In late June, Austin Adams entered a game for the Mariners against the Brewers with the reigning National League MVP, Christian Yelich, at the plate. He caught Yelich looking at an 89-mph slider for strike three before using that same slider on Ryan Braun and Mike Moustakas to get swinging strikeouts. He induced a groundout by Jesus Aguilar to finish his outing for the night. Navigating that part of the Brewers lineup is no easy task for any reliever, yet Adams almost effortlessly racked up three punchouts while facing only the four batters. That gave Adams four straight relief appearances with three or more strikeouts, part of a dominant stretch that saw him strike out 25 over 12.1 scoreless frames. On a struggling Mariners team, Adams has emerged as one of the lone bright spots. Soon, he could become the next elite bullpen arm in baseball.
Adams could also become the next name on a growing list of valuable relievers the Nationals have traded away in recent years. Felipe Vazquez and Blake Treinen have been reliable and at times elite closers for the their respective new teams. On May 4th, the Nationals traded Adams to the Mariners for Nick Wells and cash considerations. The trade came shortly after the Nationals designated Adams for assignment on April 29th. Starved for relievers and sporting MLB’s second-worst bullpen ERA of 6.29 and fifth-worst FIP of 4.89, the Nationals might have let another elite reliever slip away.
Since debuting with the Mariners on April 20th, Adams has been masterful. The 28-year-old right-hander, an eighth-round selection by the Angels out of the University of South Florida back in 2012, has a K/9 of over 15 and a K% of 43.9% through 24.1 innings pitched on the year thus far. He’s pitched his way to a 2.46 FIP and 2.28 xFIP, both of which come in well under his ERA of 3.70 (he was mostly recently charged with three runs on July 3 after leaving the bases loaded and having all runs score after he exited the game). In 36.2 innings in 2019, which includes his Triple-A numbers at Fresno and Tacoma, he’s served up just two home runs. At every level of professional baseball he’s pitched in since 2014, he’s accumulated a K/9 north of 12, including a 15.15 K/9 and a 1.93 FIP in 2018 while at Triple-A Syracuse in the Nationals organization.
The only thing that has held Adams back throughout his career has been his control. He’s been known to struggle with command, despite sporting mostly just a two-pitch mix. He had a ghastly 8.04 BB/9 in 59.1 Advanced A-ball innings in 2014, a 7.61 BB/9 in 36.2 Double-A innings in 2015, and BB/9 rates of over 5 in both of his 2016 and 2017 seasons. However, it seems as if Adams has just possibly turned a corner in command that could make him into an elite major league reliever. If you include his minor league numbers this season, Adams has only walked 16 of the 146 batters he has faced. This comes after walking just 3.88 batters per 9 innings in Triple-A last season. He’s trending in the right direction command-wise, while possessing what looks to be one of the filthiest pitches in baseball.
Back in 2014 in article at 247Sports, Adams was described to have a “loud, earth-shattering” slider. Five years later, he’s exploiting major league hitters with that signature pitch. He’s throwing his slider 60.9% of the time at an average velocity of 89.4 mph. Among pitchers who have thrown over 250 pitches in 2019, Adams’ slider ranks 17th in baseball in spin rate at 2820 RPM. Opposing batters have a .129 BA, xBA of .113, wOBA of .193, and xwOBA of .177 against his slider. All of those stats are in the top 10 percentile. His slider also ranks among the top echelon in terms of horizontal movement and vertical movement, relative to other similar sliders in baseball. At 6.7 inches of break, his slider has 74% more break than similar sliders in baseball. Meanwhile, Adams has a four-seam fastball of an average velocity of 95.2 mph that ranks 10th in baseball in spin rate at 2583 RPM. That two-pitch arsenal, which has been used for 404 of his 416 total pitches in 2019, has been lethal so far.
Ever since he learned to throw his slider at a young age, Adams has described himself as a “slider-happy” guy. He told the story himself in that 2014 247Sports article:
“My uncle for my birthday back when I was 12 or 13, bought me a Roger Clemens baseball, and it had color-coated finger prints on it and it would tell you where to grip. So I get it and I’m just throwing against the fence in the backyard. I read the pamphlet of how to move your wrist and this and that and come across the slider and curveball. My dad comes home and I run up to him, and say ‘Dad! I learned a curveball and a slider’ and he’s like, ‘No you didn’t!’ So, we start playing catch, and he says, ‘I’ll give you two sliders and two curveballs, and go crazy with it.’ I throw two curveballs, sat pretty good, I throw two sliders and he’s like, ‘Wow!’”
Despite his success with the slider, Adams knows the secret to his success comes with command of his fastball. He said, “I’ve struggled with control and command my entire life, it’s no secret. If you go back to my college years, freshman and sophomore year, I walked everyone. In my junior and senior year, something clicked and I believe a lot of people at the Major League level, they talk about something clicked, and something clicked that year, and I’m looking for that second click,” as he snapped his fingers and smiled.
Adams has been searching for that second click throughout his eight seasons in professional baseball. Maybe, just maybe, he’s found that second click in 2019 with the Mariners. If he truly has, he could soon become the next elite reliever in baseball.