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The Quiet Emergence of Emilio Pagan

The rookie reliever has thrived as garbage time king, but is he ready for a bigger role?

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two months, Emilio Pagan has emerged as something of a modest revelation for the Seattle Mariners. The rookie reliever has earned his keep on the big-league club as a bona fide innings-gobbler, quietly bringing stability and depth to the bullpen while soaking up outs with seeming impunity.

Though Pagan’s major league debut in early May left something to be desired (more on that in a moment), he’s been nearly immaculate in his 21.1 innings since; his FIP of 1.74 in that stretch is good for 6th best in all of baseball among relievers, and he has surrendered just a single run.

Best FIP by a reliever since 5/23

Relievers since 5/23/17 FIP IP K/9 BB/9 ER
Relievers since 5/23/17 FIP IP K/9 BB/9 ER
Tommy Kahnle 0.98 25.1 14.2 1.1 7
Roberto Osuna 1.15 27.0 13.7 1.3 6
Brandon Morrow 1.21 22.2 11.1 1.2 5
Craig Kimbrel 1.32 24.0 16.5 1.9 4
Felipe Rivero 1.71 30.2 10.9 2.6 2
Emilio Pagan 1.74 21.1 10.1 2.1 1

Pagan has already accumulated the second highest fWAR of any Mariners reliever this year (tied with Edwin Díaz at 0.5 and trailing only Nick Vincent’s 1.4 in about half as many innings), an unsung but vital cog in what’s become one of baseball’s best bullpens since the All-Star break.

That’s no small achievement for a 26-year-old rookie who was little more than an afterthought entering the 2017 season, a middle-tier prospect excluded from the initial 40-man roster. But Pagan’s progression to the majors has been surprisingly linear, if largely unheralded.

Selected by the M’s in the 10th round of the 2013 draft out of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, (which a cursory Google search confirms is, in fact, a thing), the young reliever ascended gradually through the low minors, filling out his 6’3 frame and adding velocity at each successive level.

After an eye-popping 45 strikeouts over 30.2 innings in Double-A Jackson to ring in the 2016 season, Pagan earned a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma where, despite a career-high HR/9 rate, he finished the year firmly ensconced in the middle of a motley Rainiers bullpen.

Pagan’s minor league success earned him a trip to the 2017 World Baseball Classic as a member of team Puerto Rico. He went on to toss a pair of scoreless innings in the tournament, his small contribution to help guide his squad to the WBC final—bleached-blond hair and all.

World Baseball Classic - Championship Round - Game 3 - United States v Puerto Rico
How many blondes does it take to reach the final of the World Baseball Classic?
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

On May 2nd, after a torrent of injuries and more than a little bad luck, the Mariners, firmly in “throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” mode, selected Pagan’s contract from Triple-A.

Scott Servais didn’t exactly have a whole spiel to report about his new pitcher:

“He’s a young guy who we like. He was a WBC guy with Puerto Rico. We didn’t see him a ton in spring training. He just had a couple of outings late. Good arm. Good breaking ball.”

Unfortunately, Pagan was knocked around by the Angels in his MLB debut, recording just one out while allowing three runs on three hits—a line that would have been considerably uglier if not for this little tidbit from Guillermo Heredia.

Pagan got another shot just two days later, gutting out a pair of scoreless innings as the Mariners’ 8th pitcher of the day before allowing the game-winning homer to Rougned Odor in the top of the 13th.

After a spell back in Triple-A, Pagan returned to big-league action on May 23rd, posting 4 shutout innings of garbage time work in a blowout loss to the Nationals. A casualty of the 2017 Mariners revolving door of pitchers, he was summarily rewarded with a demotion back to Tacoma.

On June 11th it was déjà vu all over again, as Pagan’s third call-up of the year resulted in another 4 shutout innings, this time in a 4-0 loss to the Blue Jays. You can probably guess what happened next:

After another month in Tacoma, he found himself back in the show July 16th, contributing 2.1 valuable innings in a comeback win against the White Sox. He hasn’t looked back since.

So, from unheralded prospect to reliable MLB contributor within the span of several months, what has led to Emilio Pagan’s emergence?

For starters, there’s the stuff.

