Last July when the Oakland Athletics traded for Blake Treinen, Jesus Luzardo, and Sheldon Neuse, providing the Washington Nationals the services of relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, the Athletics trade was more notably about the prospects of Luzardo’s pitching and Neuse at third base. The Athletics are in the middle of a definitive rebuild; outside of the Athletics organization, the Treinen piece of the trade was simply for his services as a simple bullpen body to hit average (hopefully) and pander on through the remnant of the season as Doolittle and Madson’s replacement.
Contextually, when the trade occurred last July, Treinen was 28 and hitting his ceiling in the Nationals development methodology. He lost hit job in April of 2017 then slowly settled into an awful 5.73 ERA with 48 allowed hits in the first half. There is no magical analytic which explains why he was bad, no pedantically bad situational deterioration – Treinen was simply bad.
Specifically, Treinen was bland on his first pitch (which is a telling sign of a pitcher struggling), lofting sweet, contact worthy pitches to the upper zone. Overall, batters swung and made contact throughout his first-pitch zones. Hence, the same area that created his bizarre downward trend was the first area where Treinen began his 2018 correction. He has cut high zone pitches on the first-pitch count, aptly cutting contact to the high zone. Batters are attacking his first pitch less, taking (or trying to take) a more principled approach to seeing him out.
The batting delay has created Treinen’s most formidable analytical point: the second highest and lowest qualified-reliever swinging strike rate and ERA at 18.8 percent and .93, respectively.
Any improvement this stark demands a resurgence across all pitching categories. First, Treinen has begun to shift his fastball placement. In 2017, on a micro fastball scale, Treinen offered either the fastball outside (44 percent balls) or distinctly inside (76.1 percent contact), failing to hit the lateral sides of the inside zone. That crisp distinctness allowed batters to perceive where his fastball was going to land, allowing a 156 wRC+. In 2018, he has avoided letting the fastball fall distinctly outside of the zone (30 percent balls, 72.7 percent contact), thus offering more variety within more controlled movement. His fastball has kept batters to a negative 20 wRC+.
When batters have been contacting his fastball, they have a 47.1 percent fly-ball rate. Perceptually, this is an alarming rate, less that placement becomes intrinsically important. In a string of reactions, Treinen is enforcing a greater chase rate (38.7 percent, increase from 30.8 percent) while decreasing his chase contact rate from 52.2 to 38.6 percent. This has cut the ability of batters to find barrel contact (2.1 percent), thus cutting his opposite field hit-rate to 19.8 percent. In short, Treinen is deriving contact that is easy to field.
Hypothetically, this might be a philosophical adjunct to the Athletics analytic mantra. The team is shifting on 30.4 percent of left-handed batters, an increase from 17.1 percent last season with the Washington Nationals. Neither team shift at a dramatic rate, but there is a slight difference between the Nationals fielding chart and the Athletics fielding chart behind Treinen. The slight difference may not be the main reason, but the Athletics awareness of how to help Treinen with more movement is, at minimum, an interesting note.
However, for all the jovial notation Treinen’s fastball is receiving, his main-pitch, the sinker, deserves even more praise. He has kept batters to a .200 average, already hitting 17 strikeouts on the sinker for a 56 wRC+. Much like the fastball, the sinker is moving less, but in a crisper fashion (9.7 rating down from 11.9). On a meta point, Treinen is simply more confident and educated in his pitching approach – on a simple eye-test, he is perceptually prepared where to throw. Scrupulous timing and more variety in placement of his sinker has lowered contact to 71.1 percent (was an egregious 86.2 percent last season). The one data-point which fundamentally incorporates how good his sinker has been is the increase in outside swing percentage (43 percent) while decreasing outside-contact (52.1 percent).
In short, pitches that were not meant to be hit, were being hit in 2018, and Treinen has prevented that from occurring. Fundamentally, this is on the breadth of a slight mechanical edit observable with a release point grouping to the right. In the example provided, between 2017 and 2018, Treinen is releasing his pitches with more elevation, signifying a change to his release philosophy.
The Athletics somehow have tapped into Treinen to bring out the best of him; the only question they have to answer is whether he is trade-bait or a long-term staple to the bullpen.