’s look at a pitcher who better reflects our system of government. Among qualified relievers, no one has a better ground ball rate than Reed:
Ground ball leaders
Reed was pretty awful last year for the Reds — he stumbled his way to a 7.38 ERA and 6.06 FIP in 47 2⁄3 innings, all out of the rotation. Cincinnati moved him to the bullpen this year, and the results have been promising: He’s allowed zero runs in seven innings, along with a 2.65 FIP.
My colleague Mark Davidson wrote about Kyle Barraclough and Arodys Vizcaino earlier this month; they’re each fastball/slider pitchers with a lot of strikeouts, walks, and ground balls. Reed is very much the same way — thus far, he’s fanned 31.8 percent of the batters he’s faced, while giving a free pass to 18.2 percent (and his arsenal is moving in the same direction as Stripling’s). Looking at his zone map compared to last year, we can see why that’s the case:
This year, Reed has thrown nearly a third of his pitches in Zone 13. Of the 352 pitchers with at least 50 pitches overall, that ranks 20th. Burying the ball that often leads to a lot of walks, sure — but it also means grounders, plus some swings-and-misses. Reed targets that zone with both his four-seamer and his slider; the former has gotten ground balls (83.3 percent), and the latter has racked up whiffs (30.8 percent).
In February, my colleague Chris Anders argued that Reed had been unlucky in his first try as a big-leaguer, and that he should take a step forward in year two. While Chris didn’t anticipate Reed joining the bullpen, the southpaw has certainly been worlds better this year. If he keeps the ball on the ground this much — and gets the occasional K — he can survive whatever control problems he may encounter.
All data as of Sunday, April 16.