When the dust settled on the 2019 Mariners’ bullpen, one name stuck out among the non-rookies who also managed to avoid injury and maintain effectiveness: Matt Magill. A 30-year-old journeyman who stamped his passport with multiple clubs (Dodgers, Reds, Padres, Twins) before being acquired for sweet sweet cash from Minnesota in late July, Magill doesn’t immediately stick out from his bullpen-mates. He has a faster fastball than average, ranking in the 80th percentile in MLB in 2019, and slightly above-average spin on his fastball and curveball. He’s also exceptional at getting strikeouts, ranking in the 77th percentile in MLB, something that was consistent when he was a member of the Twins organization earlier in the year (27% K-rate) to when he came to the Mariners (29% K-rate). Magill improved on his walk rate as a Mariner as well, cutting his free passes from 11% with the Twins to 5% with Seattle.
Where Magill is exceptional in a bad way—and the reason he was available for basically free after being DFA’d by Minnesota—is in hard-hit rate. Magill was in the bottom 5% for hard-hit rate in 2019, allowing a higher than average number of barrels (9%, which was still somehow lower than the almost 11% he allowed in 2018, when he was in the bottom 1% in MLB for barrels allowed), and his average exit velocity of 90.2 mph also ranked in the bottom 6% of the league. Credit the Minnesota’s new pitching philosophy for the turnaround Magill made between 2018 and 2019, but the playoff-bound Twins jettisoned Magill after a particularly rocky outing against the Mets where he faced nine batters in an inning, allowing six runs on four hits including a home run.
Part of Magill’s problem is inefficiency with his pitches; despite the lower walk rate, in 22 appearances with the Mariners he faced the minimum only six times, about the same rate as he did in Minnesota. The Mariners changed up the pitch mix of Magill, who throws a fastball (95-97), slider (88-90), and hard curve (86-89), by having him essentially drop his slider, which features average movement but below-average drop, and instead slightly increase his fastball usage and significantly increase his curve. That may seem counterintuitive, as the slider had a K% of almost 30% and a hard hit rate of 38% this season—not great, but nowhere near the 42% hard-hit rate of his fastball, or the 48% hard-hit rate on his curveball. A bold strategy, to be sure!
However, with that slight adjustment to his pitch mix, Magill—traditionally a fly-ball pitcher—raised his GB% to 41%, while decreasing his line drive percentage. (Magill also saw some poor luck from a porous infield defense, including an up-the-middle combo of Dylan Moore and Shed Long for several games, resulting in an above-average number of infield hits at 12%.) Whereas Magill’s average-breaking slider wasn’t damaged extensively by batters looking to feast on his fastball, resulting in some lucky breaks for him like this strikeout where Gary Sanchez swung at a ball located in Hoboken, or this slider that a recently-returned Kyle Seager couldn’t punish despite a tasty location:
Instead of dividing his attention among three pitches, Magill was given just two to focus on, his fastball and curve. The fastball already had plus velocity, but the Mariners aimed to get him throwing it more up in the zone and on the edges, with mixed results (as you will see later). Magill is better than the average pitcher at expanding the zone, especially at the top of the zone, which isn’t always the most comfortable place for guys to pitch and can result in balls traveling very far if the pitcher misses his spot.
However, when Magill can hit his spot on the edges at 95+, the result can be pure paint:
The Mariners also had Magill focus on the depth and tilt of his curveball, which almost has some slurvy movement, as Jake Marisnick found out here. Clearly the Mariners see some plus potential in the pitch, which can elicit some very ugly swings; here, have Matt Magill sizing Eric Hosmer up for a golden sombrero.
The strikeout of Hosmer stands out because part of what Magill has to solve is his splits; his FIP to LHB is over a run higher than to righties, partially thanks to much-decreased strikeouts and much much-increased walks to southpaws. Those rough splits could be partially helped by decreasing the slider usage, which had average-ish run away from righty batters but, as witnessed in the Seager screencap, can wind up right in a lefty’s sweet spot. Magill also needs to work on locating the fastball at the edges of the zone better and not over-relying on velocity to do the work for him, as plus velocity thrown straight across the plate equates to plus velocity being hit over the fence. Despite its frustrating inability to embed, Baseball Savant has video of the last pitch in every at-bat Magill threw this season, and it’s interesting to go look at Magill’s fastballs and see how often, despite getting the “good” result of a strikeout, he’s merely trying to throw the ball past a guy, as in this home run to dead center from the usually light-hitting Kevin Kiermaier. KK is a lefty, but the location of that pitch is such that any major leaguer worth his salt should be able to deal with it. You can see Narvaez’s glove placed at the upper edge of the zone, and whether it’s a blown spot or Magill trying to throw a 96 mph fastball past a defensive specialist who’s not a power threat, the end result is suboptimal.
Matt Magill is an excellent 2020 Mariner; if he regresses, he can be DFA’d and the Mariners can summon Sam Delaplane or Aaron Fletcher or one of their other young arms waiting for a spot. However, with Magill’s big strikeout stuff he could contend for the closer role, which would make him an attractive trade deadline piece, if he can solve that pesky hard-hit problem. Getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground more often would be a great start, if he can maintain that, but even as a flyball pitcher Magill could see success if he can hang out on the edges of the zone and entice batters to chase high fastballs that drop harmlessly into outfielder’s gloves rather than get blistered all over the park. Further refining his curveball will be key, but a simplified pitch mix should help Magill focus on his emerging weapon.
My enduring memory of Matt Magill from last season is how excited he was to get his first save, and how grateful he felt to the Mariners for giving him a shot to be in that role. Look at how happy he was to be here and not throwing baseballs in Rochester!
Being a Mariners fan in 2020 feels like being a good dog foster parent, hoping to see them thrive to be sent away to forever homes elsewhere. Nevertheless, I wish the best for the affable Mr. Magill, for success in a Mariners uniform and in whatever uniform he wears next.