Yesterday's loss was a defined by a growing sense of dread and helplessness. Once Steve Clevenger allowed a ball to wiggle through the five-hole, allowing Brett Gardner to score from the 3rd and putting the Yankees up 4-3 in the 5th you felt the Mariners had, realistically, two innings to score before the game was over.
There was a reason for that, or rather, two reasons: Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. While suspended reliever Aroldis Chapman may actually have the best stuff of any relief pitcher in baseball, Betances and Miller are both not far behind. They have similar traits in the sense that both throw two pitches, very hard, for strikes. So far it has worked, and here are some absurd small sample size numbers to prove it:
Or, if you like your comic absurdity in tweet form:
33 outs recorded by Miller and Betances this year. 27 K's.— Sweeny Murti (@YankeesWFAN) April 17, 2016
It's hard to pinpoint exactly if the fetishizing of the elite power arm reliever came about due to the new found abundance of power arms, or if the demand has created the supply. Either way, it's no secret that, thanks to programs like Driveline and studies indicating it's importance in generating outs, a pitcher's ability to generate velocity is de rigueur in MLB these days.
The Mariners are no strangers to upper 90's fastballs. From J.J. Putz, Tom Wilhelmsen, Stephen Prior, Carter Capps, and others over the years, the team has featured plenty of fastballs among the game's fastest. However, the 2016 bullpen has been assembled to maintain leads with relatively pedestrian stuff. Of the three pitchers seemingly favored by Scott Servais in the season's first two weeks, Joaquin Benoit, Joel Peralta, and Steve Cishek, none have an average fastball greater than 93 MPH.
But toiling through mop up duty and the relative obscurity of 6th and 7th inning relief, the Mariners may have not one but two pitchers who profile much more ideally to the modern concept of the elite reliever. Enter Tony Zych and Mike Montgomery.
Tony Zych, famously acquired from the Cubs for cash considerations amounting to the sum of one (1) American dollar, has already caught the eye of many Mariner fans late in 2015 thanks to 18.1 innings with a K/BB ratio of almost 8/1. In 2016's very small sampling of six innings Zych has K/9 of 14.85, near Yankee-bullpen reliever. Zych's average fastball velocity of 95.3 gets him on the front page of the velocity leaderboard at Fangraphs, and his slider, while still seemingly a work in progress at times, well:
That is a pitch in search of a nickame, and I'll gladly take your ideas. Current working ideas: "WZF", "The Business", "Satan's Frisbee".
Of all the pitchers in the Mariner bullpen, Tony Zych is perhaps the only one with the stuff to profile as a flame-throwin', soul-suckin', Tony Zych Woooooooooo three outs of guaranteed pain reliever that is the face of modern MLB relief.
As for Mike Montgomery, the former first rounder has seen the hoped for velocity increase that often comes from transitioning from starter to reliever:
While it's easy to love a fastball touching 96 from the left side it's the increased sharpness of the dive in Montgomery's curveball that has me dreaming of what could be:
Now, the idea of "Mike Montgomery: Relief Ace" may sound a bit far fetched, and that's because it is. A good fastball and a biting curve do not Andrew Miller make. But as Mike Montgomery is in the infancy of his time as a reliever it's fun to note the similarities the two have in career path. Both are 1st round draft picks, highly rated prospects who languished for years through multiple organizations before transitioning to relief and seeing a noticeable uptick in quality of stuff.
It's important to qualify that while I make this comparison I use it only in reference to Montgomery's absolute ceiling, if not even beyond it. Andrew Miller is one of the 3-4 best relief pitchers alive, and prognosticating career paths for a pitcher with all of six major league innings in relief is beyond small sample size. This is just a basic comparison of stuff, and career path. Mike Montgomery is in the very infancy of his new life in the major leagues, and we're just letting ourselves dream a little bit about who he could be when he's all grown up.
The Mariners have constructed this year's bullpen around track record and experience. I'm sure this has been done partially to attempt to zig while the rest of baseball zags towards elite stuff. It has led to a back end of the bullpen that appears unlikely to suffer from last year's catastrophic meltdowns, but also one incapable of slamming the door shut with a finality and ferocity the likes of which the Mariners just experienced yesterday in New York.
The pure stuff of Tony Zych and Mike Montgomery will not be sufficient to convince Scott Servais to allow them to pitch the high leverage situations it's so easy to see them dominating in our best case scenarios, nor should it be. However, if the team can continue to develop one or both, and if their phenomenal stuff starts catching more of the strike zone, it makes sense to look for opportunities to test them out in more than mop up duty, which has been largely their usage so far in 2016.
For a roster that at this exceedingly early juncture looks every bit to be the good-but-not-great team many of us envisioned, the task is on Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto to squeeze every last win out of it through optimal roster efficiency. The stuff of Tony Zych and Mike Montgomery could potentially form a lockdown, late inning 1-2 combination that helps them do just that.
As another writer here is fond of saying: To ceilings.