Developmental Issues of Relief Pitchers

Written by: Trevor Powers (@TPowerProspects)

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Is your favorite team struggling to get outs from its bullpen? Are you on Twitter every night pleading for your team’s management to sign Craig Kimbrel, fire the manager or both? As a Nationals fan, believe me when I say I feel your pain. One of the most dominant relievers ever reaches free agency, sits on the open market while several teams have atrocious bullpens, and not a single team jumps in to grab him (yet, anyways). I don’t understand how that is even possible for teams with “World Series aspirations”.

Craig Kimbrel would help every team with bullpen problems. Craig Kimbrel would help every team without bullpen problems. But for the bullpens that are struggling, and seem to struggle on a yearly basis, there is a larger issue that does not get talked about enough.

I’d like to discuss it now.

Like I said, I’m a Nationals fan. I have seemingly watched the bullpen struggle since winning became a regular occurrence in Washington D.C. Whether it is in the playoffs or regular season, it seems like there has never been a time when the bullpen was lights out (except *maybe* post-trade deadline in 2016). There is an issue much larger than just lack of effort/wrong decisions by a highly regarded general manager. It is definitely not for lack of trying on Mike Rizzo’s part. They have traded high-upside relievers and prospects for bullpen reinforcements hoping it was the key to the championship they desire—Felipe Vazquez, Blake Treinen, Jesus Luzardo, Nick Pivetta and Taylor Hearn to name a few. They are also always in the free agent market looking for upgrades. Is it as simple as conceding that they’ve made the wrong decision in every bullpen-focused trade they’ve made? While it’s almost certain they’ve made some poor moves and signings along the way (hello, Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano), but it does not tell half of the story.

The Nationals have failed themselves because of developmental flaws with relievers and their lack of pitch design and proper analytics at the big league level.

Historically, relievers are the most volatile position in baseball. One year they are elite, the next they struggle to ever get through a clean inning. Remember when Zach Britton was arguably the best reliever in baseball? He’s still very good, but nothing close to the dominant 0.54 ERA he sported in 2016. There is a level of unpredictability, which is part of the reason teams are hesitant to offer big money and long term deals to one or two-inning arms.

It seems that every season, elite relievers take a step backwards while other guys come out of “nowhere” (most of these guys have the stuff or peripherals that scream breakout) and steal the spotlight. What is truly intriguing is how those breakthroughs always seem to come from the same teams, and the teams that struggle never have that breakout reliever. There is no way this is just a coincidence. Ryan Pressly was solid with the Twins, but he goes to the Astros and becomes unhittable. Josh Hader goes from failed starter to dominant reliever. Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino dominate the late innings for the A’s and lead (led?) a surprise playoff team. The Rays have Chaz Roe, Diego Castillo, and Jose Alvarado, all who seemingly came out of nowhere, who throw whiffle balls that at times are untouchable. The Dodgers feel comfortable letting their top set-up options walk in free agency and continue to make deep playoff runs annually. The Padres put together a lethal pen with multiple guys who had been released (this is after trading Brad Hand and Adam Cimber to the Indians last season). How can these teams routinely have success, while teams like the Nationals seem to be looking for that missing piece or pieces every season? It’s all in the development.

First, let me identify that I do not believe an elite bullpen is necessary to win a World Series. The Astros and Red Sox have shown over the last two seasons that using starters in the bullpen can make up for a faulty one, which both had. The Astros used McCullers, Morton and Peacock for almost all of their high-leverage innings, while the Red Sox closed out their World Series with Chris Sale on the mound in lieu not Kimbrel.

There is, however, a correlation between a good bullpen and making the playoffs. You can’t win games if you are unable to hold 1-2 run leads. There is an emphasis on bullpens for the marathon of a season, which creates the need to have a good one. There is nothing that takes the wind out of a team’s sails like blowing a lead late in a game that’s been well played from an offensive and defensive standpoint. Blowing leads multiple times a week can create a rut in a team’s psyche that sometimes takes weeks to overcome. With a smaller margin for error, the offense and starting pitchers begin to put more pressure on themselves. It often snowballs from there. Even if it might not be necessary to win a World Series, bullpens are extremely important to the success of a team—both physically and mentally—over the course of a season.

