We’ve seen it countless times: a pitcher that can’t get a major league career going as a starter, moves to the bullpen, adds some velocity to his fastball, figures out another pitch, and always seem to surprise us by tuning into a relief stud. Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, and Dellin Betances, to name a few.
And through 14.2 innings this year, Adam Conley has fit that bill.
Conley has never really pitched in the bullpen before this year. After being a second round selection by the Marlins in 2011, he had a steady progression through the minor leagues as a starter (106 appearances, 101 starts). He made his major league debut in 2015, pitching out of the bullpen in four of his five first major league games. After that, it was full steam ahead as a starter, making 11 of them in first season, 25 in 2016, and 20 last season. Though he was somewhat underwhelming across those three seasons in the starting role, owning a 4.61 ERA, 4.55 FIP, and 7.7 K/9 in 292.2 innings, including a 5.53 FIP last year.
Needing a change to keep his big league career going, Conley and his upper-80s fastball needed a change. Heading into Spring Training, he did just that.
“‘We think it’s part mechanical,’ Mattingly said of the problem. ‘[And] we felt like part of his winter workouts [before the ’17 season] weren’t what they needed to be.’ Conley attributed part of his downfall to a gradual lowering of his release point. He’s correcting that this spring. ‘If you know what you’re looking at, I really look drastically different,’ he said. ‘I’m using my legs more, my butt, my hamstrings, my back a lot more. I’m super encouraged by what I’m doing.’”
Conley ultimately didn’t win a job in a Marlins bullpen that had to house two Rule 5 guys, so it was time to head back to Triple-A and continue to work as a starter. The results weren’t encouraging, as he posted a 5.18 ERA and 5.62 FIP in eight starts, striking out a lowly 5.6 batters per nine.
But with a Marlins bullpen that was getting riddled with injuries and sub-par performances, Conley has found himself back in the big leagues with a new role. It’s only been 14.2 innings so far, but his K-rate and GB-rate are up big time, while his walk rate has improved.
Two things have been the cause for improvement for Conley. First of all, he’s added 5.3 mph on his fastball, a far cry from his usual 89-91 mph as a starter. A move to the bullpen will help almost any pitcher in this department, but it’s pretty rare to see a more than five mph increase. This is where improved mechanics come into play.
As you can see, the vertical release point is sitting significantly lower. More importantly, it’s seems to have a much lower variance.
Both of those changes stay true with the horizontal release point also. It’s clear that he was all over the place last year, having a lot of trouble finding that consistent release point.
I went back and calculated the year-to-year standard deviations of the release points (horizontal and vertical) for every pitch he’s thrown. The improved consistency in his release points cannot be stressed enough.
The second cause for improvement I wanted to highlight was his changeup. At the moment, nobody is hitting it.
Conley’s changeup has been just as good as about any other pitcher’s changeup. It’s been a masterpiece early on. Its strides point to the surge in strikeouts for Conley. He totally reworked his two-strike approach as a pitcher, going to the changeup in that situation a whopping 64.2 percent of the time.
The development of Conley’s changeup has him looking like the next stud reliever to emerge after a failed career as a starter. And for a current Marlins team that doesn’t have many bright spots, this is welcoming. Best case scenario is that he keeps this up for an extended period of time and his prolonged performance can build up some somewhat notable trade value.
Adam Conley needed to make some major adjustments to get his career back on track, and oh did he make a lot of them.