It’s not your imagination: A lot of relievers are really good now

Bob DeChiara – USA TODAY Sports

There’s a growing stereotype that even the least heralded reliever coming out of Triple-A’s shuttle can pump triple-digits and throw annihilated side stuff out of nowhere. We’ve seen plenty of examples of this happening in the age of pitch data, from the Rays developing Jason Adam into a high leverage ace to Yennier Cano improving his ERA from 11.50 to 0.35. Baltimore and Tampa Bay are known for turning street people into elite relievers, but nearly every team was light years ahead of the industry just a few years ago. Of course, not every pitcher can have a 200 ERA+, but I wanted to see how many replacement caliber lifters really are the real deal. Let’s take a look at any game from earlier this week and find out.

On Tuesday, the Angels and Red Sox faced off. Both teams had played a rather tight game until the end of the seven innings. Boston starter Brayan Bello gave up just two solo shots in the longest start to his young career, while opponent Griffin Canning edged him with seven shutout frames. As the relievers came in, the Sox still had a chance to win…at least until Mike Trout hit a two-run homer against Joely Rodríguez, which would then allow two more runners to reach base. While a single swing would make this a save situation, the Leverage Index stood at a measly 0.07. At this point, both teams went deep into their bullpen, with the Sox calling on Justin Garza and the Angels letting Jacob Webb finish the game.

Chances are you’re thinking “Who?” when you saw these two names. Don’t worry, the pair have combined for just 100 major league career innings and neither have appeared in the majors in 2022. But both are currently employed by teams with winning records, so let’s find out who they are. are. Garza came to the Cleveland system as a starter and was converted to relief in 2021, the season he was first called up to the show. He pitched 28.2 innings in a low leverage role but struggled with his command, as he had in the minors. The Angels signed him to a two-way contract this offseason, but he was claimed off waivers by the Red Sox without pitching in Anaheim. Webb (not the Red Sox minor leaguer of the same name) was developed by the Braves and had a stellar rookie year in 2019, but far outperformed his peripherals. After a more average 2021, he spent all of last season in the minors before being brought up by the Angels this week.

Garza was the first to take the hill against his hometown team (both pitchers were raised in Southern California). Despite inheriting a nasty round from Rodríguez, Garza remained calm and collected, causing Brandon Drury to fly on his first pitch. With two outs, receiver Matt Thaiss, who is having his best offensive season yet, stepped in. Earlier in the game, he had clubbed a solo homer to raise his OPS above .800. While Thaiss has improved in many facets of his game, he still shows vulnerability to fastballs high up the zone, with a smell rate over 40% on the radiators this season. Luckily for Garza, Thaiss’ weakness represents the game plan he likes to execute.

Garza’s fastball isn’t special in terms of speed or movement – in fact, classification systems can’t decide whether it’s a four seam or a sinker. Statcast calls it a sinker, but it lacks the signature horizontal run and spots it in the box as a four seam. Whatever we call it, Garza’s fastball is an outlier in a way – its low clearance height combined with its consistent location in the zone makes it one of the flattest pitches in baseball. With a vertical drop point of 5.5 feet and a VAA of -3.7 degrees, his closest compatriots are Jacob deGrom, Paul Sewald and Alexis Díaz – pretty solid company to have. After a called strike, Garza ran it to the top of the zone at 96:

The pitch lacks Spencer Strider’s levels of vertical carry, but the low release had him sneaking up on Thaiss quicker than he probably expected. Three pitches later, Garza threw the exact same pitch and got the exact same result. Very good stuff for someone who claimed waivers a few weeks ago. As Garza walked off the mound, Angels coaches may have thought “Huh, why did we let that guy go for free?” Well, if it’s any consolation, they were about to see an arguably even more impressive performance from another former defrock.

