How The Big Four Have Found Success
They combine to make only $2,070,020. Yet over the past two plus months Shawn Tolleson, Sam Dyson, Keone Kela and Jake Diekman have combined for 95 innings and allowed only 19 runs. How have a waiver claim, a 12th round pick, a throw-in piece and a player acquired for a backup catcher found this success?
Shawn Tolleson – 72.1 IP, 2.99 ERA, 76 K, 17 BB in 2015
The Rangers closer since mid-May, Tolleson has converted 35 of 37 save chances. Not your prototypical power-arm, power-stuff closer, the former Baylor Bear has averaged 92.9 mph on his heater in 2015. Tolleson does two things very well to make up for not having a dominant fastball – commanding his pitches and utilizing his offspead (sliders vs righties, changeups vs lefties).
Tolleson’s slider is one of the better ones in the game. PITCHf/x grades the pitch as the 22nd best slider in 2015 among pitchers who have pitched at least 50 innings. His changeup grades out as about average and seemingly has regressed a bit since the pitch dominated much of the early season. Still a big-league caliber pitch, Tolleson is able to use his change successfully against left-handers which helps him prevent a massive jump in production against by lefty batters which many slider-heavy pitchers see.
As for the command, take a look at the charts above via baseballsavant.com. Notice how many pitches are on the outer half. The numbers against righties total up to 125 pitches on the inner third compared to 351 on the other side. Against lefties – 182 inner third balls vs. 332 outer third ones. Living on the outer half, mostly down as well, is a good recipe for success and this level of command is uncommon from a relief pitcher. Tolly’s plus command has allowed him to have big-league success despite originally being drafted as a 30th round pick and later being placed on waivers by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Jake Diekman – 21.2 IP, 2.08 ERA, 20 K, 7 BB in 2015 w/ Texas
The historically wild Diekman’s adjustments since coming to Texas alongside Cole Hamels have been well documented. More fastballs, less of everything else. The exact numbers:
Fastball %: up from 68.2 to 78.6
Slider %: down from 27 to 18.7
Changeup %: down from 4.7 to 2.6
The results from this shift have been significant. His BB/9, a horrid 5.89 in Philadelphia, sits at 2.91 with Texas. While Diekman’s punchouts have decreased along with the walks from 12.03 to 8.31, his strikeout to walk ratio has improved and the tradeoff is well worth it. The lefty pen piece is also generating more groundballs with Texas, with his groundball percentage up by a little over five points. His velocity has also seen a bump, perhaps unrelated, with the fastball up .5 mph on average and the slider up by 1.5 mph.
Below is his 2015 heatmap against right-handed batters via FanGraphs.
Now vs same-sided hitters.
Diekman has backwards splits. In 2015 left-handed batters are hitting nearly 50 points better than right-handed ones. The heatmaps above explain why, despite his deceptive slingshot motion and premium velocity, Diekman struggles a bit lefties. He simply doesn’t work them outside as well as he does righties. Lately used in more of a lefty specialist role, this may not be what he is best suited for unless he can work glove-side more consistently.
A high left on base rate and low BABIP point to Diekman benefitting from some luck, but the adjustments made both by the southpaw and the Texas coaching staff have paid off. Jake Diekman is now a reliable bullpen piece, something he was not in his 2015 time with Philadelphia.
Sam Dyson – 31.1 IP, 1.15 ERA, 30 K, 4 BB in 2015 w/ Texas
At the time of the trade, Sam Dyson was an effective reliever in Miami. After putting up a 2.14/3.16 ERA/FIP in 2014, the numbers fell to 3.68/3.52 in pre-trade 2015. Since the deal, Dyson has been one of the most dominant relief pitchers in baseball.
Much of this sudden change in success comes from another adjustment made by the Rangers scouting and coaching staff. Prior to the deal, Dyson was throwing just over 69% fastballs. With the Rangers he is throwing the pitch 80.8% of the time. Dyson’s sinker averages at around 96 mph with over seven inches of vertical movement. This puts the pitch as one of, if not the, best sinkers in the league and utilizing it more often has shown up in just about every number.
With the Rangers, Dyson has induced grounders on 75.9% of balls put in play. Projected over a full season, this number would come in behind only Zach Britton of the Baltimore Orioles among pitchers with 30 or more innings.
Not only has hitting the ball in the air off Dyson become more difficult since the trade, hitting the ball at all has been more of a struggle for batters. Contact rate for batters has dropped by nearly 4%, mostly buoyed by a 7.6% increase in O-Swing% (O-Swing% measures the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone which are chased). This has shown up a bit in his strikeout numbers but more so in his walks – down over two walks per nine despite hardly throwing more pitches in the zone.
The wide-ranging effects of more sinker usage have allowed the former South Carolina Gamecock to post a sterling 1.15 ERA with Texas. Sam Dyson has been the best relief pitcher in one of baseball’s better bullpens.
Keone Kela – 60.1 IP, 2.39 ERA, 68 K, 18 BB in 2015
Allow the scouting hat to go on for this one. A year ago when Keone Kela was promoted to Frisco mid-season, he was a hard thrower with an average curve and little control (6.28 BB/9). By the end of the year, the curve was a hammer. By the start of this year, the flamethrower had fixed his control issues (2.69 BB/9).
A year ago, this heatmap looks much different. Where all that blue is to the left would be pink. The upper parts of the zone and up would have higher percentages. Inside the zone would lighten up quite a bit. The command still needs some work – having the middle portion of the zone carry such a large percentage isn’t ideal – but sometimes when a pitcher has the type of stuff Kela’s got then throwing strikes is all it takes.
Below is Kela’s whiff percentage by month for each pitch, via brooksbaseball.net.
With a fastball that typically starts the season at 93-95 and finishes pushing 100, the California native throws gas. Sinking action helps as well and has helped Kela establish a 1.76 groundball to flyball ratio. The curve has been an out pitch for Kela. In the heatmap above, notice the red under the zone. That is where he buries his breaker, getting batters to chase a large portion of the time. The whiff percentages on his curve are extremely high. For reference, Clayton Kershaw’s curve whiff rate is under 20%. Jose Fernandez around 25%. Craig Kimbrel and Dellin Betances about the same. Kela’s curve has become one of the best in baseball. On top of his deadly two pitch mix, he added a change to his repertoire this year which has graded out as a league average pitch.
With dirty stuff and a newfound ability to throw strikes on a consistent basis, Keone Kela’s rookie season has gone as well as anybody could have hoped for.