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The Angels Have the Most Amazing Bullpen in Baseball

First, a caveat: what follows is assuredly too many words about middle relievers. When I set out to write this article I never could have guessed that it would occupy most of my leisure time this week. Nevertheless, something really interesting is happening in Anaheim and I hope I’m not the only one who thinks so.

The 2016 Angels were not a good team, and they had a terrible bullpen. When the 2017 Angels lost Mike Trout to a thumb injury at the end of May it seemed to ensure that they would miss the playoffs for the third season in a row. Instead of dropping completely out of the running, the team stayed afloat and at one point even improved their playoff odds without Trout. How did that happen? In addition to receiving surprising quality offensive performances from Andrelton Simmons and Cameron Maybin, they have quietly had one of the best bullpens in the Major leagues.

Team Bullpen Leaders by WAR

Looking at their five best relievers from last season, only Cam Bedrosian stands out as being any good. Other than not being particularly good, the rest are all completely unremarkable.

2016 Angels Five Best Relievers by WAR

Astute readers will be quick to point out that 2.9 cumulative WAR isn’t that bad, as far as bullpens go. After all, the 2016 Cubs bullpen pitched to a 3.2 WAR total last year, and they won the World Series. The Giants and Rangers bullpens had worse totals and they were both playoff teams. These guys weren’t the whole problem. They were let down by their teammates, who dragged the whole team down to 0.3 WAR by pitching to -2.6 WAR. The whole bullpen was just ahead of the second-last place Rays (with the Reds’ bullpen in a class by itself with -3.9 WAR). These five pitchers were much better than their teammates, but they pale in comparison to the five best Angels this year.

2017 Angels Five Best Relievers by WAR

These five guys have pitched to 4.4 WAR at the All-Star break. Isolating for the best five relievers, they are tied with the Dodgers for the second-best mark in baseball. Their walk rate has climbed up only slightly, they’re striking out more batters and their peripherals are way better.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there are four new names on the list. Those four new pitchers didn’t even pitch for the Angels last season and even the most ardent Angels fan could be forgiven for not noticing their signings. Nobody expected them to be any good whatsoever. Steamer projected them to collectively be worth 0.4 WAR. Depth Charts projected 0.2 WAR and didn’t project Hernandez to pitch at all (for the Angels or the Braves, with whom he spent spring training).

These five relievers are being paid a cumulative $5.65M for this season and have been worth $35.2M. They’ve already produced $30.35M in surplus value and we’re just past the halfway mark in 2017. For comparison’s sake, the Dodgers’ five best relievers have produced $16.16M of surplus value, the Yankees’ $10.04M and the Indians’ $4.05M. Among other leading bullpens, only the Blue Jays’ pitchers have produced more surplus value than the Angels and the Astros are the only other team within $10M. The Angels have have turned a group of cast-offs into the foundation of one of the best bullpens in the Major Leagues and are receiving an incredible return on their investment for that feat. Let’s dig a little into each of these pitchers to see what’s going on.

Blake Parker

Blake Parker took the most circuitous route to being the most valuable reliever in the Angels’ bullpen, which Neil Weinberg detailed in his article about Parker. He is playing on a deal worth $560,000 and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2021. His cumulative WAR total in his last three big-league seasons is 0.8. This year his 1.1 WAR through the All-Star break is tied for tenth among relievers.

How is he suddenly so good? I encourage you to read the entire Weinberg article for more detail, but in short: his pitch mix this season is markedly different from his previous two.

Blake Parker Pitch UsagePerhaps more crucially, he’s gained velocity on all of his pitches and has been getting better results with his harder stuff, especially his splitter. After being completely forgettable last season, it has become a great pitch for him this year.

Blake Parker Pitch Results Comparison 2016-2017

The uptick in velocity and change in pitch mix seems to be behind his improvement this year.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris was mostly ineffectual as a starter and reliever in the 2016 season for the Braves and Dodgers, providing 0.7 WAR after putting up 0.0 WAR as a reliever for the Padres in 2015. He signed a one-year minor-league deal for $1.7M dollars in January 2017 and has already been more valuable than last season.

The last article to appear on this website about Norris was on June 27, 2016, when Jeff Sullivan urge us to check out Bud Norris. In that piece, Sullivan extolled the virtues of the cutter that Norris had added to his repertoire. Well, look at him one year later:

Bud Norris Pitch UsageEven more cutters, and half as many four-seamers! After spending most of his career as a fastball/slider guy, he’s totally transformed his approach. He’s throwing his fastball and slider less while using his cutter and sinker way more. His sinker has become an entirely different pitch from last year, gaining the most value of all of his pitches.

