In 2011, White Sox reliever Addison Reed faced 293 minor league hitters and struck out 111 while walking only 14 of them. It was a good year for Reed. He went from A-Ball, to High-A, to Double-A, to Triple-A in 3 months and 15 days.
In 2012, Reed has faced 229 major league hitters and struck out 52 while walking 18. He has also allowed two more home runs than in his time in the minors while facing 64 fewer hitters.
Despite all this, the AL Central-leading, supposedly rebuilding Chicago White Sox have called on the rookie Reed to perform as the team’s closer. And even with his his 4.82 ERA, the White Sox have stuck with him and have been rewarded with the 9th most net shutdowns in the American League (28 shutdowns, 9 meltdowns, 19 net SD) and a total of 28 saves.
So have the White Sox done it? Have they finally found the heir to the ghost of Bobby Jenks? Or have his recent struggles been a portent of pending trouble?
Well, Reed has a few oddities on his stats sheet, and depending on which items we consider aberration and which we consider omens, it can alter the way we see the 23-year-old relief ace.
The Medium Walks, Medium Ks Group
Reed’s strikeout rate this season has been a slightly-above-average 22.7%, while his walk rate has been an almost-perfectly-average 7.9%. From 2000 through 2011, relievers with a strikeout rate at or under 23% and a walk rate at or above 8% have averaged a 99 FIP-minus and a 94 ERA-minus — not inspiring numbers for a reliever.
If we further limit the group and look at just relievers with K-rates between 20% and 23% and walk-rates of 8% to 9%, we get a 93 FIP-minus and an 84 ERA-minus — neither really qualifying as a high-leverage material.
That being said, we must remember that Reed had a strikeout rate in the 38% range in the minors — as well as a walk rate about half his current rate — and with time he could move towards those more elite numbers.
The High-Zone Group
One reason to think Reed’s strikeout numbers will improve is that his Zone% (according to PITCHf/x) is one of the best in the league. The man does not fiddle around with pitches outside the zone.
At a 56.6% Zone-rate, Reed ranks No. 10 in the MLB among all pitchers with at least 50 innings. That’s impressive for a rookie, much less a reliever with feh strikeout/walk numbers. Over the last four seasons (2009 through 2012), only 16 relievers have had Zone-rates greater than 54% — and that group averaged an 81 FIP-minus with a 77-ERA minus. Now we’re talking high leverage reliever!
That same group of 16 relievers (which somewhat ironically includes Bobby Jenks) had a 24.2% K-rate and 7.4% walk-rate — which is almost identical to Reed’s current numbers.
If Reed can find ERA success with his current peripherals — as this group of 16 relievers did — then White Sox fans will not have to worry about his low HR/FB rate (7.5%) and underwhelming xFIP (100 xFIP-minus). For a reliever, those metrics hold much less water — especially a fly ball pitcher who pounds the zone like a jackhammer.
But increasing his strikeout rate is still something we should expect, right? Given his minor league dominance, one would hope a 22.7% K-rate is just the beginning. But at current, his swinging strike rates suggest otherwise.
The Low Swinging Strike Group
In general, swinging strikes make for an good predictor of future strikeouts. At 9.5%, Reed is getting swinging strikes at just a tick about league average. But for a reliever, that’s actually 0.7% below average.
And when we look at relievers from 2009 through 2012 with a swinging strike rate between 9.2% and 9.8%, we get a collective 91 FIP-minus and 87 ERA-minus — another underwhelming showing. This group sported a 23.3% K-rate and 9.5% walk-rate, numbers again too close to Reed’s for comfort.
All told, it’s impressive that Reed has managed to time his bad showings — 16 games with a 4.10 FIP or higher — in such a way as to amass only 9 meltdowns, 4 blown saves and 2 losses.
Will Reed develop into an elite reliever? Well, here’s the deal. Reed has three pitches — a fastball (94 mph), slider (84 mph) and changeup (85 mph) — and his second pitch, the slider, has generated only a 14.1% swinging strike rate. I think a good proxy for Reed in terms of pitch selection is the likewise fastball-favoring Joel Hanrahan. The Pirates reliever does not throw as hard or as zone-heavy as Reed, but he does throw a fastball over 70% of the time and goes to his slider about once every ten pitches. But Hanrahan gets swinging strikes on almost a third of his sliders.
I think one of the reason for this discrepency is that Hanrahan is burying his slider down and away, while Reed tends to put the slider away from righties:
If Reed starts burying his slider, it might develop into a proper put-away pitch that could help him add a few more strikeouts, but his fastball still needs to generate more whiffs to see overall improvement. Altogether, though, I think there is more than enough evidence to say Reed — again, just 23 years old — will develop into a good, if not elite, reliever.