When I think of relief pitchers, this Neil Young lyric pops into my head:
It’s better to burn out
Than to fade away
My my, hey hey.
The reign of a top bullpen arm can be transient. One minute, a guy is on top of the world, entering the game to a heavy metal tune and a boisterous crowd reception worthy of a heavyweight champion. The next, he’s posting a 4.65 ERA with the Quebec Capitales (Qu’est-ce qui se passe, Eric Gagne?)
J.J. Putz can well understand. The 6-5 righty was a run-of-the-mill middle reliever with the Mariners in 2004 and 2005. Then, he found an extra gear on his fastball, added a splitter and became a monster out of the M’s pen. Now, after two lost seasons, Putz has inked a one-year, $3M deal with the White Sox with $3.25M in incentives.
Putz posted nearly six wins above replacement between 2006 and 2007, with rates of 11.2 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9. His mid-90’s fastball posted run values of +2.06 per 100 pitches in ’06 and +2.58 in ’07, with his splitter and slider also causing hitters to walk back to the dugout mumbling to themselves. J.J. had 2.11 xFIP in 2006 and a 2.82 mark in 2007.
Unfortunately, Putz’s time as a bullpen rock star ended there. His 2008 season was marred by ribcage and elbow maladies, limiting him to 46.1 IP. Putz still whiffed plenty of batters (10.88 K/9), but his control deserted him (5.44 BB/9). He pounded the strike zone during his glory days (54 InZone% in 2006 and 2007), but J.J. put just 47.5% of his pitches over the plate in ’08 (the MLB average has been around 50-52% over the past three seasons).
Following the season, Seattle swapped Putz to the Mets as part of a three-team, 12-player deal. Rather than re-establishing his value as K-Rod’s set-up man, Putz threw just 29.1 frames before succumbing to surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow.
He was a shell of his former self in 2009, walking as many batters as he punched out (5.83 K/9 and 5.83 BB/9). Putz’s fastball was down a couple of ticks, and the pitch was plastered (-1.63 runs/100). His contact rate soared, sitting at 82.7% compared to a 76% career average. With Putz a mess on the mound, opposing hitters were content to lay off his stuff (17.9 outside-swing percentage in ’09, compared to about 25% in 2007 and 2008).
Looking at Putz’s Pitch F/X data, there’s an interesting trend in the vertical movement on his splitter. Pitch F/X splits Putz’s off-speed stuff into changeups and splitters, classifying most of them as changeups. I’m going to lump them together here, and call them all splitters. Take a look at the difference in the vertical movement in Putz’s fastball and splitter over the past three years:
Vertical movement on Putz’s fastball and splitter, 2007-2009
Fastball: 10.9 Z
Splitter: 6.4 Z
Difference in vertical movement: 4.5 inches
Fastball: 9.9 Z
Splitter: 4.1 Z
Difference in vertical movement: 5.8 inches
Fastball: 9.8 Z
Splitter: 2.7 Z
Difference in vertical movement: 7.1 inches
There’s now a pronounced difference in vertical movement between Putz’s fastball and splitter. Perhaps there’s a point of diminishing returns with the separation between those two pitches: if there’s too much of a difference, hitters will be able to distinguish between the fastball and splitter and simply lay off those tumbling off-speed pitches they once flailed at.
On the south side, Putz is no better than third in line for save chances, behind incumbent Bobby Jenks (3.63 xFIP in 2009) and set-up man Matt Thornton (2.79 xFIP). Hey, it still beats the Can Am League.
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