Shawn Tolleson, Effective Reliever

Texas pitcher Shawn Tolleson, center, closes out the ninth inning for a save in the Rangers' 4-1 win during the Los Angeles Dodgers vs. the Texas Rangers major league baseball game at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, on Monday, June 15, 2015. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

A few weeks ago, I had the idea to author a piece about Rangers reliever Shawn Tolleson, and not because Tolleson had unofficially usurped the ineffective Neftali Feliz for the ninth inning role. Rather, to exhibit how dominant Tolleson had been on the mound up to that point in the season. Due to my well documented lethargy, the piece was not started nor completed. Since then, Tolleson’s numbers have regressed some, but he has still been very good overall in 2015.

As a team, Rangers relievers rank 28th in baseball in strikeout percentage with a 18.5% mark, respectively. Only the Twins and Tigers are worse. With the Rangers bullpen allowing more balls in play than one would typically prefer, Tolleson’s 25.2% K% is certainly palatable, and is the highest among qualified pitchers on the team. Some might point to Tolleson being ten for ten in save opportunities as to why he has been stellar, but accumulating impressive save totals does not necessarily make a reliever valuable, and if you are reading something I am authoring, you are probably aware as to why. The Texas bullpen has been a mess for the majority of ‘15, yielding a league worst FIP- of 115, and xFIP- of 110, but not due to the performance of Tolleson, as the right hander was not named closer due to some moxie, or closer mentality, or past experience, or whatever. Rather, Tolleson has been the team’s best reliever, and while using your best reliever when the highest leverage situation presents itself is ideal, teams are primarily going to utilize their best reliever in the ninth inning.

Tolleson has yielded a DRA (Deserved Run Average) of 3.53 and cFIP of 75. If you are unaware as to what those two statistics are, read this and this and become more enlightened. If you choose not to, DRA is the new pitching statistic at Baseball Prospectus and is the most descriptive, telling statistic of the runs pitchers should have allowed, while cFIP is a metric which is more predictive and indicative of talent scaled to 100. Any who, Tolleson is also tied for twelfth in baseball with 15 shutdowns (increasing his team’s chances of winning by six percent), while only producing two meltdowns (decreasing chances of winning by six percent). The former Baylor Bear and Allen Eagle has increased his velocity, on his fastball, change up, and slider according to PITCHf/x, while increasing his swinging strike percentage two percentage points and decreasing his zone contact percentage almost three percentage points.

So, what has Tolleson done differently to bolster his production? These are a couple of observations I had of Tolleson in a Friday night exhibition home game against the Mets in early April.

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Much has been written about the advantage of the miles per hour separation delta between the fast ball and the change up. Pitchers desire at least a 10 mph difference if they would like to garner more whiffs, and Tolleson currently sits at a 12.8 MPH difference between the two pitches. Tolleson has increased his usage of the cambio in ‘15, and for good reason, as his swinging strike percentage is 17.3%, which is actually five percentage points lower than last season, but the pitch has still been impactful. With Tolleson using his change-up more often, he has decreased his slider usage. Part of the strategical aspect of pitch sequencing is limiting usage of a pitch can sometimes have a positive impact on the pitch, and now that Tolleson has reduced his slider usage by increasing his change-up usage, the slider has become more useful, striking out 36.8% of hitters when he utilizes the pitch, up exponentially from 8.9% on the pitch in 2014. The wOBA against the slider of .129 is also quite delightful, however here is some more compelling information regarding the change-up.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Gap%, and how the number describes the deception or nastiness of a pitcher. Basically, as a pitcher, you desire more swings outside the zone, and less swings inside it because hitters will typically do less damage when making contact on pitches outside the zone, or are more prone to miss them. The smaller the gap between the O-Swing% and Z-Swing%, the more deceptive the pitcher is. As a reminder, the number is not predictive of future success, but can be telling of the pitch’s treachery. Recently, astute Fangraphs writer, Jeff Sullivan, authored a piece about Felix Hernandez’s curve ball, and the deceptiveness of the pitch. Not just Gap% overall, but the Gap% of the singular pitch. So, since I am awful at coming up with my own ideas, I thought I would look at the Gap% of Tolleson’s change-up and then compare the pitch to other reliever’s signature pitches. I surveyed Twitter to ask what they felt were the filthiest pitches in baseball among dominant relievers, and then compared them to Tolleson’s cambio using Gap%. Here are a few of the responses I received followed by the results.

