This is going to be one of those things where probably 95% of you will go “Wow, that’s somewhat interesting,” while 5% of you — the percentage who are a fan or close follower of the Tampa Bay Rays, probably — will say “Yeah, genius, we’ve been following this for months.” Still, the third week of August has some of the doggiest days of the summer, and there’s only so much to be said about tight division races that will only be resolved by waiting for games to be played. So for the moment, let’s check in on a little-known reliever doing something a bit extraordinary.
We’re talking about Brad Boxberger, of course. He’s 26. He’s in his third major league season and his third major league organization. He was once a first-round pick — if you can really say “No. 43 overall is a first-round pick” with a straight face — and he’s been in trades for both Mat Latos and Jesse Hahn/Alex Torres. He’s a righty. He throws two pitches: a fastball and a change. He throws them kind of hard, but not exceptionally so. He’s averaging about 93 mph on his fastball.
If this sounds like your typical fungible righty middle reliever, well, yeah, so far he does. Boxberger didn’t even break camp with the Rays this year, and didn’t stick when they did call for him. On April 14, he came up for three appearances but returned to Triple-A Durham five days later to make room for the immortal Charles Riefenhauser. On May 1, he came up as the 26th man in a doubleheader, then he went down immediately after the game. He returned on May 6 when Nate Karns was sent out. On May 8, he pitched an “immaculate inning,” getting three strikeouts on nine pitches with the bases loaded.
Boxberger has stuck around ever since, and he’s used that time well. He’s in the middle of doing something we haven’t quite seen… well, ever.
The table below was generated from Baseball Reference and consists of the performances of right-handed pitchers against left-handed batters between 1914 and 2014, with a minimum of 20 innings pitched against lefties. It uses OPS — which is imperfect — but that’s the best B-R offers. Look who appears at the top:
Now those are some fun names and numbers. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this comes from the last few years and the late 1960s, two notable periods for low offense, because OPS is not park- or league-adjusted. You have the indisputable best closer of all time; you have almost certainly the best closer of the present day. You also have Bert Roberge, who is apparently a player who existed, and Cisco Carlos, who I’m told is currently the owner of Cabinets By Design in Phoenix. See, you’ve learned something, even if you didn’t want to. Or need to.
But while there’s obviously some room for argument on how well this list accurately measures the rankings of such things due to the usage of uncorrected OPS and some clear sample size issues, the point is really: Wow! Look at Brad Boxberger. Even the 42 games he appeared in during his time in San Diego required nine trips between the majors and minors. A guy who couldn’t hang on to his job until May has faced lefties 91 times and allowed nine total bases so far, and he’s doing it from the right side of the mound without a blazing fastball or even a third pitch. He allowed a single to Nick Punto on May 20, then didn’t let another lefty get a hit until Ryan Sweeney did so last week, a span of nearly three months. What’s his story?
In part, Boxberger is better because he’s eliminated the major problem in his game: his inability to throw strikes. Between 2012 and 2013, 523 pitchers threw at least 40 innings, of which 513 of them had a better BB% than Boxberger’s 14.5%. The guys who didn’t — Carlos Marmol, Henry Rodriguez, Daniel Bard, Kyle Drabek, Jonathan Sanchez, etc. — generally don’t have careers any longer. It’s not that he wasn’t missing bats, because a 26.7 K% in that span is both fine and about the same as John Axford‘s, it’s just that the free passes, lack of grounders and non-elite homer prevention made the 2.72 ERA he’d put up as a Padre very difficult to buy.
This year, that BB% is down to 8.6. His Zone% has jumped from 48.9% last year to 54.2% this year; as importantly, his O-Swing% is up from 23.9 to 27.9 to 33.7. He’s throwing more strikes, but he’s also getting batters to swing at more balls. If you can do one of those things, you’ve got something. You combine both, and suddenly you’ve really got something.
It’s always difficult to pin improved control on any one thing. Often, it can as simple and intangible as a young player gaining experience and confidence. Maybe that applies here. So does the fact that after using the set position when the bases were empty in the earlier part of his career (he was a starter in college), he’s begun to work mainly out of the stretch — as most relievers do — and there’s some clear differences in his release point. There’s plenty of reasons to point to as possible reasons Boxberger’s control has improved, particularly to his non-throwing side of the plate.
But about the lefties: Why is he so effective against them?
Boxberger can’t pinpoint the reason behind his splits, but the movement on his changeup coupled with his cross-body throwing motion have certainly helped.
“From what I’ve heard guys telling me, it’s harder to pick up, I guess,” he said. “I’m not really sure. It’s been working.”
That changed release point pops up again as far as the “cross-body throwing motion,” but let’s talk about that changeup for a second. Boxberger used to mix in a slider and a curve, but for the last two months he’s been exclusively fastball and change.
Here’s that fastball going right past Anthony Rizzo:
And here’s the change making John Baker look foolish. Well, more foolish than that mustache does. Well, more foolish than being involved in a game with those Rays 1980s fauxbacks does. Baker doesn’t look good, though:
Fastball high and changeup low is a pretty deadly combination, especially when you’re changing speeds as much as Boxberger is. We have 217 pitchers in the database who have thrown at least 50 innings this year and use both a four-seamer and a change. Only two of them have a larger difference in speeds between the two pitches than Boxberger’s 13.2 mph. One is Scott Kazmir, who has been very good. One is Erik Bedard, who hasn’t, which I suppose says that it takes more than different speeds, but good pitches at those speeds. (Hiroki Kuroda, last on that list, has just a 0.7 mph difference, which is kind of fun.)
Of course, Boxberger isn’t just doing well against lefties, because righties are hitting only .196/.267/.368, and at some point one would expect that .119 BABIP against lefties to return to a slightly less ludicrous level. But as a righty pitcher, he’s doing more against lefties than any other comparable has done in a long time, he’s doing it with some changes to his release point and his pitch usage, and he’s doing it on the right team, since Joe Maddon often employed righty Jamey Wright against lefties last season, too.
It’s probably too late for the Rays to make any noise in the playoff race, but it hasn’t been a lost season. They’ve found Boxberger, and he’s found himself a career.
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