Jerry Dipoto has wasted no time forming the annual pile, claiming LHP Dean Kiekhefer off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday afternoon.
The #Mariners have claimed LHP Dean Kiekhefer off waivers from St. Louis. The 40-man roster is now at 36 players.— MarinersPR (@MarinersPR) November 4, 2016
Kiekhefer has been in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system since he was drafted in 2010 and made his major league debut this past season, posting a 4.92 xFIP and 0.0 fWAR in 22.0 innings.
If you’re like me, you spent the next twenty minutes arguing with your friends/coworkers/fellow LL writers (hello, John and Kate)/cat about how the hell ‘Kiekhefer’ is pronounced. If you’re even more so like me, you shook off the overwhelming feeling that he is just a waiver claim relief pitcher, the most insignificant version of both waiver claims and relief pitchers, and wondered if he might be able to contribute in any way to the 2017 Seattle Mariners.
The first thing that stands out to me is Kiekhefer’s walk-rates. From 2013 to 2015 (191.1 IP), his highest BB/9 at any stop was 1.64 and that was by a fairly significant margin; in 2014, he posted a <0.80 BB/9 mark across multiple levels. He slipped up a bit in this area in 2016, with his BB/9 ballooning up to 2.08 in 34.2 IP in AAA-Memphis and 2.86 in St. Louis. Regardless, he seems to be the kind of guy you can rely on to throw strikes in his brief appearances.
The next thing that sticks out to me is how drastically different he approaches righties and lefties. Let’s take a look at the usage percentages of his pitches in 2016, with trusty ol’ Brooks Baseball providing the numbers:
There’s a lot going on here. He threw 207 pitches to left-handed hitters and not one of them was a changeup. Instead, he was slider-heavy to the lefties and used every damn one of his changeups for righties. Both pitches graded out equally poor at Fangraphs (Slider: -3.59 wSL/C, Changeup: -3.56 wCH/C) so maybe it didn’t matter much, but the drastic difference in pitch selection is interesting.
Speaking of value, we should probably look at how good these pitches are. I know I mentioned the value of the slider and changeup in the last paragraph, but let’s paint a little clearer of a picture here:
Consistency! You’ll know pretty much exactly what you’re getting out of Kiekhefer on a month-to-month basis: a high-80s fastball, a low-80s changeup, and a high-70s slider.
For me, the fastball is by far his most interesting pitch. His arm slot and unique mechanics give it some pretty sexy movement at times, as seen below:
He used it well against left-handed hitters, limiting them to a .039 ISO and .192 SLG% in 2016 (RHH: .136 ISO and .273 SLG%). FanGraphs has it as his most effective pitch, at 2.45 wFB/C.
So the question, of course, is what does this all mean? Could he play a role on the 2017 Mariners? I think there’s some potential there as a reliable LOOGY. The fastball is fine and the off-speed stuff is still improving. He talked about it some during an interview this past season:
As for that changeup, look for Kiekhefer to feature it more frequently moving forward, particularly against right-handed hitters. He changed the grip on it last season while simultaneously working to sharpen his slider, which he hoped could become a weapon against left-handed batters...
"The weakest part of my game coming up has always been my offspeed pitches, and that hindered me a little bit to right-handed batters," Kiekhefer said. "Now I feel like, with the two-seam fastball and changeup, I have a pretty good mix to where I can get them out.”
And honestly, all available information we have on Kiekhefer suggests his poor numbers were a result of misuse by the Cardinals and that he’d actually be able to perform admirably in a LOOGY role. Here’s a look at his splits in 2016:
Whether his off-speed stuff improves in 2017 will be a major factor in how effective and versatile he can be. Right now, I’d only trust him against lefties, and that’s assuming Furbush doesn’t return to Seattle and Nuno is off getting Servais’ laundry during the game.
If he’s their number one LOOGY option entering Spring Training, something went very wrong, but Kiekhefer is a perfectly fine addition for the Mariners and could have some value at various points of the 2017 season. Or the Mariners could waive him tomorrow to make room for the next waiver claim. Hell, I don’t know.