Last night, Austin Adams struck out three hapless St. Louis Cardinals in order in the eighth:
Pauls DeJong and Goldschmidt aren’t hapless, exactly, but they had never faced Adams and his sinister slider before. To his credit, AA mowed through the three best hitters in the Cardinals’ lineup like it was a walk in the park (he entered in the 7th to rescue Anthony Bass, who had just surrendered a game-tying home run, from Jose Martinez, who he also struck out). Perhaps last night seemed pedestrian compared to his performance on the last road trip, where he battled Christian Yelich on back-to-back days and won both times:
and also contended with the teeth of the Astros lineup and emerged victorious:
Of the 20 appearances Adams has made as a Mariner, almost half have come with a leverage index score of above 1. As a refresher, leverage index = how important/sticky the situation is where the pitcher enters. 1 is neutral, anything above 1 is high-leverage. Last night’s outing was a 1.26; his appearance against Milwaukee in the 4-2 win was a 1.6; and his appearance against Houston in the 2-1 loss was a whopping 4.92. Adams doesn’t close out games (yet), but what he does do is get a team’s best hitters out late in games. There’s no question that Adams is the best reliever in the Mariners ‘pen right now, but as he’s not the “closer,” he can be freely inserted into whatever inning he’s needed most. Last night’s win broke a streak of six straight holds for Adams, who is currently running an 80% strand rate when he does allow batters to reach base, and a 15.88 K/9 that rivals Edwin Díaz at his peak. It’s a stunning turn of events for a player who struggled to put it all together in Washington, eventually being DFA’d and traded to Seattle for a player who won’t even be able to compete this season (LHP Nick Wells, who has a broken wrist).
In a postgame interview with Shannon Drayer on 710 last night, Adams attributed his success to “three things: Brian DeLunas, Paul Davis, and Jim Brower. Best coaches I’ve ever had in my life.” Adams is a self-professed data and analytics devotee who says he’s heard the criticism before that he’s an “overthinker.” In Seattle, he’s found a match with an organization that encourages players to think analytically about their craft and is as interested in finding answers as Adams himself is:
I’ve always been a guy that people could label me as ‘Oh, you overthink, you ask too many questions, just go out there and pitch.’ I’ve always wanted to know, why does my slider move so much? Why does my fastball cut sometimes? Why does it sink?
In that article, Adams discusses changing his slider from a chase pitch to a legitimate pitch in the zone. For reference, here’s what his slider looked like in his lone appearance for Washington this year:
Small sample size caveats apply: this was Adams’ shot at a place in the struggling Nats bullpen; it was April; he was amped up and overthrowing his pitches. But the difference between that and this is stark:
That is an unhittable slider. It reminds me of someone...who could it be, who could it be....
Ah. Ouch. Ah. Sadness about 2019 Edwin Díaz aside, these two sliders share some common characteristics. Both are relatively hard, ranging from 89-91 mph. Both feature some very late break, boomeranging away from righties and on a collision course for the back foot of lefties. Both are utterly, helplessly tempting for batters. Díaz has the better fastball—Adams’s is comfortably 94-95, but nowhere near Edi’s electric speed that made him so impossible to battle against in 2018—but Adams has similar depth and shape to his slider that rivals Edwin’s at its peak. In fact, despite the two pitches sharing similar velocity, Adams’s spins quite a bit more, about 400-500 RPM, giving it even tighter movement as it sweeps across the plate like a Roomba on Red Bull.
In both Edwin and Adams, the organization identified players who could take a step forward with a slight change of scenery. For Díaz, that meant moving him out of a starting role and having him focus on his slider intensively, eventually causing him to blossom into one of baseball’s top three closers in 2018. For Adams, it was identifying a player in a situation where his skills weren’t being maximized who was likely to be receptive to the organization’s data-driven ethos. Díaz is sadly no longer a Mariner, and Adams most likely won’t be for much longer, as there is surely a long list of teams needing bullpen help lighting up Dipoto’s phone. But the structure that got each of those pitchers to where they are remains, ready and waiting for the next pitcher in need of a career jump-start.