The Reliever Without a Fastball

A couple of minor transactions have floated by mostly un-noticed on the wires recently, and probably for good reason. Mickey Storey was claimed by the Yankees from the Astros, and Cory Burns was traded to the Rangers from the Padres for a player to be named someday. Neither of these relievers cost much, nor will they end up closing for their new teams. They’re mostly just flotsam pieces of spaghetti to fling at the wall. There’s a link between these two relievers, and it’s a thread that will run through most fungible, cheaply acquired players in baseball — neither reliever has a fastball.

The fastball-less reliever seems like some sort of sad sasquatch. After all, the fastball is the most-thrown pitch across baseball (56.7%), and relievers like it even more (60.9%). The conventional wisdom is that the bullpen is where you go when you’ve got a fastball, bu only one other pitch. If you can’t hump it up there, how’s your slop going to work?

Sort the 2012 relievers by fastball usage (minimum 10 innings pitched), and then click it again, and you get a proxy for the worst fastballs in bullpens last year. You’ll also get a list of players that includes Burns (fourth-fewest fastballs with 31.7%) and Storey (17th-fewest, 37%). You have to go all the way down to 25th on the list — Mike Adams, with 39.8% fastballs — before you see a player that might sign a multi-year major league contract this season. And that top 25 really only features three relievers that would register on a national level in Adams, Brandon Lyon, and Sergio Romo.

Romo could really be the archetype here. Drafted in the 28th-round, he proceeded to tear apart every level of the Giant’s organization. He’s never had a bad year. His fastball has never averaged over 90 mph, he stopped using a majority of the time two years ago, and yet he’s averaged over a strikeout per inning since A-ball. He’s been dominant, really. And, in over five hundred career innings, he has only 41 career saves. The fastball is part of what has made him excellent — just look at the final pitch of the world series to see how it works for him — but it has also kept him down.

One of the knocks on Romo has been his bouts of elbow tenderness. Throw a slider that many times, and it’s probably a bad idea. So maybe this lack of a fastball can lead to more injuries as you’re throwing the junk over and over again. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek are on this list. They might agree. Being slider-heavy also makes you prone to the platoon splits commensurate with the pitch, as you can tell from the names mentioned so far. James Russell knows about this problem some, too, just from the other side of the mound. There’s a reason to worry about a guy with a slider and no great fastball, in other words.

You might also want to cull this list of the cutter users. Bryan Shaw doesn’t use a fastball much (1.8%, least in baseball last season), but he uses a 92.8 mph cutter 81.1% of the time. You could say he has a fastball. Ditto Scott Atchison, Brandon Lyon and Scott Feldman, who all use a cutter enough to make their combined ‘fastball’ usage line up with league norms.

But there is the other kind of fastball-less reliever that’s on this list, too. This group includes the Storeys and Burnses of the world. These relievers have multiple non-fastball pitches that help them avoid bad platoon splits, but they just don’t have a fastball. Burns throws a changeup over 60% of the time and a slider 5% of the time. Storey has a slider (38.4%), curveball (22.2%) and a changeup (5.1%). Clayton Mortensen throws a slider (39.7%) and a changeup (25.5%). Matt Guerrier once got a multi-year contract, and he throws a slider (38.4%), curveball (22.2%) and a changeup (3.7%). Carlos Villanueva is available, and he threw a slider (23.6%), a curveball (11.8%) and a changeup (25.6%) last season. Sean Marshall (32.1% FB, 17.5% SL, 12% CT, 38.4% CB) could be a patron saint of the “everything but a fastball” group, and he just saw his closer role taken by a big dude with big(-ish) fastball and inferior results on a multi-year contract.

Add cutters to fastballs. Remove all pitchers that throw the slider more than 40% of the time. Sort for the least cutters+sliders… and Cory Burns rises to the top. He’s the real reliever without a fastball. Newly joining him on this top-20 list (full list below) are pitchers like Brandon Gomes, Joel Peralta and J.P. Howell — all pitchers that have found success with iffy fastballs, all valued more by the Rays than anyone.

Point is, these guys have pitches. They just don’t have fastballs. Since they are relievers, you usually don’t have to give them many years, so the injury risk isn’t as big a deal. And as you can tell by the names, they aren’t an expensive group, despite their collective four-ish FIP.

Maybe your team could use a reliever without a fastball.

Cory Burns 31.7% 89.2 5.1% 81.8 63.1% 79.8 3.65
Freddy Garcia 33.2% 88.6 34.8% 81.7 6.6% 72.8 14.1% 80.9 11.3% 80.6 3.99
Jaye Chapman 33.5% 90 26.4% 81.7 40.1% 82 3.59
Jose Arredondo 34.3% 90.9 10.7% 83.8 55.0% 84.4 4.27
Clayton Mortensen 34.8% 88.6 39.7% 85.4 25.5% 81.4 4.74
Matt Guerrier 35.7% 90.4 38.4% 86.9 22.2% 77.3 3.7% 81.6 6.31
Mickey Storey 37.0% 89.8 35.4% 80.2 22.4% 71.1 5.1% 78.6 2.8
Carlos Villanueva 38.9% 89.3 23.6% 82.1 11.8% 73.7 25.6% 81.4 4.95
Jairo Asencio 41.0% 92.1 20.0% 82.1 39.0% 85.6 4.76
James Russell 42.0% 89.1 87.2 39.2% 81.4 6.2% 73.6 12.6% 81.8 3.48
Brandon Gomes 42.4% 90.1 35.4% 78.5 22.3% 82.5 5.25
Huston Street 42.8% 89 39.3% 83.9 17.9% 80.7 2.2
Francisco Cordero 43.0% 92.3 27.0% 85.8 5.9% 77.9 24.1% 84.9 6.02
Manny Acosta 43.1% 94 33.8% 82 23.1% 87.1 4.85
Donnie Veal 43.5% 92.4 54.4% 78.3 2.2% 83 1.09
Joel Peralta 43.7% 90.3 24.1% 78.6 32.2% 81.6 3.14
Ramon Ramirez 44.1% 91.1 22.4% 87 33.6% 86.1 3.93
Sean Marshall 44.1% 90.8 86.4 17.5% 84.3 38.4% 77 2.24
Jose Valdez 44.4% 93.8 55.6% 83.5 4.51
J.P. Howell 44.4% 86 39.6% 78.6 16.1% 80 4.78

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers’ fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A’s or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Bad Bill
Bad Bill

Nice analysis and something to think about, but I wonder about one thing. There are a few guys on here — Mortensen and Guerrier are the clearest — who throw “hard” sliders that are less than 4 mph off their fastballs. Given that the most proficient practitioner of a cutter here (Marshall) throws one that’s farther off the two-seamer than that, and that the movement of a cutter seems to have much in common with a slider (unless I’m misreading both f/x and my view of the pitches at the park), might the designations need a little fine tuning? Not that that’s likely to change the conclusions of the article, and I realize that there are (usually) difference in the mechanics, but I’ve always wondered about the pedigree of these sorta-off-speed pitches and this might be a time to delve into that.