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40 in 40: Roenis Elías

You can go home again (home may not be actual home, terms and conditions apply)

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Roenis Elias is 30 years old and has been in organized baseball stateside since 2011, all but two of those with the Seattle Mariners. This is the first time, by my count, he has been the subject of a 40 in 40 profile. At 21 years old, before he was even an established big leaguer in his home country of Cuba, Elías followed the path of many of his countrymen who also dreamed of playing in MLB and boarded a small, crowded craft headed towards Mexico. There he would work to establish himself alongside fellow future Mariner Leonys Martín, waiting for the call that would change his life.

Meanwhile, Elías’s personal life changed, too. He met his wife, Vani, in Mexico, and had his first child, Roenis Jr., the spitting image of his father. After he was signed by the Mariners, Elías belonged to three countries: his native Cuba, his wife’s Mexico, and now, his new journey in the United States. Elías was sent to the frozen tundra of Clinton, Iowa, in 2011, where he struggled to an ERA just south of 6 and went largely unheralded as a prospect, overshadowed on a team that included future big-leaguers James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Carter Capps, and Brandon Maurer (and yet somehow still finished ten games under .500). In 2012, his first full season, Elías yanked down his ERA while halving his walk rate, and proceeded to improve even more next season at Double-A. In 2014, injuries to Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma created a space for Elías in the starting rotation, and he was a solid performer, accruing 1.4 fWAR across slightly more than 163 innings.

After a slightly less effective 2015, Elías was packaged up alongside fireballing reliever Carson Smith and sent to the Red Sox in exchange for Duck Dynasty castoff Wade Miley and neckbeard reliever Jonathan Aro, a move seen at the time as lateral at best and a tremendous overpay at worst. Three years later, Aro and Miley are both unsigned free agents (although Miley’s unemployment is more a damning indication of the glacial free-agent market than poor performance), Smith may never throw an MLB pitch again, and Roenis Elí somehow a Seattle Mariner again, after the Mariners got the Red Sox to trade him back for Eric Filia, who was then sent back due to a failed physical.

The Red Sox had transitioned Elías into the bullpen, where he saw his velocity bump up from 91-93 to 93-95. Elías brought that bulldog mentality (and the bump in velo) with him when he returned to the Mariners organization as a starter, striking out more than 8 batters per 9 with the Rainiers.

While we don’t have pitch selection data for the minors, I watched Elías’ outings as a Rainier with curiosity, noting that he seemed to be throwing his fastball and change significantly more often while relying much less on his favorite weapon: his gorgeous, roller-coaster-drop curveball. Knowing that Elías loves his curveball above all his other pitches, it seemed like a targeted plan by the coaching staff to try to further refine Elías’s other offerings.

The changeup earns “most improved” marks in Elías’s arsenal; once a get-me-by pitch, it’s developed into a true third pitch that he can spot for called strikes, induce weak contact on, and make batters look very silly with:

The big news about Elías when he returned from the Red Sox, however, was the fact that his fastball was up to the mid-90s. While the fastball does have improved velocity, it also has improved sink. Compare this fastball from a stellar outing in 2015 in which Elías struck out 10 Astros while relying primarily on his curve:

with this fastball from last April, shortly after his return to the organization:

The Red Sox had Elías drop his release point significantly, which has given his fastball more velocity as well as more depth and sink:

Brooks Baseball

Unfortunately, what came along with this drop in release point was an increase in flyballs (almost a 10% jump from his time with the Mariners), which is a tough side effect for anyone, but doubly so for an AL East pitcher. Upon returning to the Mariners organization, Elías’s flyball percentage didn’t magically drop, but his HR/FB% rate did, all the way down to a microscopic 1.5%. While Elías didn’t strike out the world (6.0 K/9), he managed to keep his walks down and surrendered so few longballs that he racked up .9 fWAR in 50 big-league innings; in comparison, Elías only managed .7 fWAR over 115 innings as a 2015 Mariner.

Elías has always had the beautiful curveball, but the improvement in his fastball and developing an MLB-quality changeup catapult him into fifth starter discussion. With the Mariners taking things slowly with Yusei Kikuchi’s stateside development, Elías will have plenty of opportunities in 2019 as a spot starter and “long” reliever. In the time since Roenis Elías signed his first contract to play professional baseball, he’s lived in three countries, started a family, played for two teams on opposite sides of the country, worked as both a starter and a reliever, and seen US-Cuban relations improve to the point where, ideally, no future aspiring MLB player will have to risk life and limb to make it to the States, and his family can come watch him play in person. Through all this upheaval, however, one thing has remained consistent:

Sometimes, you just really want to hear them play the hits, you know?