It’s hard to imagine making a worse first impression than Cory Gearrin made to Mariners fans. Although he kicked off his Mariners career with three scoreless outings (he apparently pitched in the first Japan game, which I do not remember at all despite being there), his next two were capital-B Brutal. Thirty total pitches, seven strikes, five walks, and just one out recorded. To make matters even worse, he was slow, slower, and slowest on the mound; the only thing more unwatchable than a guy who can’t throw strikes is a guy who does so at a snail’s pace. Gearrin quickly drew comparisons to previous early-season relievers/Sporcle answers like Kameron Loe and Casey Fien, with many calling for his outright DFA. Reactionary as that may sound, it was an understandable sentiment in the face of his performance and one-year contract status - in fact, neither Loe nor Fien lasted longer than two weeks on the active roster.
For better or for worse, though, the M’s have kept him around, and his results lately have undeniably been better. In eleven games since the White Sox debacle on April 5th, he’s allowed just three runs across 10.2 innings. While the majority of these outings have come in pretty low-leverage spots, there are a couple of encouraging trends, namely the fifteen strikeouts Gearrin has racked up in that span. That’s good for a 34.9% K% - right in line with what more well-known names like Tommy Kahnle and Jordan Hicks have put up for the year. More importantly, he’s only allowed four free passes - in other words, one less than he gave up in his first five appearances. He’s also given up just a single home run all year, but it’s easy to say that it wasn’t entirely his fault:
So what’s driving this solid stretch? Throughout his big league career, Gearrin has mostly sat 90-92 with his sinker and 83-85 with the slider. That hasn’t changed this year, even when he was walking the world:
In both of his meltdowns, Gearrin appeared simply incapable of throwing a strike, especially to left-handed hitters. The data from his first four stateside games this year confirms it, and be warned, it’s not pretty:
Ouch. Just one (1) pitch against lefties was in the strike zone, and Gearrin was consistently missing low and away with his sinker and changeup. As one might expect, his next ten games looked a lot better:
He hasn’t strayed from the game plan of pitching lefties down and away, but he’s been a lot more effective in doing so the past couple of weeks - in fact, Gearrin hasn’t allowed a walk to any of the sixteen he’s faced since April 5th. He’s also back to getting southpaws to swing and miss after not inducing a single whiff from them in the early going. For a guy who came into the year with a history of sizable platoon splits, this is encouraging!
Gearrin is also a slinger, throwing the ball at a three-quarters/sidearm angle with pretty much zero leg kick. These types of pitchers can struggle to dial in their release point at times, torpedoing their command; I think all of us can recall a few Steve Cishek implosions. Here’s his strike zone plot from March 31st against Boston (NSFW below):
And here’s his strike zone plot on April 23rd in San Diego, when he rebounded from the “homer” to strike out the side:
Against the Red Sox, Gearrin’s horizontal release point was a good two or three inches shorter than when he faced the Padres. In other words, he wasn’t fully extending that three-quarters windup, and his control suffered greatly for it. Keeping that extension in his delivery has been a crucial point for his success throughout his career, and it’s nice to see that coming back.
Cory Gearrin, despite falling in fans’ bad graces almost right out of the gate, appears to have bounced back from a truly miserable start. While it isn’t very likely that he’ll keep striking out hitters at the pace he’s on, his command looks legitimately improved, and the walks have begun to regress back to his career norms. Even though there are still some minor red flags - his ground ball rate still hasn’t come back up to its pre-2018 levels (and actually went down after yesterday’s game), he’ll probably always walk a couple too many guys, and he’s still the slowest pitcher in baseball by FanGraphs’s Pace metric - Gearrin is looking more and more like the decent middle reliever most of us were expecting to get when the club brought him aboard. It’s unlikely he’ll be throwing in high leverage spots again any time soon, but he should still be a good option to chew up some innings this summer.