With the signing of starter Jaime Garcia last week to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $10 million, the Blue Jays’ offseason shopping list is almost complete. The only area left to address (since they seem to have no inclination to improve at backup catcher) is the bullpen. Given the loss of Dominic Leone in the trade for Randal Grichuk, the only guaranteed members of the relief corps going into the start of spring training games are Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes, and Aaron Loup.
There are a bunch of other contenders in camp to fill out the seven- or eight-man crew, but the Blue Jays have said that they plan to add this group from outside the organization. With that information in mind, I decided to take a look at a few free agent relievers who might fit the mold of the fastball outlier targets that I outlined in my piece from Friday. Since Ross Atkins said they will also be targeting some potential starters to move into the bullpen, I will be considering them as well.
My initial research spat out a list of four names who could be of interest to the Blue Jays: three righties and two lefties. Note: I am not advocating for all of these players. They simply fit a specific mold.
Trevor Cahill is a prime candidate for a permanent move to the bullpen. Last year as a starter, Cahill featured about four inches of vertical break between his four and twoseam fastballs. That was still good for the top 20 overall, but when he moved to the bullpen, his velocity spiked. With this spike in velocity came a dramatic change in his movement profile. His fourseamer started staying up more, increasing Cahill’s vertical break difference to 5.13”, just behind Drew Storen for second among overhand righties. That kind of vertical break difference can help not only with missing bats in key spots, but also with generating weak contact.
One of the issues here is that Cahill is still an extreme sinkerballer, so for his stuff to actually play up, he’ll need to feature the fourseamer more than usual. Russell Martin has already consciously made this type of change with J.A. Happ, so perhaps he could do the same for Cahill. Thankfully, Cahill’s sinker is still in the top 20 among all right-handed relief pitchers in sink (and ranks better among non-submariners), even if he would prefer to pitch the way he always has.
With that kind of bat-missing variance and Cahill’s past (and recent) success, the heavy groundball pitcher has become my favourite potential Blue Jays relief target. He can be a great multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen and handle the occasional spot start if the team doesn’t wish to use the DL and make a roster move.
This one is sort of outside the box, but if we’re going to talk about former starters whose stuff could see a nice uptick in the bullpen, it’s hard to ignore John Lackey. Lackey finished 10th among all starters and eighth among righties in vertical break difference at 4.15”, a number that was even better in 2016 at 4.5”. If a move to a full-time reliever role could give Lackey a boost in vertical break difference similar to Cahill’s, it’s possible that he could have elite Storen- and Cahill-like vertical break difference — without the need to dramatically alter his repertoire. And even if that boost didn’t come, a repeat of last year’s numbers would still give Lackey a top-10 break difference, while a repeat of his 2016 movement profile would move him into the top seven, including submariners. That would still provide plenty of value as a multi-inning reliever and as depth for the starting rotation.
Unfortunately, though, it’s very hard to see Lackey accepting this kind of role.
This was a much smaller group to choose from, as there are actually only five left-handed reliever free agents on the list, as well as two starters. Somehow, though, two of those southpaws could actually fit with the outlier fastball model.
Once upon a time, Perez was a prized pitching prospect. However, trouble with the strike zone (a 5.1 BB/9 during his career in the rotation) eventually forced him into the bullpen. The move to the pen seemed to fix his problems, as his walk rate as a relief pitcher has improved dramatically to the more acceptable rate of 3.8 BB/9. Despite striking out a lot of batters, Perez has still struggled to the tune of a 4.81 ERA over the last two years. He could be a very interesting buy-low candidate, as there are some intriguing aspects to both his pitch usage and his fastball break.
I alluded to this in the piece from last week, but Perez has one of the most extreme horizontal break differences between his sinker and his slider in baseball. In fact, at 17.52″, only Brad Hand (18.52”) shows a larger gap among lefthanded relief pitchers, and Chris Sale among lefthanded starters (17.84”). Those are two of the best lefthanded pitchers in all of baseball. That comp is obviously a big factor in Perez’ 40-plus percent slider usage, and in why he still dominates lefthanded batters (they hit just .227/.301/.364 off him last year).
That level of horizontal break difference also says a lot about Perez’ sinker. In order to have that kind of break difference, the sinker on its own must have elite, outlier arm side run. This holds true for Perez: His sinker has the fifth-most horizontal break among lefty relievers (Toronto’s Aaron Loup is actually first by a full inch over second place), sixth-most if you once again include Chris Sale. And among those whose fastball averaged over 90 mph (his came in at 92.9), Perez moves up to third among relievers in horizontal break difference.
For some reason, though, Perez uses an even split between his fourseamer and twoseamer – both at 28 percent – despite minimal break difference and a very generic-looking fourseam fastball. Perez could take a huge leap forward in his numbers if he saved the fourseamer only for when he wants a strikeout up in the zone, instead relying more on his power sinker/slider combo. This could all make him a very powerful, useful LOOGY who could also potentially get more righties out than he has the last two years.
I’ll keep O’Flaherty’s writeup brief, as his only really interesting feature is the horizontal break difference between his fourseamer and sinker. At 4.56”, O’Flaherty’s two fastballs have the second highest variance in sideways break among all lefty relievers. The vertical break difference is much more average. Taken on its own that wouldn’t be a big issue, but unfortunately, O’Flaherty pairs those fastballs with a mediocre slider that places near the bottom in overall break difference with either offering. He could perhaps have more success if he altered his fastball usage, but the upside isn’t there for him to be a target with Craig Breslow already signed to a minor league deal.
So that gives us two interesting right-handed reliever options and one-and-a-half lefties should the Blue Jays still be looking at outlier fastballs as a market inefficiency. Given the odd market right now, the cost difference between pitchers may be minimal and lead to other pitchers being considered, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Blue Jays continue the trend of funky fastballs.
NOTE: This piece originally included a bit on Drew Storen, who possessed some very interesting fastball metrics. However, I had forgotten that Storen had Tommy John surgery in September so while he would be an interesting long term play – the injury could be the reason for his velocity drop the last couple years – he’s obviously not a help for the 2018 bullpen.
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All pitch info is courtesy of Brooks Baseball