Bud Norris Sinker Results 2016-2017

Given the massive increase in strikeout percentage and swinging-strike rate as well as the drop in zone percentage, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that he’s locating the pitch much differently this year that last.


Bud Norris Sinker Heatmap 20162017:

Bud Norris Sinker Heatmap 2017He’s still locating his sinker off the plate but has also started throwing it below the zone this year, which I’m sure is what has contributed to the spike in his swinging-strike rate and strikeout percentage.

Yusmeiro Petit

Yusmeiro Petit is the most expensive of the bunch, signing a $2.25M minor-league deal after Washington declined to pick up his $3.0M option for 2017 and paid him $500,000 instead. After back-to-back seasons of negative totals, Petit is on pace to surpass his career high of 1.8 WAR that he set back in 2014 as a starter.

Yusmeiro Petit Pitch UsagePetit doesn’t have an obviously different approach from previous years but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been important changes under the hood. His cutter has improved remarkably, becoming his most valuable pitch this year.

Yusmeiro Petit Cutter 2016-2017

Like Norris, he’s had a dramatic increase in strikeout percentage and swinging-strike rate, but he’s also given up much less contact this year. He’s actually throwing the ball in the zone slightly more frequently while missing more bats. His cutter heatmaps show the difference in approach this season.


Yusmeiro Petit Cutter Heatmap 20162017:

Yusmeiro Petit Cutter Heatmap 2017Just like Norris, he’s added a new location. His new spot is way out of the zone down and off the plate and I’m sure it is contributing to his increase in swinging-strike rate.

David Hernandez

David Hernandez went to spring training with the Giants but was released when he didn’t make the Opening Day roster. After signing a minor-league deal with the Braves he was traded to the Angels for a PTBNL in late April after their bullpen was decimated by injuries. Hernandez had a positive WAR in 2016 but has been worth -0.3 WAR over his last three MLB seasons.

Something funny happened after he arrived in Los Angeles though:

David Hernandez Pitch UsageFor the first time ever, Hernandez is throwing a cutter. He’s not just experimenting with it, either. After throwing his fastball more than 60% of the time for his entire career, he’s throwing it less than half of the time this year. He’s using his cutter almost 25% of the time and it has been really good.

David Hernandez Cutter Results 2017

That 66.7% ground-ball rate is his highest on any pitch since he had a 71.4% mark with his changeup in 2013; that rate, however, came on only 36 pitches. He has never had a ground-ball rate this high on a pitch that he throws regularly, and adding the cutter has turned him into a much better pitcher.

Cam Bedrosian

The only holdover from last season, Bedrosian would surely rank higher in terms of WAR if he hadn’t been hurt this year. Even with the missed time, he has still almost matched his WAR total from 2016 in almost half the innings. He’s also doing something differently in 2017:

Cam Bedrosian Pitch UsageHe’s still a two-pitch guy, but he’s throwing his slider more and his fastball less. The results for both pitches haven’t been much different this year compared to last, but his slider was the better pitch in 2016. This could very well just be a matter of throwing his best pitch more often to get more favourable results.

All of these guys have changed something in 2017, either the usage or location of a particular pitch or both. This suggests to me that the bullpen improvements in Anaheim are not only from changing personnel but also from coaching. Charles Nagy joined the team before the 2016 season and perhaps after presiding over one of the worst bullpens in baseball last year decided that a change in approach was in order. Besides Bedrosian, three other pitchers from last year’s most valuable list are still with the team and all three have tried something different this year as well. That’s not to say that they’ve been good, but fortunately this year’s Angels team doesn’t need them to be.

Batters Are Facing The Final Boss On Easy Mode

Apologies for the title, but I couldn’t help but play on the best nickname in professional sports.

Seung Hwan Oh’s debut in MLB last season was nothing short of a resounding success. His 2.6 WAR was the fifth-highest mark among qualified relievers. He mainly mixed a low 90s fastball with a nasty slider as his strikeout pitch that made opposing batters look like poor Melvin Upton Jr. here:

Swang Hwan Oh Strikes Out Melvin Upton Jr. July 7, 2016

In April of 2016, August Fagerstrom wrote an article titled “Seung Hwan Oh Has Been Completely Unhittable“. Fagerstrom’s piece, among other things, was an ode to Oh’s beautiful slider. You should go read it just for the wonderful .gifs of one of the best sliders in baseball last year.

