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Grasping At Straws: Hector Noesi As A Reliever

Could Hector Noesi be a decent reliever?


As you'll recall, Hector Noesi worked predominantly as a starting pitcher for the Mariners last season. He started 18 games -- 17 of them before a mid-season demotion to Tacoma -- and I have exactly two positive memories from the experience: his eight innings of shutout ball against Oakland last April, and the two hits he produced at the plate in a game against San Diego. That's not to say that he only played well twice: a look at his 2012 game log reveals that he had a good outing against a lousy Twins club last April, and that he pitched an alright game in Cleveland a week and a half later. He also seems to have suffered a tough-luck loss against Texas in a contest that has completely escaped my memory. The rest though: the rest was pretty awful.

In short, 2012 was not a year where Noesi gave fans a plethora of happy memories. In fact, I have more positive recollections of Jeff Gray than I do of Noesi and Jeff Gray's own manager forgot he existed for a month. There's nothing scientific in and of itself about that comparison, but it leads to the same conclusion as, say, a glance at Noesi's pitcher slash (his ERA, FIP, and xFIP were all over five, for those curious).

The bottom line is that nothing went right for the 6-foot-3 right-hander last year. He was billed as a pitcher capable of generating ground balls, yet had one of the higher fly ball rates on the team. He didn't strike many people out. He threw too many meatballs. He walked a lot of people for a pitcher touted for his control. Opposing batters hit 21 homers against him in only 106 innings. He couldn't get righties out. He couldn't get lefties out. Then there was that famously weird problem where hitters suddenly turned into Josh Hamilton when they fell behind in the count (opponents hit .333/.361.598 when starting in an 0-2 hole). Yes, it's fair to say that nothing really went right for Noesi.

2013 didn't start well either. He was among the first cuts in spring training, and was sent all the way back to Double-A "to get (his) mind clear." That's a significant demotion for someone who hasn't pitched below Triple-A since 2010.

A couple of crisp starts in Jackson landed him back in Tacoma soon enough, however. By mid-April he was again a Mariner, albeit, as a reliever this go-around.

Noesi reportedly had mixed feelings about his promotion. He was happy to be back in the majors, but he still sees himself as a starter. In a sense, he's kind of in limbo in his current role. He's where he wants to be, but he's not doing exactly what he wants. Many people can probably relate to such an identity crisis.

Demeanor aside, I do wonder if his move to the bullpen will be a bit more permanent than the 26-year-old wants it to be.

As a starter, Noesi technically has the tools to be successful. He throws reasonably hard, has a slider for righties, a changeup for lefties, and a curveball he can throw to either handed hitters. None of those pitches are particularly sharp, but he does have them. Despite walk rates that would suggest otherwise, he also has decent control and he's capable of throwing plenty of strikes.

His problem as a starter last year was twofold: first, the aforementioned lack of a sharp breaking ball. The primary reason he struggled so much in two-strike counts was his lack of a go-to put away pitch; neither of his offspeed pitches have enough bite to entice hitters to flail at pitches in the dirt and his fastball isn't quite lively enough for him to survive pitching up in the zone frequently.

Additionally, Noesi has more control than command. He's a strike thrower, but he struggles at times to make quality pitches, whether in or out of the strike zone. As mentioned, this has been particularly problematic for him when he's ahead in the count. Last year he allowed 10 homers with two strikes, six of which came when he was ahead 0-2 or 1-2. He has to make better pitches in those situations.

The question Noesi hopes the Mariners aren't asking is whether either of those problems will go away in a relief role. Or, if not go away, at least dissipate enough to suggest that he could pitch effectively out of the bullpen.

Tentatively, I'd posit that they might. It sounds hackneyed to say, but Noesi benefits from getting a 1-3 MPH boost on his pitches when throwing in shorter stints.* He's sitting 94-95 with his fastball as a reliever, instead of 92-93 as a starter. For a guy who desperately needs to generate more whiffs, that's a welcome development. It's particularly helpful because he can get away with a few more mistakes at a higher velocity; hitters tend to square up slower pitches more often than fast ones. Given his command problems, that's not insignificant.

* Not everyone gets such a benefit. Blake Beavan, for instance, hasn't seen his stuff jump at all out of the 'pen yet.

He's also having a bit more success with his change up. He's thrown it 21 times and induced six whiffs. Encouragingly, he's getting a bit more horizontal break on the pitch than he did last year. I went back and looked at Noesi's outings, and anecdotally, the pitch looked pretty good. If it actually turns into a reliable offering, it's not crazy to think that a guy throwing 95 with a decent changeup could end up as a useful middle reliever.

Does that mean Noesi is now an intriguing relief prospect? I don't know, I'm just grasping at straws. He's thrown seven innings out of the bullpen, and we all know that it's a mistake to get carried away with that kind of a sample.

Still, if I was asked before the season what the chances that Noesi could pitch effectively out of the bullpen were, I'd have said something like x%, where x was a fairly low number. Now, after seeing him have a bit of success, and seeing him have success because certain skills have improved, those chances are now x plus something, or at the very least, not x minus something. It's still a low number: it's not like he's Tom Wilhelmsen circa-August 2011 where he just suddenly started throwing strikes and shifted from an up and down guy to a closer in the span of a week. But the signs, subtle and small as they may be, aren't discouraging.

Hector Noesi will probably always be disappointing to Mariner fans. He doesn't look like he'll ever be the back-end starter many suggested he could be, and he's certainly shown no signs of developing into anything more. In 2013, though, he's flashed indications that he could be a major league reliever. That's not exciting, and it's much less than we all wanted. It's not nothing though, and given where he was at the end of spring training and how I -- and probably all of you -- felt about him, I would have taken Noesi-as-middle-reliever in a heart beat.

In conclusion, earlier this week the Mariners had the opportunity to keep either Noesi or Beavan in their bullpen, and they chose the former option. It's probably not the right time to use an appeal to authority argument with the Seattle Mariners front office, so I'll refrain from that. However, their decision to keep Noesi seems to suggest that the organization, at the moment, thinks he has a better chance of getting major league hitters out than Beavan. It's up to you whether that counts for something or not.