When you think of a dominant reliever this season, the names that first come to mind are guys likes Dellin Betances, Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Tommy Kahnle, and Roberto Osuna. One thing those five guys all have in common is they regularly touch the mid- to upper-90’s with their fastball, and their secondary pitches are also thrown with high velocity.
We often get hung up on radar readings and PITCHf/x data that doesn’t necessarily guarantee or even correlate with success. As much as I love watching pitchers with high-octane fastballs (and really high-octane anything, as we’ve seen sliders and changeups regularly touch and exceed 90mph, and curveballs that touch the mid- and upper-80’s), there’s something truly special about a guy who can get it done with below-average velocity.
I’m not just talking about the groundball and flyball guys that get it done with low velocity by utilizing contact and defense in their favor. I’m talking about the guys who, despite not touching the mid-90’s with their fastball, can still miss bats and keep the ball out of play with regularity.
One guy that fits that description perfectly is current Colorado Rockies reliever Pat Neshek, who was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday. He is the definition of dominance without high velocity. He’s easily been one of the best relievers in the game since making his debut in 2006 for the Minnesota Twins. The chart below shows how good he’s really been throughout his career in terms of fielding independent numbers.
During that time, he made his way around to five other teams before landing in his current home with the Rockies. Neshek has always been a solid pitcher, despite often not getting the praise and recognition he’s deserved, mostly due to his low-velocity stuff. Among 83 relievers who’ve thrown at least 100 sinkers/two-seamers this season, Neshek’s average velocity is only higher than 16 other pitchers. Among 125 relievers who’ve thrown at least 100 sliders this season, his average velocity ranks 39th from the bottom.
Even with lower velocity, in Neshek’s 11-year career, batters have never hit higher than .247 off him in a season. In fact, in five of his 11 seasons batters averaged less than .200 off him, and in only three of the 11 seasons did batters hit better than .230.
Since his debut in 2006, 285 pitchers have tossed at least two hundred total innings in relief. Among those 285 relievers Neshek ranks 26th in ERA, 17th in batting average against, 11th in WHIP, and 16th in left-on-base rate, in a list that includes greats like Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Jonathan Papelbon, Joel Zumaya and Aroldis Chapman.
As good as the start to his career was, the 2014 season with the St. Louis Cardinals really put him on the map as a top-tier reliever. He pitched a little over 67 innings that season with an ERA under 2 and a FIP just above 2.3. He also had a strikeout-to-walk ratio over seven and a home run-per-flyball rate just over four percent. During that season he finished with a 2.55 SIERA, which was the lowest since his rookie season in 2006.
After his breakout season in 2014, he signed with the Houston Astros, who were a legitimate contender just as the Cardinals were. He struggled a bit compared to his previous seasons, as his FIP for the two seasons with the Astros combined was over 3.8 and his strikeout to walk ratio was almost half of what it was when he dominated with the Cardinals.
His left-on-base percentage was well below 80 percent in both seasons, which he had only done twice before in his first eight seasons. So it’s safe to say he struggled while with Houston compared to his previous seasons, although his numbers still were about average.
These rough two seasons led Neshek to sign with the Phillies, who were not really a legit contender from the start of the season. So far he’s re-surged and can again claim being among the best relievers in the game, as he’s currently having a career year that is even better than it was when he was with St. Louis. It was a good enough season so far for him to be one of the first relievers traded near the deadline to the Colorado Rockies.
There are 172 relievers who’ve tossed at least 30 major league innings this season. Among those 172 relievers, Neshek is currently sixth in FIP with 1.94, eighth in WHIP with 0.82, as well as sixth in ballpark adjusted FIP- at 44 (i.e., 56 percent better than average). His 92.7 percent left on base rate is fourth highest in the league and his walk rate of 3.4 percent is also ranked fourth. His strikeout rate of 30.7 percent is only 29th, but that is a solid number for a pitcher like Neshek. In fact, only three of the pitchers ahead of him have an average fastball velocity below 93mph.
He’s eighth in fWAR with 1.5, and only Felipe Rivero has a lower ERA than Neshek, who’s currently at 1.12. He’s also in the top 25 in xFIP and fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio with an even nine strikeouts per walk. His 2.64 SIERA is 16th in the league, and only 22 relievers have a lower hard hit rate than Neshek does.
There are a couple of things that have really helped him put up these kinds of numbers. First and foremost is a swinging strike rate of 13.6 percent, which is so high because all three of Neshek’s pitches (sinker, slider and changeup) are getting a whiff rate above 10 percent.
His sinker is a little bit better than his other two pitches in whiff per swing rate, since it’s currently 4th among relievers who’ve thrown at least 200 sinkers, at a rate of slightly over 23 percent of a whiff per swing (or about one whiff in every four swings). This season Neshek has the highest swinging strike rate in a season since 2006, as the chart below shows.
Along the same lines as swinging strike rate is first pitch strike rate, for which Neshek has a 73 percent rate, 2nd among relievers and behind only Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen by just a few points. This helps Neshek get ahead of hitters and force the additional swings and misses he’s been getting.
The second main area that’s helping Neshek find success is his very low 4.8 percent home run-per-flyball rate, which puts him ninth in the majors among relievers with at least 30 innings. His home run-per-flyball rate this year is only a half of a percent higher than his career best season in 2014 with the Cardinals. The chart below shows how effective Neshek has been at keeping the ball in the park over the course of his career.
Impressively, Neshek has matched his career bests in home run-per-flyball rate while playing for the Rockies (and pitching in Coors Field), and in the midst of the flyball revolution that is in full effect, with record-setting numbers of home runs this season.
Despite many batters trying to put more balls in the air at a certain range of angles to hit more home runs, Neshek has lowered his flyball percentage this season to 45.7 percent, which is the 2nd lowest of his career to only 2008, when it was 41.7 percent. In turn, he’s increased his rate of ground balls, currently at 37 percent, which is a career high and only the third season of his 11 year career in which it was above 34 percent.
The groundballs aren’t the only thing helping Neshek, as his 30.7 percent strikeout rate (which is second-best in his career behind his rookie season) is also hugely beneficial. Besides those two seasons the next highest was in 2014 with the Cardinals where his strikeout rate was 26.7 percent.
Neshek continues to elevate his game despite not having the velocity typical of a dominant back-end reliever. He is among the best relievers this season and, more importantly, over the course of his career that is now into its 11th season. He continues to surprise us with success in areas that similar types of pitchers do not have, such as swinging strike rate.
By far the most impressive part of Neshek’s game is his ability to adapt to the changes that have occurred around the league. Even as the league goes homer-crazy, he’s approaching a career best in home run per flyball rate as well as a career low in flyball percentage, demonstrating a conscious adjustment at the necessary time.
It would’ve been a huge mistake for teams to pass up on Neshek because of a couple of average seasons on his resume. He’s one of the best relievers in the game and likely the very best who doesn’t throw a mid-90’s fastball.
Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.