After half a season of making batters look silly in the seventh and eighth inning, Seung Hwan Oh took over the ninth in June of last year and fully lived up to his nickname. He was The Final Boss.

On Opening Night this season, the Cardinals took a 3-0 lead into the top of the ninth inning versus the defending World Champion Chicago Cubs, and Oh had his first chance to close a game in 2017. It didn’t go as planned. After hitting Ben Zobrist, he struck out Addison Russell with a high fastball and then allowed a single to Jason Heyward bringing the tying run to the plate. After getting ahead in the count to 1-2 with a slider for a called strike and two fastballs, Oh went back to his slider to get the strikeout and try to work out of the jam he had created for himself. Instead, this happened:

Willson Contreras tied the game with one swing on a slider Oh left hanging right over the centre of the plate. While the Cardinals would score a walk-off run in the bottom of the ninth and win the game, Oh and his slider wouldn’t be so lucky. Halfway through 2017, his formerly nasty slider has been a shadow of its 2016 self.

Seung Hwan Oh Slider Results 2016-2017

Those numbers are just really ugly. Opposing batters are practically teeing off on the pitch, and he’s already allowed more home runs off his slider through half a season than he allowed all of last year. It just isn’t the same pitch that he relied on to get outs last season, and when we compare his heat maps from 2016-2017 it’s easy to see what’s going wrong:


Seung Hwan Oh Slider Heatmap 2016


Seung Hwan Oh Slider Heatmap 2017

Instead of burying his slider down and outside of the zone like that beautiful pitch to Melvin Upton Jr., it’s leaking back over the plate where it can be punished. On top of worse location, his slider also has less horizontal movement in 2017. He’s not just missing his spot; he’s not getting as much bite as last year and it’s probably a lot easier for opposing batters to see and hit.

Seung Hwan Oh Slider Horizontal Movement 2016-2017

None of these things are good, and it’s not just his slider that’s giving him trouble. He mixed in a change and curveball in 2016 (96 and 10 thrown respectively, or 7.9% of his pitches) and while they weren’t nearly as valuable as his fastball and slider, they also weren’t complete liabilities. This year he’s allowing an OPS of 1.095 on the change and 1.000 on the curve with three home runs between them, as well throwing them more often (10.4% of his pitches). He has increased his fastball usage every month this season. I don’t know why he’s going to his other pitches more (especially when the off-speed pitches aren’t effective at all), but can only guess that with a diminished slider, he’s trying anything he can do to get outs.

All of this is too bad. Cardinals fans can’t be happy about this and I know lots of fantasy owners are upset as well. For me, baseball is just more fun when guys with awesome nicknames live up to them. Unfortunately for now, we all just have to hope he can figure out what’s going on with his slider and turn back into the true Final Boss.

Where Has Hector Neris’ Splitter Gone?

A little over a year ago, readers of this site were introduced to Hector Neris and his excellent splitter. Articles published early in the 2016 season by Craig Edwards and Jeff Sullivan explored how he was using the pitch, and Neris continued using his splitter to great effect for the rest of the year. His was the third-most valuable splitter in MLB, in a tier with Masahiro Tanaka’s and Matt Shoemaker’s as the only splitters with double-digit run values. He allowed just a .155 opponent batting average and had a 59.6% ground-ball rate with his splitter. It was also his primary punch-out pitch, using it to get 66 of his 102 strikeouts last year. Coming into this season, more cynical observers posited that only the value of saves and his upcoming arbitration negotiations were preventing Hector Neris and his splitter from dominating the ninth inning as the Phillies’ closer.

In case you forgot what it looked like, here he is striking out Bryce Harper with the pitch last September:

Hector Neris Strikes Out Bryce Harper September 8, 2016.

Just nasty. A lot can change in a year, however, and in the young 2017 season his splitter hasn’t been nearly as good.

Hector Neris Splitter Results 2016-2017

Those numbers aren’t encouraging. He’s getting half as many called strikes while throwing more balls. His hit percentage has doubled, his LD% has jumped, and his GB% has dropped. He’s already allowed half as many home runs as in all of 2016, and we’re only halfway through May. Additionally, his O-Swing% has dropped, from 46% last year to 41% in 2017. Not the results you would hope for from your best pitch, let alone one of the best splitters in the Majors one year ago.