It was Webb’s turn to pitch, making his debut for the Angels and his first big league appearance since 2021. He pitched Justin Turner with three fastballs over the area that Turner didn’t pursue, then called for a strike with a heater. Then he threw the exact same pitch into a lead hitter’s count and Turner smashed the ball, good for a 2,780 xSLG and a 50% chance of leaving the court. Unfortunately for him, the ball was hit deep in the park and settled harmlessly in Trout’s glove. Until now, Webb had come up with a fastball with unimpressive specs that allowed for a barrel because he threw it right in the middle. Although he recorded a withdrawal, it was not a good start in terms of process.

But then the changes start to rain down. Take a look at this pitch at Rafael Devers. Notice anything interesting about this?

It might be a little hard to see with the off-center camera angle, but look how many arms this pitch has. Twenty inches of it, to be exact. Here is a comprehensive list of all pitchers averaging at least 20 inches of change break in 2023:

Pitchers with over 20 inches of change stroke

Name Speed Horizontal break
Devin Williams 84.4 mph 20.8 inches
Jacob Webb 86.3 mph 20.3 inches

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Being the only other guy on a roster with Williams, a man known for initiating devastating change, seems like a good thing. And Webb actually throws his slow pitch a few ticks harder than Williams, which means the pitch has less time to move sideways. After committing another change for the second strike, Devers, who has better run value on changes than any other pitch, went down with a big swing as he anticipated the fastball. With two outs and Jarren Duran flat, Webb didn’t even bother to start with the fastball. Here’s how the batting attack went:

Jacob Webb vs. Jarren Duran

step type Speed Horizontal break Result
Change 85.9 mph 21″ Good morning
Change 86.1 mph 19″ Good afternoon
Change 86.6 mph 19″ Good night

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Game over for Boston. After starting his outing with fastballs, Webb threw six straight changes to record the final two outs in impressive fashion. The PitchingBot score on these changes? An 80. Alright, I need to pump the brakes a bit – elite grade comes mostly from command grade, which we know is far from reliable in a six-pitch sample. The 59 trick rating says the pitch simply looks more rather than off the charts, likely due to its fastball’s minimal vertical separation. The change he showed on Tuesday was significantly reworked from the one he threw during his previous stints in the majors – since 2021 he has added four speed ticks to it as well as two inches of horizontal break. Two inches of movement often separate Pitching Ninja GIFs from monster home runs on batting highlight reels. What seem like subtle upgrades can be the difference between a big league stud and a minor league mate, and the tweaks Webb made to his switch have elevated him to major league status, even on a staff that ranks in the top 10 of the bullpen era. and WHIP.

So the claim that nearly all middle relievers are basically untouchable seems to hold water when looking at two pitchers in a random game. But what about when considering a larger population of these players? To investigate this, I hopped on The Board and watched every pitcher with a single innings relief designation and a 35+ FV (the high/low relief bucket). There are 79 such names currently on the Board; Let’s see what kind of scouting ratings these guys have:

35+ FV Lifters

Characteristic Count
Peaks > 100 mph ten
Sitting > 94 mph 47
Number of slots 60+ 81
Number of pitches 70+ 9
Pitchers with multiple slots More 2

SOURCE: literally us, FanGraphs

First, let’s look at speed. More than half of the pitchers on the roster are above the major league average fastball speed of 93.8 mph. It’s not a guarantee that every one of them will hold this bike throughout their career, but an impressive number hit a minimum threshold to be above average by big-league standards. Ten can add up to triple digits, and that’s not even including guys at the higher FV levels. Of the 81 more-or-better throws among the 35+ FV guys, about half are fastballs, but an impressive 39 are breaking balls, 31 of which are sliders. Pitchers are throwing about twice as many sliders as they did when the height tracking era began in 2008, and the fact that so many pitchers can throw one high is certainly a major cause.

Of course, there are plenty of threes and fours in the command ranks for these launchers – again, not everyone can be elite. But the amount of high-octane stuff even at the bottom of organizational prospect lists is testament to the proliferation of pitching talent. Replacement tier relievers are no longer a sharp drop from the tier of established major leaguers; the immense advances in player development have raised the bar considerably, even for the last player in an eight- or nine-man bullpen. Watching Webb and Garza flash excellence on Tuesday was pretty impressive, especially after diving into the data. But it turns out guys like them can be found all over baseball.

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