As we head towards free agency, the focus is always on the big name guys – who is going to sign Mark Teixeira or CC Sabathia? Which team is going to give Manny Ramirez a deal that pays him into his 40s? What kind of contracts will older-but-still-effective guys like Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer get?
But every year, there’s always a guy signs as something of an afterthought and turns into an important player, with the rest of baseball looking back and wondering why they weren’t more interested when he was available. This week, we’ll profile a group of players that should pay nice dividends for the team that recognizes that they’re worth more than they’re going to get this winter.
Starting off, let’s take a look at one of the more underrated pitchers in the game – Jeremy Affeldt.
A former top prospect as a starter, Affeldt didn’t live up to expectations in Kansas City and has bounced around the bullpens of the Royals, Rockies, and in 2008, the Reds. His career has seen him struggle with command problems, and as such, he’d never been trusted with any kind of meaningful role.
However, in 2008, he took a pretty big step forward. His average fastball velocity went from 92.3 MPH a year ago to 94.6 MPH, and his CB saw a similar improvement (going from 76.9 to 79.1). Adding several ticks to both pitches moves him into the power pitcher category, and it showed in his results.
His swinging strike rate (data from statcorner.com) jumped from 7.6% last year to 10.8% this year, putting him in the company of guys like Grant Balfour, Joakim Soria, and Kerry Wood. The swinging strikes translated directly to his strikeout rate, which jumped to 9.19 K/9. More swings and misses means less called balls as well, and Affeldt significantly improved his walk rate as well, down to a respectable 2.87 BB/9.
In a lot of cases, a pitcher will add velocity by switching to a four seam fastball and pitching up in the zone, but that’s not the case here – Affeldt continued to pitch down in the zone, posting a career high 54.4% GB%. Because he keeps the ball down, he was able to sustain a fairly low HR rate even though his HR/FB went through the roof (as it can with every reliever, thanks to the small yearly sample of batters and its variance).
Based on 2008, Affeldt has shown an entirely new skillset as compared to his major league career, adding a couple of ticks to both his fastball and curve, which have transformed him into one of the game’s best left-handed relievers. Because his curve is a legitimate second pitch, he shows almost no platoon split, and is equally effective against both LHB and RHBs. His stuff is clearly closer-worthy, and while he has no experience as the 9th inning guy, some smart team would be wise to give him a two or three year contract for setup man money and watch him blossom into one of the game’s best relief aces.
There’s a good case to be made that Jeremy Affeldt is the best reliever available this winter, while most of baseball has no idea who he is.