He’s not throwing it any more or less than last year and he’s not really allowing more contact or balls in play. What’s more puzzling is that his swinging-strike rate is almost identical to last year, just over a healthy 21%.

So what’s going on?

As Craig and Jeff wrote, the pitch was so effective because of where he was locating it. He located it down in the zone, ducking under bats for Ks or grounders and sneaking in for called strikes when batters laid off the pitch.

Hector Neris Splitter Location Heatmap 2016

His 2016 heatmap shows a consistently executed pitch; one that gave opposing batters fits. What has happened so far in 2017?

Hector Neris Splitter Location Heatmap 2017


While the footprint hasn’t changed much, after 146 pitches there’s definitely a disturbing trend developing. His splitter is creeping up towards the middle and down under the the strike zone, instead of living right on the lower edge like it did last year. If the pitch is thrown too low, perhaps batters are able to lay off it more, which would explain the drop in O-Swing% and called strikes as well as the rise in balls. If the pitch misses up, well, this happens:

Cody Bellinger Home Run off of Hector Neris April 29, 2017.

Where was that pitch located?

Cody Bellinger Home Run Pitch Location April 29, 2017

Right down the middle.

To develop into the dominant late-innings pitcher that his 2016 performance suggests he could become, Hector Neris is going to have to regain command of his best pitch. Here’s hoping that he finds it soon, because MLB is missing one of its best splitters.

Zack Greinke Is Trying Something New With an Old Pitch

Zack Greinke is a really good pitcher. That’s why he signed a monstrous $200+M deal in Arizona before the 2016 season. Unfortunately for Zack Greinke and the Arizona Diamondbacks, he wasn’t really good during the 2016 season.

Something went wrong in the desert. Part of it could have been that Greinke was pressing, trying to live up to his big contract and the largest per-year salary in baseball history. Part of it could have been adjusting to a more hitter-friendly home park (he had a 4.81 ERA at home versus a 3.94 mark on the road in 2016 with FIP and xFIP showing similar spreads). Whatever his issues were, the Diamondbacks and their fans were hoping for more out of their expensive ace in 2017.

Through seven starts, the results have been encouraging. He has pitched to a 3.09 ERA (and a 3.15 FIP/3.05 xFIP) despite his GB% and HR/FB% remaining the same as 2016. One thing that has changed is that he’s allowing 30% fewer walks while striking out two more batters per nine innings. Another thing that has changed is that he’s throwing his slider more than ever before.

After his most recent start, a win at Colorado on May 5 where he threw seven innings and allowed two earned runs, Greinke was asked about his slider usage in the game. He replied:

“I threw a decent amount, I don’t know how much more than normal, against righties, but, it was working. Could have thrown more, might have had better results, it was just working really good. I throw it more to righties and they had a lot of righties in their lineup today.”

In fact, he threw a higher percentage of sliders than in any other start in his career, and the highest since 2011. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2017 he’s thrown a higher percentage of sliders than in any other year in his career (25.7%). In terms of raw pitch counts, he threw more sliders in April (144) than in all but two other months in his career. He is throwing more sliders than normal.

He was right about one thing, though: the pitch is working. Facing the Rockies at Coors, Greinke threw 38 sliders with a 26.3% whiff rate while only allowing one hit. So far in 2017, he’s getting a 26.1% whiff rate with his slider after only getting 21.5% in the last two years. He’s also getting the highest Swing% of his career, and had his second-highest month of raw whiff counts in April.

So what has changed about the pitch besides its usage?

He is not throwing it as hard as in recent years, while also seeing an increase in horizontal movement. Brooks Baseball has his slider velocity at its lowest and his horizontal movement at its highest since 2013.* Additionally, he is locating the pitch closer to the plate than he has in years, while maintaining the same height in the zone. He is also getting a higher percentage of called strikes this year than in 2015 or 2016, years in which his horizontal location moved away from the plate.

It is not a completely new pitch, but it has changed, and he is using it differently. Located closer to the plate, and moving more, the pitch is getting more swings and calls, leading to more strikeouts and fewer walks. There is little wonder that he has thrown it as much as he has.


*I omitted his Colorado results because as we know, Coors suppresses movement. If you look up his Brooks Baseball movement chart you will see a massive dip in horizontal movement for May 2017 as we only have the Coors start to draw data from.