So what do the teams that have consistent bullpen production do differently than the teams that don’t? Other than the Yankees (don’t forget they developed Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Jonathan Holder), who have invested a lot of money and trade capital in their bullpen, these teams have developed their own talent. By development, I don’t necessarily mean drafted or traded for them as prospects. Instead, these teams can often develop their bullpen-arms at the Major League level.

Three of the most prominent examples to me are the Astros trading for Ryan Pressly, the Pirates trading for Felipe Vazquez and the A’s trading for Blake Treinen. These are three teams that have recently had a lot of success developing relievers. The A’s made an adjustment with Treinen that helped him dominate in 2018. Look at his pitch mix in 2017 compared to 2018.

Fastball/Sinker % Slider% Cutter % Change BB/9 K/9
Blake Treinen w/ Nationals & A’s (2017) 15% 4 seam

53% Sinker

24% 0% 8% 2.97 8.8
Blake Treinen w/ A’s (2018) 17% 4 seam

49% Sinker

21% 11% 0% 2.35 11.20

Anybody who watched Blake Treinen with the Nationals knew he had the stuff to potentially become an elite closer. There was a reason the A’s asked for him in the Sean Doolittle trade, and I’m sure the Nationals weren’t excited to trade him, but they were going for that elusive NLDS victory (yes, sarcasm), and Doolittle and Ryan Madson were going to help them accomplish that.

The A’s obviously saw something with Treinen they thought would make him more successful. They completely ditched the changeup and added a cutter. This led to a significant increase to his K% (22.8% in 2017, 31.8% last season). He actually threw the same amount of fastballs/sinkers, which at 98 mph had always produced outs. The previous problem for Treinen, however, was struggling to get lefties out. The Nationals insisted on utilizing the changeup to fix this problem; the Athletics chose to ditch the below average pitch in favor of the cutter. Here is a visual of the type of movement Treinen gets on his cutter and sinker with the overlay.

That is just unhittable stuff and the Athletics were able to use their developmental tactics to help Treinen reach his ceiling, while the Nationals were forced to move him (along with Jesus Luzardo) for two relievers that… did not help the team advance past the NLDS. Had they properly developed Treinen, they might have never had to make the trade in the first place.

While we’re on the topic of the Nationals failing to properly develop their high-ceiling relievers, we might as well dive into the Pirates and their development of Felipe Vázquez. A lefty that throws an effortless 100 mph is not easy to find. Here is a nice visual, also courtesy of Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) on Twitter:

That’s effortless 102 right there. When Vázquez was traded from the Nationals to the Pirates, he was not hitting triple-digits that often. There are a lot of things that could have changed. Usually, you think as he continued to fill out his body, with an already present “live arm”, the velocity ticked up. But it seemed to have an uptick almost immediately after he arrived with the Pirates.

Avg Fastball Velo Avg Slider Velo
2016 w/ Nats & Pirates 96.71 83.60
2017 w/ Pirates 98.85 86.24

As I mentioned, this could have been a matter of filling out his body with his live arm, but it seems as though it is more directed towards the Pirates’ pitching instructors. A lot of teams like to be cautious with their young power pitchers (they often focus on strikes over velocity). The Pirates were able to add velocity while not impairing his ability to throw strikes. They gave him the confidence to throw gas and attack hitters, because his stuff is nasty. They most likely made mechanical adjustments to force him to use his body more, which obviously leads to more velocity. Also, an emphasis on throwing his slider harder to increase spin rate and make it look more like a fastball seems to have been a focus of the Pirates’ instruction. They asked for him in the Mark Melancon trade because of his arm and potential, and their development is the reason they were able to obtain six years of an elite, young closer for half a season of an aging one.

