The primary two months of the offseason had been totally outlined by one participant: Shohei Ohtani. The 2-way star’s departure for (the precise metropolis of) Los Angeles had a very significant impact on his former membership, which is in want of some main strikes to be remotely aggressive in his absence. To fill the Ohtani-sized gap on the roster, the Angels have signed… a 37-year old reliever, two different sidearmers named Adam, and a hurler whose declare to fame is having suffered multiple self-inflicted injuries on account of frustration. Regardless of these lackluster additions, ZiPS views this group reasonably favorably given the circumstances – nowhere close to title favorites, however not full embarrassments both. And whereas not one of the relievers they’ve added to this point will actually transfer the needle in both route, their newest signing provides a big high-leverage arm to the combo, with righty Robert Stephenson inking a three-year deal worth $33 million to come back to Anaheim.
Stephenson’s profession previous to hitting free company was, in a phrase, inconsistent. The Reds introduced him up as a starter whose management points pushed him to the ‘pen; since then he’s handled persistent dwelling run points, maybe anticipated from a fly ball-heavy pitcher who’s performed in Cincinnati and Colorado. However flashes of wonderful stuff had been all the time there, together with a 2019 marketing campaign the place he ranked third amongst all relievers in swinging strike price. When he thrived, he did so due to an absolute fantastic thing about a slider, thrown with sharp, downward chew. Whereas the fastball was typically hammered with ease, his breaking ball ran a profession whiff price north of 45%. He threw it over half the time with the Reds and Pirates (however not the Rockies, due to course not). In an alternate universe, Stephenson may have performed out the yr in Pittsburgh earlier than hitting the open market as simply one other faceless center reliever. However in early June, a Tampa Bay Rays group in dire need of reinforcements got here calling for his companies, and he did this:
Robert Stephenson as a Ray
Rankings are out of 188 certified pitchers
The Rays didn’t simply enhance Stephenson, they turned him into the very best reliever in baseball. These numbers are absurd outliers, particularly his swinging strike price, which bested second-place Félix Bautista by almost eight share factors. He commanded the zone like no different, getting hitters to swing at every part whereas arising empty on meaty strikes. The Rays getting probably the most out of each reliever with a pulse looks like a drained narrative at this level, however they proceed to churn out arms at a powerful price regardless of advances in improvement and scouting by the remainder of the league. And their work with Stephenson is perhaps probably the most Rays-ian, unorthodox transfer doable.
Usually instances, pitch arsenals are the low-hanging fruit that savvy groups can pluck (or reasonably, tweak) to their benefit. The Rays have been forward of the curve within the league-wide development of throwing fewer fastballs, and the tales of their pitchers crafting new pitches, especially sliders, are plentiful. They’ve additionally embraced (or kickstarted) the rise of the sweeper, throwing the fourth-most of any group within the Statcast period whereas chasing down pitchers with outlier release points that contribute to horizontal motion. Given their tendencies, perhaps they’d delete Stephenson’s fastball in a Matt Wisler-esque transfer, or flip his common slider right into a whirly. As a substitute, they went in the other way in pitch motion, opting to remodel Stephenson’s slider into a harder cutter:
Robert Stephenson’s Revamped Pitch Combine
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Actually in a single day, Stephenson realized a brand new pitch and ascended to elite standing on its again. His new main pitch sacrificed virtually all of its horizontal motion for elevated velocity, counting on the pitch’s relative lack of motion in comparison with different fastballs to catch hitters off guard. By season’s finish, he ranked third in cutter pitch worth, behind two starters with 1,786 and 693 cutters thrown; Stephenson had simply 316. With its four-tick improve in velocity over the previous slider, his retooled cutter extra intently resembled his fastball out of the hand, stopping hitters from ready for a dangling slider and giving them much less time to react.
Stephenson additionally commanded his cutter much better than his slider. He landed each pitches within the zone at an analogous price, however he wasted far fewer cutters and persistently positioned them proper beneath the zone for chases and misses. When opposing hitters noticed a cutter off the plate, they nonetheless swung over half the time and with poor outcomes; Stephenson was one among just three pitchers to generate constructive run worth within the “chase” space of the zone. ZiPS is absolutely purchased in on Stephenson’s changes and forecasts a low-three ERA with a strikeout price round 32%, which is spectacular even when it’s not on the earth-shattering degree he reached final season.
We haven’t actually checked in on the state of the Angels’ roster this offseason, although it’s not like they’ve given us many causes to. For this pitching workers, which has solely made marginal upgrades till now, 2024 shall be a crucial yr in figuring out whether or not they can achieve Ohtani’s absence. Due to his classification as a two-way participant, the Angels have been allowed an additional pitcher on their roster over the previous three years, enabling them to maintain a totally stocked bullpen whereas operating a six-man rotation. Whereas RosterResource at present tasks them to return to a five-man system, there are workload issues with this transition. None of their homegrown starters have ever made 30 begins in a season, and solely Tyler Anderson has ever certified for the ERA title.
With that in thoughts, it is sensible for the group to have taken a quantity-over-quality method to including bullpen arms, anticipating a necessity for any heat our bodies who can slot in throughout the season. Along with the 9 pitchers who’re on the 40-man roster however not projected to interrupt camp, the Angels shall be anticipating former nearer José Quijada to make a midseason return from Tommy John surgical procedure and will produce other rookies ready within the wings from their all-pitcher draft three seasons in the past. However an abundance of arms is not any assure of success. Previous to Stephenson’s signing, no Angel reliever had a projected ERA- of 95 or higher; the Rays, alternatively, have 9 such arms.
Previous to the 2022 season, the Angels inked three relievers to multi-year contracts with the hope of elevating a workers that had ranked twenty third in ERA- the yr prior. Two years later, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera had been every designated for project following uninspiring tenures, whereas star nearer Raisel Iglesias was traded away functionally totally free in a cost-cutting transfer. Since then, their aid corps has solely gotten worse, bottoming out final season with a collective 4.88 ERA and 0.6 WAR. For this group to remotely sniff success within the close to future, they’ll have to rapidly rebuild in an space they’ve been bleeding worth for the higher a part of a decade. And Stephenson, the very best reliever left available on the market, is a stable place to begin.