Six Unheralded Relievers to Look Out For in 2021by Carter LaCorte March 3, 2021 1 comment
The 2020 season went by pretty quickly. If you didn’t stop and look around you might have missed it. As we all expected before the season, the short sample size led to some gaudy numbers for both pitchers and hitters. Shane Bieber had a 281 ERA+! If Marcell Ozuna hit .352 instead of .338, he would have won the NL triple crown. Both Bieber and Ozuna were productive players before 2020, though. Today, we’re looking at some guys who you probably didn’t know of before the season, and still might not know. To highlight these unknowns, I’m looking specifically at the position baseball fans know the least – relief pitchers that don’t save games.
1. Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds
Well, if you don’t know who Antone is, you’re in for a ride for the rest of this article. Antone is what you would call a non-prospect. A 2014 fifth-round pick by the Reds who casually rose through their system as a starter, Antone pitched in 13 games last year as a swingman, and started four of those 13 games. The standard numbers were great, as the righty finished with a 2.80 ERA, a 1.019 WHIP, and 45 strikeouts in 35.1 innings. That is perfectly acceptable on its own. But, if you look at Antone’s advanced numbers, or as some might call ‘his BaseballSavant page’, he was elite. Looking into percentiles, Antone finished in the 97th percentile in expected batting average (xBA), limiting batters to .169. Expected slugging (xSLG) was a similar story, in the 94th percentile at .286. Right-handed batters just couldn’t hit him, with a .119 average against and a .446 OPS against. An alternate way of looking at that is right-handed batters were much worse than Jeff Mathis against Antone.
Diving into his pitch-mix, the now 27-year-old mainly throws three pitches: a mid-to-high 90s sinker, a slider, and a curveball, which all have great spin rates. Despite only being thrown 16.7% of the time, the curveball is the real star here, with a 95th percentile 2959 rpm average spin rate, and 20 of Antone’s 45 strikeouts were finished with the curve. All season, batters just managed two hits in 37 at-bats that ended with a curveball.
2. Sam Selman, San Francisco Giants
A second-round pick of the Royals in 2012, the Giants scooped up the left-handed Selman as a minor league free agent in March of 2019, and last year it paid off. The sample size is small; it is with every player on the list. But, batters had a hard hit percentage of 20.8% against Selman. That was the best in baseball among percentile qualifiers, just ahead of Kenley Jansen, Andre Scrubb, and the third player on this list. Batters also had an xSLG of just .271 against Selman, places him 11th in the league. His 3.75 ERA is alright, but his 3.04 xERA is much better. He throws just two pitches: a slow slider and a low-90s fastball with an above-average spin rate of 2476 rpm. The slider is the pitch to highlight, being his primary at a 59% usage. 15 of Selman’s 23 strikeouts ended with a slider, and batters hit just .128 off of it.
3. Brooks Raley, Houston Astros
Any die-hard Cubs fans reading this might get some old memories from hearing Raley’s name. The team selected Raley in the sixth round in 2009, and he debuted in 2012. From 2012-13, Raley had a 7.04 ERA in 38.1 innings. From 2015-2019, he was a member of the KBO’s Lotte Giants. Returning to North America, Raley made the Reds out of the bullpen, and the Astros got him in August for minor leaguer Fredy Medina. Raley became very successful over 17 outings in Houston, striking out 21 in 16 innings, with a 21.3% hard-hit percentage. Even better, Raley limited batters to an average exit velocity of 81.7 mph, tied with Alex Claudio for best in the league. The lefty throws six pitches, with a cutter topping them all in usage percentage, at 44.3%. Despite his fastest pitch averaging 90.1 mph, all of the 32-year-old’s pitches have high spin rates, and the worst batting average against one of his pitches was .206.
4. Matt Wisler, San Francisco Giants
The second Giant on this list, Wisler is not as unknown as other relievers on this list, but every single MLB team could have had him for cheap this offseason. After stints with the Braves, Reds, Padres, and Mariners from 2015-2019, Wisler landed with the Twins, and was amazing, finishing with a 1.07 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 25.1 innings. Like many other high-strikeout relievers, walks were an issue for Wisler, who averaged five per nine innings. After the great season, the Twins non-tendered Wisler, making him a free agent for all. The Giants were smart and pounced early, giving him $1.15 million for one year in early December. Looking deeper into the numbers, Wisler had a 2.74 xERA with a .146 xBA and a 3.6 barrel percentage. Wisler throws his slider 83.4% of the time, and batters had a .143 average against and a .221 slugging against the pitch.
5. Caleb Thielbar, Minnesota Twins
You may know Thielbar as the rookie who burst onto the scene in 2013, with a 1.76 ERA through 49 outings for the Twins. Things went downhill afterward for Thielbar, as he spent 2016-2019 in AA, AAA, and in Independent Ball. He returned back to the Twins franchise for 2020 and was able to make it back to the big leagues. Things went surprisingly well for a guy with a five-year MLB break, as Thielbar struck out 22 in 20 innings with a 2.25 ERA. He also limited batters to a 25.5 hard-hit percentage. His success was built on a slow curve that had an average velocity of 68.7 mph. Batters didn’t get a single hit off of the pitch, striking out seven. In 25 plate appearances, lefties had a .376 OPS versus Thielbar.
6. Phil Maton, Cleveland Indians
Finally, we come to Maton, who evens out this list at three righties and three lefties. The tribe sent international bonus slot money to San Diego in July of 2019 for him, and it has definitely worked out for them so far. There is nothing special about Maton’s 4.57 ERA in 2020, but he struck out a whopping 32 batters over 21.2 innings of work, with a 2.22 FIP and a 2.81 xERA. He limited batters to an average exit velocity of 82.7 mph and a .274 xSLG. Maton has a high spin rate and a whiff rate over 30% on all three of his pitches.
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