Can you tell the Nationals’ bullpen development has frustrated me?

Now onto the most fascinating developmental success, Ryan Pressly, who just recently broke the record for consecutive scoreless outings by a pitcher in the history of baseball (40!). He was good with the Twins; he had a 3.40 ERA with elite strikeout numbers (13.0 K/9) and peripherals saying he was better than his ERA (2.95 FIP). Since coming over to the Astros, though, he has only allowed 2 earned runs in 43.1 innings. That’s with the fact that he allowed a home run to Rougned Odor as the first batter he faced in an Astros uniform. I think we all understand the Astros have a time machine in Houston that provides them with the ability to stay years ahead of everyone else, but this is insanely impressive even for them. It is even more impressive looking at the changes they made almost immediately upon acquiring him. I’m going to break it down by months to show the difference.

Fastball % Curve % Slider %
April 2018 53% 22% 25%
May 49% 22% 29%
June 41% 28% 31%
July 52% 26% 22%
August 34% 40% 25%
September 33% 36% 30%
October 21% 45% 34%

Pressly made his debut with the Astros on July 28th. There was a 20% dip in his fastball usage, a slight increase in his slider usage, and a massive increase in his curveball usage for the remainder of the season. In 2018, his curveball averaged 3225 rpm spin rate, which was 2nd in all of baseball. The Astros analytics department noted this, and their philosophy of ‘throw your best pitch the most’ (see McCullers, Verlander, and Cole) was implemented. Such a simple thought that is still not utilized as much as it should be throughout baseball.

This is shown in a quote from Pressly himself in a Washington Post article about his success. He states “Every team has an analytics department, and this is no knock on the Twins, but seeing the time (the Astros) put in and the scouting reports you’re given, it’s like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s a different level. You kind of see, ‘Wow, if I just pitch a little more to this percentage instead of that percentage I can have some better results.’ When I came over here, they were like, ‘Look, your curveball is your best pitch. Everyone tells you your best pitch should be your fastball. But with the amount of spin you have on the ball, you need to throw that more, and it will set up your fastball even more.’”

Pressly has never looked back. This is not new for the Astros organization. They are one of the few on the forefront of increasing curveball percentage, which actually increases fastball effectiveness. The Astros are the best developmental group in baseball, and they make trades that would once be perceived as questionable. They’re not. Pressly is one example of many from such a well-run organization.

Also mentioned in that quote from Pressly is pitch design. These organizations do a fantastic job of creating pitch design and pitch tunneling. They use their fastball a certain way to make the curveball more effective.

This shows the primary adjustment the Astros made. They had him focus on using that high fastball to make his elite curveball even more effective and vice versa. Now, Pressly is one of the best relievers in the game of baseball and has recently made history. There are a lot of examples of pitchers making adjustments with new teams and subsequently exploding onto the scene. Every team has a different philosophy, and different things work for different pitchers, especially bullpen pitchers who sometimes simply need one little adjustments to reach their potential.

At the end of the day, there seems to be a theme with teams like the Nationals. They seem to be searching for someone to save their bullpen at all times, while teams like the Astros, Pirates and Athletics (amongst others) can make small trades or call up in-house options that come together like a puzzle to make their bullpen great.

These organizations are much better at making adjustments and helping these pitchers reach their potential, whether it is in the minor leagues or through trades at the big league level. They identify adjustments that need to be made and use it for developmental purposes. The Nationals need to adjust their focus internally and find a way to develop their bullpen instead of continuing to search outwardly for a late-inning savior. Their bullpen is horrible today (it’s on track to be historically bad), but it’s been out-of-touch and below-average for a while now. Simply put, they (and a select few other organizations) constantly do a horrible job of putting their relievers in a position to be successful.

So no, Craig Kimbrel is not the answer. He would simply be a temporary solution to a much larger issue in D.C. and around the big leagues.

Follow staff writer Trevor Powers on Twitter! @TPowerProspects

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

Featured image courtesy of photographer Brad Mills and USA Today Sports

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