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40 in 40: Nick Vincent

Traded to the Mariners for cash considerations, Nick Vincent has become one of the most valuable setup men in baseball.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I’m part of a group message called “Ners Enthusiasts,” in which a few friends and I share our enthusiasm for the Ners. During games in which Nick Vincent made an appearance, which darn near felt like every other game, the mood of the chat would always shift towards a positive vibe. After Vincent would successfully navigate his way through an inning without allowing a run, we would take turns sending a series of three messages. The first would read “NICK!” The third said “VINCENT!” The middle message contained a four-letter word followed by the “ing” gerund, also in all caps with an exclamation point.

Looking back on his incredible season, in which he posted a career-high 1.8 WAR, it’s hard to believe that the Padres wanted just cash for Vincent. Even in San Diego, he posted FIPs below 3.00 in each of his four seasons; however, he only logged 50 or more innings of work in a year just once with the Padres as injuries cut his seasons short. Additionally, 55% of the innings he logged in San Diego were low leverage situations. Even with the production Vincent posted with the Padres, injuries shortened his seasons and he never established a role in the back-end of the bullpen.

One reason he may have never seen a set-up role is that he struggled against lefties early in his career. Vincent ran a FIP north of 4.00 against lefties prior to coming to Seattle. He was incredible against righties, but a righty-specialist profile won’t earn you a late-inning role.

Regardless, the Mariners saw an opportunity to acquire a pitcher with plenty of MLB success for almost nothing. From there, they took his high spin rates and developed Vincent into one of the best setup pitchers in baseball.

First off, they were able to turn his lack of success against lefties around, as he’s posted lower FIPs against lefties than righties in each of his first two years in Seattle, including a strong 2.72 FIP against southpaws in 2017. Early in his career, Vincent would throw his cutter in on the hands of lefties while trying to locate his fastball on the outer-third of the zone. In his two years with the Mariners, he’s shifted to pound the inner part of the zone more often against lefties.

As a result, lefties saw their fly ball rate nearly triple against Vincent’s fastball. Concurrently, lefties’ BABIP against his fastball has dropped .100 and their ISO has been cut in half in Vincent’s two years with the Mariners. On the outer half of the plate, Vincent’s lower velocity allowed lefties to catch up to his fastball; however, when Vincent targets the inner-third of the zone against lefties, it yields weaker contact in the air and more favorable outcomes.

Established success against righties and newfound productivity against lefties positioned Vincent to take on a late-inning role with the Mariners. He thrived, posting a 2.82 FIP in 64.2 innings of work. What’s most impressive about his 2017 success is that he did it with a major dip in strikeouts. His K% dropped to 19.1%, by far the lowest of his career; however, Vincent did an incredible job limiting dangerous contact. Hitters posted a hard contact rate under 24% for the third consecutive year. This helped render his high fly ball rate harmless, as he posted an impressive 3.3% HR/FB.

Vincent’s low strikeout profile is unorthodox for a back-end of the bullpen arm. It’s also a bit more volatile. Vincent’s FIP rose to 4.66 in September, the highest of any month during the season, and was likely the result of a .455 BABIP. Surprisingly, fatigue doesn’t appear to be a factor in Vincent’s struggles down the stretch. His velocity on his fastball and cutter were actually slightly higher in September than in the previous months; however, a career high in appearances could have had a greater mental affect than physical. Regardless, the low sample size of just one month doesn’t spell doom for Vincent moving forward, but it does highlight the risk of running a lower strikeout rate.

The 31-year old hurler’s success with a low strikeout rate relies on his spin rate, an area in which he excels. He ranked in the top 30 in spin rate for his cutter and top 100 for his four seamer last season, helping him miss the barrels of opponent’s bats and generate weak contact.

The Mariners capitalized on a low-cost, low-risk investment when they traded for Nick Vincent. He had already posted over 100 innings of Major League Baseball and had a career FIP below 3.00. Additionally, his unique high spin rate profile flashed the potential to develop into something special. Two years later, Vincent is coming off a season in which he posted the 19th highest WAR for relievers across the league. Credit Nick Vincent for his ability to adjust on the run, focusing on drilling the inner-third of the zone against lefties and emphasizing spin rate when his whiff rate dropped. Also give the Mariners front office some props for Nick Vincent. They identified a pitcher with the tools to become a reliable late-inning arm and helped coach his way into success. Helping Vincent refine his approach against lefties helped him maximize his effectiveness, and positioned him to become a dependable set up man. Now, two years later, the Mariner have one of the best in the business.

Go M’s.