His four-seam fastball is far and away his best pitch, averaging about 94 mph (and topping out at 96) with heavy rise—Brooks Baseball says over 10 inches’ worth. He throws it a lot, nearly 72% of the time, confidently attacking the top of the zone and generating plenty of swinging strikes in the process:

The high heat has helped him take care of left-handed hitters, too; of the 35 lefties he’s faced so far this season, he’s struck out 12, good for a K-rate of 34%. Here he is sitting down an admittedly strikeout-prone Joey Gallo for his first big league K:

And another strike-three fastball up in the zone against a lefty, this time looking:

He also has a plus slider, thanks in part to a grip he picked up from none other than Edwin Díaz. While Pagan’s slider doesn’t have quite the same authority as its inspiration, it has good movement, and most importantly, he’s been able to throw it consistently for strikes:

Here’s Kevin Pillar nearly jumping out of his shoes only to swing over the top of it:

While he mixes in a circle change sporadically, Pagan relies almost exclusively on his fastball-slider combo, making his living by pounding the strike zone and challenging hitters to catch up. For the most part, they haven’t.

As a result of his excellent rising fastball and proclivity for throwing up in the zone, Pagan is an extreme fly ball pitcher. In fact, out of anyone in baseball to have thrown at least 20 innings in relief, he has the second highest FB%, trailing only Keone Kela. As for his ground ball percentage? It’s the lowest in baseball by a significant margin. And not just for relievers—for everyone.

Lowest GB% in 2017

2017 Pitchers GB% FB% HR/FB IP
2017 Pitchers GB% FB% HR/FB IP
Emilio Pagan 21.8 58.2 3.1 24
Josh Fields 25.3 51.6 14.9 37.1
Koji Uehara 25.8 48.4 8.9 35
Kirby Yates 26.6 53.2 14.3 36.1
Chris Hatcher 26.7 51.5 13.5 36.2

This discrepancy bears out in his xFIP: a decidedly more pedestrian 4.23. (Even when excluding his initial two appearances of the season, that number drops only slightly to 3.92).

Take the small sample size with a grain of salt, but a near two-point discrepancy between FIP and xFIP (which regresses regular FIP against expected home runs allowed according to league averages) is cause for concern. In Pagan’s case we will likely see some regression as some of those fly balls inevitably start finding their way out of the yard. Thankfully he will continue to benefit from the spacious outfield at Safeco Field in tandem with the notorious Seattle marine layer—of both naturally-occurring and man-made varieties.

Another potential concern is Pagan’s lack of high-leverage or otherwise meaningful work. In only two of his ten outings on the year did he enter the game with a score inside a 4-run margin, and only 1 inning out of his 24 on the year is classified by Fangraphs as “high leverage.” Much of his work this season has effectively been mop-up duty, Pagan embracing the role of garbage time martyr in the hopes that the rest of the bullpen may live to fight another day.

That being said, in this unassuming long-relief role, Pagan has been outstanding.

Since May 23rd, only Scott Alexander has thrown more scoreless multi-inning appearances in relief. Meanwhile, Pagan leads baseball in scoreless relief outings of 3+ innings with four. He’s also only one of two relievers this season to post two scoreless 4-inning performances. (The other somehow is Chase De Jong, but that’s a story for another day).

Pagan’s seemingly insatiable appetite for innings is all the more impressive when considering that he served almost exclusively as a closer and late-innings guy throughout the minors. Now he’s found himself throwing multiple innings consistently for the first time in his career at any level.

With the prominence of “bridge” relievers in the mold of a Chris Devenski or Andrew Miller, teams are placing increasing value in flexible studs capable of providing multiple innings en route to the back end of the bullpen in the 8th and 9th. Could Emilio Pagan someday be that type of pitcher for the Mariners? Maybe. Has he at least earned some higher leverage opportunities in the meantime? Absolutely.

Either way, as long as he stays aggressive and self-assured, pounding the zone and attacking hitters with the high heat, he should remain part of this blossoming bullpen replete with young, electric arms for years to come.

"Obviously I want to be here as long and often as possible,” Pagan recently told Greg Johns, reflecting on the circumstances of his call-up and role with the team.

"My job is to go out there and get outs and not worry about anything else. I was very fortunate to get opportunities and throw well and now getting another one, I'm just trying to ride it out as long as possible."

With a confidence level that belies his lack of big league experience, and willingness to lean fully into whatever role the team throws at him, it sure seems like he could be riding it out for a long time.