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The transformation of Brandon Maurer

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After struggling as a starting pitcher at the beginning of the year, Brandon Maurer was able to reinvent himself as a top-notch reliever.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

If I were a bright-eyed, 19-year-old undergrad enrolled in my first-ever creative writing class, I might describe Brandon Maurer's 2014 season as a fiery zeppelin, once filled with the buoyant helium of hope and youth and prospect, tragically crashing into a choppy, iron sea... only to reemerge, reformed as a fiery Phoenix of unparalleled heat and dominance and beauty.

The point being that at the beginning of the year (as a starter), Maurer was not good. He was bad. He struggled with his command (3.9 BB/9!) and failed to miss bats (87.9% contact rate!). In his seven starts, he averaged less than five innings per outing and gave up a total of 29 runs. Nothing was working. (He also struggled as a starter last year.) To be fair, the Mariners didn't seem to think Maurer was ready to join their starting rotation this year; he was only called up on April 20th after if it became clear that Iwakuma and Walker and Paxton (and even Blake Beavan!) couldn't be counted on to start until (much) later in the season.

Maurer lasted a little more than a month before he was sent back to Tacoma on May 30th. While with the Rainers, he logged 11 relief appearances, making the (overdue?) transition into a reliever. On the 25th of June, he was recalled to the M's... and things weren't quite the same.

Maurer as a SP 32.1 4.73 3.90 1.39 0.314 1.76 0.330 56.0% 7.52 5.39 5.29 -0.2
Maurer as a RP 37.1 9.16 1.21 0.24 0.214 0.96 0.283 75.1% 2.17 1.85 2.99 0.9

That is a profound difference. ~40 IP is certainly a small sample size, but if Maurer had pitched that well out of relief for the whole 2014 season, he probably would've been one of the top-10 relievers in all of baseball. (Reminder that Maurer will be 24 at the beginning of next season and is under club control for the remainder of this decade. Woo!) Anyway, a bump in a player's rate stats after converting from a starting pitcher to a reliever is hardly unexpected. Relievers have the luxury of only facing a batter/lineup once, which enables them to rely more heavily on their best pitch(es). They also (generally) see a greater number of favorable matchups, and the relative brevity of their outings allows them to throw harder without having to worry about pacing themselves as much. However, even with all of these favorable factors, I'm still really impressed by Maurer's transformation into such an exceptional bullpen arm.

Let's look at a few more tables:

LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB O-Swing Z-Swing Swing O-Contact Z-Contact Contact Zone F-Str SwStr
SP 19% 40% 42% 4% 10% 24% 68% 45% 85% 89% 88% 47% 58% 5%
RP 17% 39% 43% 13% 2% 36% 68% 52% 58% 81% 73% 51% 68% 13%
SP 44% 92.4 -0.20 9% 93 -4.72 23% 89.5 -1.18 9% 74 -3.72 15% 84.6 -0.57
RP 43% 96.2 1.96 9% 94.8 0.38 34% 89.2 -0.43 1% 78.1 3.65 10% 85.6 5.41

Based on Maurer's batted ball numbers, it doesn't seem as though he dramatically changed his approach as a reliever. His strikeout rate did almost double, but his flyball:groundball ratios were virtually the same; it just appears as though he's inducing weaker contact as a reliever (higher IFFB%, fewer home runs). He's also been able to locate his pitches much more consistently (much fewer walks) and his actual stuff appears to be much more effective/deceptive (the drop in contact rate and the rise in O-swing rate are very dramatic). Somewhat unsurprisingly, his pitch values for all of his pitches increased as a reliever. His four-seam fastball is about four mph faster and the difference between his fastball and his changeup increased to almost 11 mph. It also looks like he's more or less abandoned his curveball and is going to his slider with increased frequency. (The pitch characterization by PITCHf/x can be a little dicey sometimes, so you probably shouldn't take these values as absolutes, but they're likely not too far off.)

I should also point out that Maurer actually ran some pretty large backwards splits this year, especially when he came in as a reliever:

As a reliever* AB K BB BAA OBP SLG OPS ISO
vs LHH 59 21 1 0.169 0.183 0.203 0.386 0.034
vs RHH 83 17 2 0.253 0.270 0.361 0.631 0.108
vs all 142 38 3 0.218 0.234 0.296 0.530 0.077

*I used data from Brooks Baseball to compile the splits for this table. They lacked information about the number of sacrifices, so the rate stats might be off by a little.

Brandon Maurer's K rate against left handed batters was pretty wild. Anyway, in looking at all of these numbers, one thing that strikes me as particularly impressive is the success that Maurer (as a reliever) had with his changeup. He didn't throw this pitch super often (only ~10% of the time), but it was very effective. In fact, according to PITCHf/x, the changeup thrown by the reliever-version of Brandon Maurer was the most valuable pitch (in terms of runs above average per 100 pitches) thrown by any Seattle Mariner last year. Of the ~70 MLB relievers in 2014 who threw at least 30 innings and regularly utilized a changeup (≤10% of the time), Maurer's ranked as the BEST changeup in baseball. (Joaquin Benoit was next best with a wCH/C of 3.64.) Please, please, please recognize that I'm not implying that Maurer's changeup is definitely better than Felix's; I'm merely trying to point out that although Maurer is probably best known for his ability to throw hard, his changeup is also a formidable weapon.

Brooks Baseball says this about Maurer's changeup:

[Maurer's] change generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers' changeups, is much firmer than usual, results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers' changeups, has a lot of backspin, and has slight armside fade.

This is a pitch that he threw almost exclusively to lefties (more than 80% of the ~70 changeups he threw this year were thrown to LHHs). His changeup generated a whiff rate of more than 50% and when the ball was put into play it was not done so with authority:

Maurer changeup hit chart

Batters reached base against reliever-Maurer's changeup exactly zero times in 2014. (For comparison, batters hit .263/.391/.368 against Maurer's changeup when he started this season.)

Of course, individual pitches shouldn't be viewed in a vacuum. A consistent release point, intelligent sequencing, and the number/quality of the other pitches in a pitcher's repertoire all have an extreme influence on how effective any individual pitch is. However, despite being quite good, Maurer's changeup doesn't seem to be his "out" pitch. He appears to mostly use it to keep left-handed hitters honest, preventing them from sitting on either his fastball or his slider; the large differences in the speed and the horizontal/vertical movement between his hard pitches and his change make it that much more difficult for a batter to adjust mid-swing if they've guessed wrong. This likely leads to either whiffs or weak contact. Also, because he has the ability to ~dependably locate his changeup in the zone, even when hitters don't swing away he can still steal the occasional strike.

Maybe it's a bit silly to get excited about a pitch that reliever-Maurer only threw ~70 times this year... but I've just spent ~1400 words doing so. Regardless, Maurer's ability to spot his changeup makes his fastball and his slider much more effective, which is a good thing for Maurer, and the Mariners, and Mariners fans. I've barely scratched the surface looking into what has made Maurer so much better as a reliever than he was as a starter, but I think I'll stop here. If anyone else wants to take a detailed look at any of his other numbers (maybe write a fan post?), I heartily encourage you to do so.

In the past we've discussed how volatile relief pitchers are from year to year, but as of today Maurer is definitely a valuable asset to this team. I'm excited to see what he can do moving forward. Thankfully, pitchers and catchers report in only about 130 days... the countdown is on. Go M's.