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Álex Colomé needs to cut it out (by cutting it down, and also in)

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The Mariners’ early acquisition showed a flash of his dominant self on Sunday, and needs to channel that control.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As the vice-president of the Tommy Romero fan club, the deal to bring Álex Colomé and Denard Span to the Mariners was a bittersweet one. It undeniably made Seattle better in 2018, but trading starters for relievers will always rub me the wrong way. Fortunately, Denard Span – the seeming salary relief of the deal, has been a boon companion. His 112 wRC+ and patience-inspired .290/.327/.441 line since joining the Mariners has been a huge asset, particularly in a lineup that is more swing-happy than Jon Favreau.

Colomé has had a less seamless transition into his role with the Mariners. After a sterling start, the Mariners’ 8th inning man suffered a crisis of familiarity. The AL East, including Colomé’s former team, the Rays, took “El Caballo” behind the barn. His 7.45 ERA/FIP and 5.59 K/9 over the 11 appearances prior to this weekend were far from the shutdown numbers he enjoyed as the 17th best reliever in baseball by fWAR from 2015-2017. The culprit for his troubles seem two-fold. Hitters are being more aggressive than ever against Colomé, and he’s been unable to pinpoint his off-speed pitches.

Last year, Colomé enjoyed a respectful clientele at the plate who swung often but not exorbitantly. This year, players have decided to get aggressive.

Álex Colomé Plate Discipline

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
2017 31.70% 68.90% 47.80%
2018 32.60% 73.70% 50.70%
Career 30.40% 69.70% 47.60%
Fangraphs

Players have jumped on Colomé’s offerings, and while they’re struggling to make contact when they chase out of the zone, the damage done in the zone has been rough. Colomé’s fastball has been teed off on this year, but that ineffectiveness can at least partially be blamed on his inconsistent cutter. Early this year our friends at DRays Bay looked at Colomé’s adjustments with his cutter usage and came to a simple conclusion - the pitch that had been a dynamite strikeout pitch in 2016 was intentionally being used as a contact pitch in 2017. Instead of aiming at the back foot of lefties and the outside corner for righties, Colomé was working his cutter “backwards” and focusing more heavily on his arm side of the plate for a target.

While both plans have merit, what we’ve seen this year is Colomé stuck somewhere in-between. His K% has ticked up while his BB% has fallen slightly, but a stretch of poor location has allowed hitters to ride pitches out of the ballpark.

Exhibit C (for Cron, and also Colomé):

Here’s the target for this first-pitch cut-fastball...

MLB

...and here’s where it ends up:

MLB

It doesn’t seem to help that Colomé “gets behind” the cutter instead of “on top” of it, which is a common pitching parlance for the attempt to deliver significant downward momentum with the wrist upon the ball’s release to maximize rotation and typical slider movement. Instead the pitch moves mostly horizontally, fluttering tastily into the barrel of C.J. Cron.

Fortunately, the most recent tidings may be trending favorably for Seattle’s setup seahorse. Because relievers work against the spirit of sample sizes, a single pristine outing is what we saw this weekend, but it was a sigh of relief for Seattle after a disappointing couple weeks.

We’ll go hitter-by-hitter. Raimel Tapia has put up impressive numbers in the launching pad that is Isotopes Stadium in AAA-Albuquerque but he should be quick work for a reliever like Colomé.

Backdoor Cutter
MLB

A 93-mph cutter on the outside corner is not the most devastating location for his repertoire, but it is crucially at the knees with sink instead of at the belt with float. One down.

Next is DJ Lemahieu, a more feckful challenge, and the Rockies’ leadoff man. After falling behind 1-0, Colomé digs in for a better cutter.

Frontdoor Cutter
MLB

Now we’re talkin. Colomé’s pitch mix is, at it’s core, a destitute person’s Edwin Díaz. As we’ve seen this year, Díaz is untouchable when he locates his slider just outside the zone. It’s not rocket science - the slider looks like a fastball until it’s too late, and both Colomé and Díaz share a penchant for breaking pitches with enough velocity to make guessing wrong a death sentence. LeMahieu did just that.

Basement Cutter
MLB

Strike two and...

Cellar Door Cutter
MLB

...strike three.

All that remained was Charlie Blackmon and his genuinely above-average offensive capabilities. Colomé located a fastball and a cutter for a strike while working the count full, but after establishing the cutter successfully all afternoon, his best fastball was set up for its full potential.

MLB

Up and away, on the corner of the zone at 97 mph. That works most days, but it’s especially effective when that pitch could just as easily have been the strike three cutter to Tapia. It was just a good day for Colomé, but a day that showed why he’s been trusted with high-leverage work in the past. Hopefully it is a catalyst for smoother sailing going forward.