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The free agent reliever nobody is talking about

A changed strategy with the four-seamer led to ameliorated results for the right-handed reliever.

Los Angeles Dodgers v Chicago Cubs - Game Two Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There’s been one caveat always dragging Erik Goeddel down: health. With a Tommy John surgery coming out of high school delayed his college career, durability issues sent his outlook as a starting pitcher into the oblivion. He’s had three DL stints in his major league career, two of which were in 2018. Combine that with inconsistencies in performance and he now finds himself as a free agent, released by the Dodgers this past November. Despite his decent 2018 season, there isn’t much room for patience on one of the more deeper 40-man rosters in the game.

But this is what makes his free agency case interesting. In all likelihood, if Goeddel stays healthy in 2018 and continues his intriguing season, he’d have a roster spot, at least somewhere, at the moment.

Goeddel has admittedly had his ups and downs with performance. In his four major league seasons with at least noteworthy sample sizes (all of which were roughly 30 innings), he’s posted DRA’s of 2.46, 3.74, 5.32, and 3.37. His K-BB-rate have altered with increase and decrease each season.

You could perhaps make a case that strictly off of performance, 2018 was Goeddel’s most encouraging season. Signed as a minor league free agent by the Mariners late in Spring Training, he started the season in Triple-A. After nine good outings (0.00 ERA, 2.86 FIP), he returned to the major leagues, spending a short time in the Mariners bullpen. Becoming the victim of a roster crunch, he was DFA’d after 7 23 innings and claimed on waivers by the Dodgers.

The Dodgers at least knew that had something to work with here: his changeup (or splitter, whichever you want to classify it as). Hitters had slashed a line of .162/.246/.257 on that offering from Goeddel. He struck out hitters 41.7 percent of the time with the pitch and generated a 24.4 percent swinging-strike rate. The issue with Goeddel was with the four-seamer, though. He was coming off a 2017 season that saw hitters slash .357/.404/.833 off of it. He had trouble commanding it at times and it couldn’t blow it by anybody, usually hovering around 92-93 MPH. He needed to fix something.

That is exactly what he did. You see, for a guy that sits more towards the lower-90s with his four-seamer, throwing it in the zone often isn’t going to lead to stellar results most of the time, and that’s what Goeddel did. Among 383 pitchers with at least 200 four-seamers thrown in 2017, Goeddel is 227th in average vertical plate position, basically the middle. This is also what he had been doing for majority of his career.

Fast-forward to 2018 where a major change happens. Among 364 pitchers with at least 200 four-seamers thrown last season, Goeddel ranked 10th in average vertical plate position.

This change in strategy with the four-seamer immediately led to better results. In 2017, Goeddel ranked in the bottom 18% of four-seamer xwOBA against. In 2018, he ranked in the top 12%.

The best part about this improvement was that Goeddel now has an amicable fastball to pair with his best secondary offering, the changeup. This predictably led to a career high in strikeout-percentage and swinging-strike percentage. He posted a career-low xwOBA, standing at .251, sitting at the top 5% of pitchers with as many batters faced as him.

But as mentioned above, injuries surfaced with ill-timing. He’s season ended with right elbow inflamation just as he had gotten things going. It’s easily the biggest caveat for him when looking for future opportunities. But for now, the intrigue will remain with Erik Goeddel.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.