Next generation relievers in age of versatility

The 2016 MLB season could be dubbed “The Year of the Reliever.” Greater parity throughout baseball has conspired with a thin trade market for starting pitching and a poor post-2016 pitching free agent class to raise reliever asking prices.

Rumors swirled around the New York Yankees trio of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances as the Bronx Bombers appeared to be falling out of the playoff race. Additionally, teams that were out of contention and on the bubble began to shop their valuable bullpen arms. Numerous prospects were traded for pitchers like Mark Melancon, Brad Ziegler, Fernando Rodney, Fernando Abad, and Mike Montgomery.

Chapman brought back the Chicago Cubs top prospect, shortstop Gleyber Torres, while Miller brought back Cleveland Indians’ top prospect, outfielder Clint Frazier, and rapidly-rising starting pitching prospect Justus Sheffield.

Many baseball journalists were forced to reevaluate old notions about the value of elite relievers, as teams increasingly turned to the trade market to shore up the late innings. The thought was that pitchers such as Andrew Miller would likely be used as closers, or at the very least, as top set-up men. Indeed, Chapman, Melancon, and Rodney have become closers for their respective new teams, but the usage of Andrew Miller has been far more intriguing.

Indians manager Terry Francona has turned to Miller for 17.2 innings of work thus far, but only 4.2 innings of that has come in the 9th inning. Instead of limiting Miller to save situations, Francona has called upon his relief ace when and where the situation has called for it, making Miller one of baseball’s only true “fireman” style relievers.

This got me thinking about who else in baseball might be able to best help their teams by being used in a variety of situations, especially in multi-inning appearances and in high-leverage work. I scoured dozens of current relievers looking for prime candidates outside of the obvious dominant closers and set-up men, and I found four that I feel stand out.

Their combination of youth, team control, talent, and a lack of a clearly-defined role make them all excellent contenders to be the next round of elite versatile bullpen arms, if only their teams will allow them to take on, and remain in, said role. Without further ado, here are my favorite choices for the next wave of fireman relievers.

Carl Edwards, Jr.- 25 years old, RHP, Chicago Cubs

2016 Stats: 2.70 ERA/1.94 FIP/2.35 xFIP, 30 IP, 36.9 K%, 9.9 BB%

Most pitching prospects take time to develop and come into their own, and Edwards has been no exception. The Rangers 2011 48th-round pick was traded to the Cubs in 2013 as the centerpiece of the Matt Garza trade after establishing himself as a top-100 prospect who had risen far above his original pedigree. He did this by so effectively limiting hard contact that he gave up zero home runs in his first 172.2 innings as a professional.

Consistently high strikeout rates and electric stuff combined with an ability to limit hard-hit balls? Edwards was clearly marked for greatness. However, he has a very slight frame at 6’3″, 170 pounds, and so durability issues became a concern. He missed the first four months of 2014 with a right shoulder strain, only adding to those fears.

On top of all of this, he had issues with that most dreaded of skills for a young, exciting pitcher: command. Edwards posted consistently high walk rates that were well into the teens, which many viewed as his potential undoing. Still, it was hard not to look at the stuff and dream on a floor of an elite big-league reliever.

Following up a brief debut in 2015 and subsequent return to the minor leagues, Edwards came back to the Cubs on June 20th of this season, looking to establish a permanent place in the bullpen. That’s exactly what he’s done, as he’s struck out 36.9% of all hitters and posted a reasonable 9.9% walk rate, alleviating most remaining concerns about his command at the major league level.

If he were to qualify for leader-boards, Edwards would rank second only to Aroldis Chapman in Z-Contact rate at 70.1% and sixth in Swinging Strike Rate with 17.9%, putting him among baseball’s elite relievers. That tends to happen when your fastball averages 95 MPH.

Brad Hand- 26, LHP, San Diego Padres

2016 Stats: 3.01/3.17/3.41, 77.2 IP, 30.1 K%, 10.6 BB%

If you have ever run on a treadmill, then you probably know what it feels like to be Brad Hand. Essentially, you’re moving but not actually going anywhere. Hand debuted for the Marlins at the age of 21 back in 2011, throwing 12 starts and posting a 4.20 ERA with a 5.73 FIP. That’s not quite the stuff of legends, but young pitchers do often improve. Over the next four seasons, Hand would post the following line as a swingman for Miami: 4.84/4.23/4.35. Okay, so not actually that much of an improvement.

That really brings the treadmill metaphor full circle.

