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Connor Sadzeck is pitching backwards

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Tired: Sonnor Cadzeck; Wired: Norcon Zecksad

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Chicago White Sox Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, in maybe one of the last major pieces of national press the 2019 Mariners will receive before they regress to the .500 team predicted by most major outlets at the outset of the season, ESPN ran a lengthy article about the Mariners post-rebuild/stepback/stepbuild, which included a small bit on Connor Sadzeck, someone whose name had—and I’m only guessing here—most likely not been in a feature story on ESPN dot com up until this point.

Sadzeck’s name came up, in part, because of the unspoken question that hung over the Mariners while the offense was busy winning games and the bullpen was busy losing them: would the Mariners consider signing Craig Kimbrel, or making some other splashy move to prop up their poor pitching staff? Dipoto, as he has many times this year, answered the unspoken question, this time with an analogy out of one of those children’s books that’s in every library because it won a Caldecott Medal in 1938 or something, but no one actually reads, Jerry Dipoto’s Steam Rapsodo or Make Way For Replacement Relievers or something:

“We’re swimming in a different pond. Right now our pond is Connor Sadzeck, it’s Brandon Brennan, it’s Omar Narvaez. It’s finding guys who need an opportunity and giving it to them.”

“Young, cheap and desperate for a chance is the new market inefficiency,” the article goes on to declare, with a brief rundown of Sadzeck’s admittedly unimpressive resume, noting that where others see command issues, Dipoto sees a potential closer.

Results-based analysis for relievers early in the season is a fool’s game, but it’s worth noting that Sadzeck has now, as a Mariner, eclipsed the number of innings he pitched last year, so while still feeling around in the dark, at least we have roughly equivalent data sets to work with. In 9.1 innings for the Rangers last year, Sadzeck walked almost a quarter of the batters he faced, while striking out about 15% of them. This year, those numbers have flipped, and improved even beyond that. He still walks a hair more batters than you’d like, but only about half as many as he walked in about the same number of innings last year, while tacking on over ten points to his K-rate. Sadzeck is putting the ball in the zone more, which means at times it will get punished; he’s already given up two home runs on the year, and his hard contact rate is way up. But his plate discipline numbers show that batters are swinging more often, and coming up empty more often, at his stuff than they did last season:

FanGraphs

Batters are swinging more—a lot more—at Sadzeck’s stuff, and while they’re making significantly more contact in the zone and somewhat more contact overall, they’re also chasing outside the zone and making significantly worse contact there, as well as whiffing more. These numbers aren’t spectacular, but they could indicate a positive trend providing Sadzeck is able to continue making adjustments and, most importantly, keep the ball in the yard (Two of Sadzeck’s six hits surrendered are of the longball variety). But step one was for Sadzeck to solve his walks problem, and so far he’s been making progress on that front. After the two innings he pitched last night in the Yankees game, in which Sadzeck gave up just one hit and no runs while walking no one and collecting two strikeouts, Sadzeck’s walks per nine has dropped to a very respectable sub-3.

Sadzeck has been able to achieve this by essentially pitching backward from how he was pitching as a Ranger:

Sadzeck primarily uses two pitches: a hard slider that sits anywhere from 88-91 and a plus fastball with elite (97-99) velocity. Throughout his career, Sadzeck has had better control over his slider, while his fastball has galloped away from him at times, but with velocity pushing triple-digits, that’s been the main highlight in Sadzeck’s scouting reports and the pitch he’s used most heavily.

The hipster Mariners, eschewing velocity, have Sadzeck leaning on his slider more, typically opening at-bats with the pitch and often throwing it two or even three times before unleashing the fastball. Contrast to this to how he operated in Texas: in an inning I re-watched against the Angels from early in September last year, this was his pitch sequencing:

  • Fastballs only to the first batter, Eric Young Jr. (now a Tacoma Rainier), who wound up grounding out off a kick-save;
  • One good fastball, (98) two badly spotted curveballs (!) and then two fastballs that weren’t even close to Kole Calhoun to issue a walk;
  • To David Fletcher: two fastballs (97-98) that barely missed off the lower-left edge of the plate and then one at the top of the zone (96) called a strike, and then finally, 11 pitches and three batters into his appearance, a slider for a swinging strike:

In this gif, you can see Sadzeck shake Chirinos not once, but twice. Behind in the count and with two runners on, two runs already in (not Sadzeck’s fault, he came on in relief with one inherited runner on), and two outs, Sadzeck wants to go to his safety pitch, and gets the desired result. But on the next pitch, Sadzeck goes back to the fastball, 98 mph but middle-high, which Fletcher deposits into left field for an RBI. Mike Trout came up next, but the Rangers intentionally walked him to face Andrelton Simmons instead. This time, Chirinos called for the slider and Sadzeck obliged; it missed off the plate but Sadzeck was able to get Simmons to pop out on the next pitch, a fastball (the pitch was in Simmons’ kitchen and he missed it, but that’s a story for another day).

In Seattle, Sadzeck has been leading off at-bats with the slider, often getting called first strikes, as he did last night:

Not only is Sadzeck throwing his slider more, it also has a different quality of movement for the Mariners: about an inch more of vertical movement up in the zone, and less horizontal movement, per Brooks. It’s hard to say anything definitive because Sadzeck used his slider so infrequently with the Rangers, but it does look like the Seattle slider is tighter and less loopy than the Texas version, making it look more like the fastball. This one he threw to Gardner for a first-pitch strike also has some tricky horizontal movement, as it looks like it’s going to miss on the outside edge before taking a late detour across the plate:

Relievers are volatile, it’s early in the season, caveat caveat etc. But the Mariners have committed a significant amount of money and organizational resources to development, especially pitching development, in the hopes that they can accelerate their rebuild to spend less time as the deeply, deeply bottom-dwelling Astros of earlier this decade and more time as the Astros post-2015: young, dynamic, and a place where established players want to come in order to get better, as Justin Verlander did when he agreed to be traded to Houston. Right now, that means exploiting the market inefficiency of “young, cheap, and desperate for a chance” and actually helping those players become successful MLB regulars. And while it’s important not to attempt to read the tea leaves of organizational trajectory through a 27-year-old reliever, it’s also worth keeping track of the progress of the Connor Sadzecks (and the Omar Narvaezes, the Tom Murphys, the Austin Nolas, even) to see if, finally, they always get better when they [come here].