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More on the relief pitching market

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One reliever remade himself in a Manhattan warehouse. Another experienced a 5-mph drop is his slider velocity. Are they worth it?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The answers to two questions posed in a recent post by Tanner Puckett highlight the VEB community’s want for relief pitching.

To the question “Which area of the field needs the most improvement?” the community was nearly split on offense (44%) and relief pitching (45%).

In 2018, the Cardinals’ bullpen was slightly below average. They produced a 4.27 FIP (right around the league median) supporting a pretty average ERA of 4.38. Fans’ intolerance to an otherwise average pen can be attributed to Cardinal relievers holding the third-worst walk rate and seventh-worst strand rate in the majors. Combine this with an inability to strand runners and the Cardinals’ bullpen quickly neutralized an extremely productive crop of starting pitchers.

A.E. Schafer’s recent post highlighted the top tier of relief arms, including Craig Kimbrel, Zach Britton, David Robertson, and Andrew Miller. If you’re a fan scarred by the Cardinals shelling out the second-highest average annual value (AAV) contact last season to Greg Holland ($14m), some of the higher-end names might make you queasy. You may also fear some of the cost-controlled arms, as the Cardinals whiffed on Luke Gregerson and Bud Norris. Thankfully, the middle-tier options provide the most room for surplus value.

Let’s take a look at two options Schafer didn’t mention who may fly under the radar due to limited track records or a lack of name value.

Adam Ottavino

The reliever market is a mixture of 30-somethings who teams hope can improve like Adam Ottavino did last offseason. The last time Ottavino was a Cardinal, he started 25 games with the Memphis Redbirds, posting a 5.07 FIP. If he becomes a Cardinal again, it won’t be as a starting pitcher.

His resume features one Tommy John surgery, a small documentary highlighting his recovery and a recent offseason in a vacant Manhattan storefront developing a new pitch.

Success after struggle and hard work followed Ottavino into the 2018 season. What seemed like the only piece of the Rockies bullpen secured for less than $20 million produced like a $20-million arm.

Now he’s 33 with a light amount of innings in his recent past and the peripherals to back his stuff.

Ottavino slider sits in the velocity of band of the average curveball, but moves laterally so much the pitch is considered a slider. He generated the sixth-highest horizontal movement of a slider thrown by a reliever in 2018, a likely product of his 96th-percentile slider spin rate. The pitch’s whiff characteristics are average, with hitters displaying a tendency to lift the ball in the air more than the average breaking ball. If small characteristics of regression come to Ottavino in the form of home runs or hitters forcing him to sit in the zone more, teams shouldn’t be surprised. His innate ability to spin a breaking ball and the data to back it up still prolongs his value past other relievers in this class.

The problem? Colorado already has $42 million committed to relievers in 2019. There is a strong chance number zero isn’t wearing purple in 2019. He’s a rich target with multi-inning experience and the second- or third-best breaking ball in the class.

Ottavino might be worth the gamble.

Estimated AAV = $11-12 million

Precedent = Brandon Morrow $10.5 million AAV, 2017

Kelvin Herrera

A substantial amount of Herrera’s variables deteriorate over his last three seasons.

During the 2016 offseason, I coined Herrera the next Andrew Miller (yes, I was very wrong). He was coming off a season of three un-hittable pitches and an exceptional mix of velocity and command. A 2.47 FIP backed up his sub-2.50 ERA and all was well in Kansas City.

Nothing stuck the following year. Even with his velocity stable, Herrera’s strikeouts dropped, control wavered and hard contact resulted in an elevated level of home runs.

When 2018 came along, his velocity ticked down along with his surface stats, but he somehow managed to improve his peripherals enough to signal something was still in the tank. The Nationals bought in.

In August of this season, just after a month into his tenure with Washington, he ran into a shoulder injury. He was shut down with a foot ligament problem after returning from that ailment a few weeks later. His shoulder injury seems a fitting culprit for a pronounced drop in slider velocity (5 mph compared to 2017). Smaller cuts in fastball and changeup velocity occurred as well.

If there’s any solace, Herrera was still generating swinging strikes at an above average rate in 2018. This is thanks to his slider regaining a portion of its dominance from his stellar 2016.

His primary breaking ball is spin-heavy, sitting inside the 90th percentile of both vertical and horizontal movement for relievers with 100 or more pitches according to Baseball Prospectus. (His slider whiff rate was actually higher than Ottavino’s in 2018.) To left-handed hitters, he throws a changeup nearly 33 percent of the time. His slider is primarily a right-handed hitter offering.

The lack of split issues and effective glove- and arm-side movement makes him matchup-proof in most scenarios. While teams push towards bullpenning and multi-inning roles, Herrera represents an old-school, one inning stud whose luster can be restored.

(The above is actually a slider, I mistakenly called it curveball due to the perceived vertical drop on the pitch up in the zone)

Herrera hasn’t produced at his 2016 level in two years and holds injury risk as he heads into the offseason in recovery mode from his foot ailment. But he is one of three relievers on the free agent market coming up on a season below the age of 30. A team that is willing to throw him a two- or three-year contract may come away with another season or two of an above average reliever for a price influenced by the risk he possesses.

Depending on Herrera’s medicals and offseason progress, there is likely a team in the majors that buys into a resurgence. He has high-leverage experience, velocity and three pitches. If discounted, Herrera is a valuable asset.

Estimated AAV = $9-10 million