The nature of being a left-handed pitcher, though, is that someone will always give you a shot in their bullpen, hoping you turn into the next big thing. The Padres had every reason to give Hand a shot when they claimed him off waivers in April this season.

Prior to 2016, Hand had faced 337 left-handed hitters and they’d hit a collective .227/.285/.329 off of him. That would normally be reason to be optimistic that a pitcher could be a LOOGY, but Hand has really turned into a dominant all-around reliever for the Padres.

Hand’s strikeout percentage is easily the highest it’s been in his career, even if the walks are just a tad bit concerning. His fastball has remained at roughly the same velocity but it is grading out nearly nine points higher, according to PITCHf/x. Additionally, his curveball velocity has jumped up by two miles per hour and his changeup has increased by one. Hand is generating career bests in O-Swing% (30.8), Z-Contact% (84), and Swinging Strike% (12).

Though right-handed batters hit Hand better than lefties, his 3.41 FIP against righties this season shows that he doesn’t have to be limited by handedness.

Luis Severino- 22, RHP, New York Yankees

2016 Stats: 6.18/4.40/3.72, 59.2 IP, 21.5 K%, 6.9 BB%

Like many young and exciting pitching prospects, Severino has been so over-analyzed that it feels like he’s been here for years. In reality, the young right-hander is only in his second season in the big leagues, but it’s no doubt been a difficult year for him. Severino’s strikeout percentage is down, his groundball percentage is down, his line drive rate is up, and his hard-hit rate is up. Those are discouraging trends, but they come with the caution that Severino is only 22 years old.

Still, you could excuse Yankees fans for beginning to panic about Severino’s future. What did the team do in response to his poor performance? Well, they retreated to that oldest of safety nets for young pitchers: They moved Severino to the bullpen. Severino’s response has been to pitch brilliantly, accumulating 16.2 innings and allowing not a single run in relief thus far. All but one of his 7 relief appearances has been multiple innings, which has allowed him to utilize his starting experience in shorter stints.

The peripherals look good too, as he’s posted a strikeout percentage of 31.2 and walk percentage of 11.5 as a reliever, with a FIP of 2.12 and xFIP of 3.44. Now, the command is not great, but that’s generally not been an issue for Severino, so I think we can call that a small sample size issue, for now.

Severino will likely get another chance to start next season, as he’s a trans-formative talent. However, if the Yankees decide to go full-time with him as a reliever, they could be looking at one of the most versatile bullpen weapons in the American League. Severino can pitch multiple innings with reasonable frequency and can do so dominantly.

He could be a throwback to the old-school “fireman” types, which would be a boon to a Yankees team that has had starting pitching problems and now no longer has bullpen stalwart Andrew Miller. 

Chris Devenski- 25, RHP, Astros

And now, for your MLB leader in Win Probability Added/Leverage Index and RE24. I have a confession to make: I hadn’t seen a Devenski changeup for myself before this weekend. Devenski came out to the mound for the Astros in the top of the 7th inning and proceeded to make the middle of the Cubs order, including MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, look foolish.

Devenski’s change was every bit as good as advertised and now I had the imperfect evidence that only my human eyes could provide. Of course, the numbers are pretty good too, so I can at least say that, this one time, I had good judgement. 

Devenski came into this season as something of an overthought in the Astros farm system, but would soon get a chance to start and post a line of 4.01/3.06/4.58 in five games, totaling 24.2 innings. It’s in the bullpen, though, where Devenski has found his best stuff. Devenski has a roughly 12 MPH difference between his fastball and changeup, which keeps hitters off-balance, especially in multi-inning relief appearances.

Devenski has pitched to a line of 1.47/2.38/3.59 as a reliever in 73.1 innings. The amazing part of this performance is that Devenski has only appeared in 37 games out of the bullpen, meaning he frequently pitches more than a single inning. He has pitched at least two innings in an appearance 18 times this season.

The Astros bullpen features Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, Pat Neshek, and Michael Feliz. That type of quality depth allows the Astros to use Devenski as creatively as they have. Many teams are simply not afforded that luxury. Regardless, Devenski comes out ahead of them all in WPA/LI, which is a context-neutral statistic. He has accumulated 2.79 in this statistic, easily pacing all of baseball. Devenski additionally leads baseball in RE24, which is context-dependent, with 26.07.

Simply put, when Devenski comes into the game with runners on base, he minimizes the damage. Devenski has only pitched five innings in high-leverage situations, though, so it would be interesting and probably even prudent of the Astros to use him more often in the toughest spots.