 

Pitcher (Pitch Type) zSW-2014 oSW-2014 Gap-2014 zSW-2015 oSW-2015 Gap-2015
Shawn Tolleson (CH) 59.30% 26.40% 32.90% 60.40% 45.10% 15.30%
Wade Davis (CT) 72.80% 41.00% 31.80% 65.40% 39.10% 26.30%
Kenley Jansen (CT) 70.10% 28.30% 41.80% 70.60% 31.10% 39.50%
Aroldis Chapman (FB) 64.00% 31.10% 32.90% 68.50% 35.60% 32.90%
Craig Kimbrel (KC) 51.00% 42.20% 8.80% 34.40% 36.20% -1.80%
Sergio Romo (SL) 60.30% 43.50% 16.80% 59.30% 40.00% 19.30%
Koji Uehara (SP) 82.20% 52.80% 29.40% 74.10% 44.90% 29.20%
Andrew Miller (SL) 48.40% 45.90% 2.50% 41.80% 46.20% -4.40%
Dellin Betances (KC) 38.00% 32.00% 6.00% 41.60% 25.70% 15.90%
Joaquin Benoit (CH) 76.70% 48.40% 28.30% 66.70% 48.80% 17.90%
Francisco Rodriguez (CH) 43.60% 36.40% 7.20% 62.20% 18.90% 43.30%

I decided to start the research at the beginning of 2014, which is somewhat arbitrary and selective, but hey, it is my study. Furthermore, I assume Martin meant Wade Davis’ knuckle curve because that pitch is much more deceptive than his cutter, but the crowd gets what they want. Also, Jansen’s cutter and Chapman’s fast ball are not exactly what one would consider deceptive because hitters usually know they are coming, but the pitches are still exceptional.

As one can determine from the table, Tolleson’s Gap% on his change-up has improved more in ’15 than any of the other pitcher’s perceived dominant pitches, albeit in a small sample. Miller’s slider and Kimbrel’s knuckle curve are in a class by themselves, but Tolleson’s Gap% compares favorably to other dominant pitches. Keep in mind, when crowd sourcing Twitter for dominant relief pitches from relievers, not one person mentioned Tolleson’s change-up. I might not classify Tolleson’s change-up as outstanding, or in the same realm overall as some of these other pitches, but in terms of deception, Tolleson’s change-up is at least comparable according to Gap%. So, how is Tolleson so deceptive? Here is what I feel might be a valid explanation.

Recently, Grantland writer Ben Lindbergh authored a piece regarding the new Statcast measurement, perceived velocity. Current Miami Marlin Carter Capps and his jump delivery lead all of baseball in extension and perceived velocity. Tolleson also rates very well in extension as he releases the ball 6.652 inches closer to the plate, so his 93.7 MPH fastball, actually appears to 94.1 MPH to the hitter because with his delivery and extension, the fast ball jumps on hitters a little quicker. With above average extension at his disposal, Tolleson just needs to have a consistent release point with his fastball and change-up to provide more deception, which will then give the hitter more difficulty and less time to determine whether the pitch is a fast ball or change-up.

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Slight difference, but not much. Extension (neither is Gap% for that matter) is not exactly predictive of future success, and plenty of pitchers ranked above Tolleson in extension have pitched poorly, but it appears Tolleson benefits from it with support from a more deceptive delivery.

So, there you have it. Tolleson has made a couple of tweaks with his sequencing, and his release point and extension help augment his deception. The Rangers need Tolleson to continue missing bats because the bullpen frankly does not do enough of that. What is somewhat disconcerting is Tolleson’s strikeout percentage in June is only is 7.9% in 8.2 innings, so hopefully Tolleson has not caught the Rangers pandemic strikeout averse illness because the Rangers need him to reduce the balls in play to decrease the chances of bad bullpen misfortune. Despite his increased contact in June, Tolleson has been effective in ’15, and if he continues to perform well, should be recognized as one of the better relievers in baseball.

Dustin Dietz
Dustin graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, and a minor in history. He will often write about pitching mechanics and analytical baseball stuff. You will more than likely disagree with the majority of what he writes or says. In his spare time, Dustin time travels and plays at a replacement level in slow pitch softball leagues.

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