Last winter, as the Mariners prepared for a season of non-contention, they made a minor addition that drew little intrigue. They selected Brandon Brennan in the Rule-5 draft from - a 27 year old reliever from the Rockies who even the most well-researched experts had barely more than a couple notes on. Encouraging him to use his changeup far more than ever before, the Mariners whipped a groundball specialist out of the ether from Brennan, and few players should benefit more from a full season of capable infield defense in lieu of the waking nightmare Seattle ran out for much of 2019.
This winter, as the Mariners prepare for another season of non-contention, they made a minor addition that drew little intrigue. They claimed Phillips Valdéz off waivers - a 28 year old reliever from the Rangers who spent 11 seasons between four organizations in affiliated ball before his first big league appearance, leaving even the most well-researched experts scrambling upon his call-up. Valdéz doesn’t appear, at first glance, to have an untapped weapon to be unlocked, but he comes pre-packaged with the tools Brennan refined in Seattle last year. Groundball specialist, predominantly sinker/changeup repertoire - both with above-average movement, and a low arm slot that seems almost to sling the ball in.
Here’s Brennan, dropping in his dynamite changeup:
Valdéz, a couple inches shorter, nonetheless got some similarly silly swings, including from some familiar faces:
Charted, the two players have plenty in common. Brennan averages a bit more zip on his fastball, but their changeups have near-identical velocity, with Valdéz getting a shade more drop on his and Brennan getting a bit more armside run. Using Baseball Savant’s pitch profile tools, even with limited work we can see how Valdéz and Brennan match up, getting immense sink that causes trouble for hitters.
Notably, however, Brennan’s cambio was one of the game’s most untouchable pitches last year, with a staggering 54.9% whiff rate, while Valdéz had a merely strong 29.8% whiff rate on his. Sinkers have been a much-maligned pitch in recent years for the danger of allowing any contact whatsoever, but the sustained importance and success of relievers like Mark Melancon, Will Harris, and Zack Britton shows that pitchers who can get grounders often enough to mitigate the occasional dinger make their teams much better. What’s uncertain is if the Mariners think there’s an adjustment to make, or if Valdéz will simply fare better away from Texas and/or with more big league seasoning.
For Valdéz, of course, this is a 16 inning resume, not to mention Brennan’s is only 47.1 innings in the bigs himself. We can get a fair read on velocity and movement, but it’s difficult to make determinations on the results either pitcher has gotten in such small samples. One of the dangers of such a sample came up in pulling charts, as I initially worried Valdéz had a thoroughly erratic release point.
Upon further investigation, however, Valdéz was set up on the third base side of the rubber in his debut outing, then moved to the first base side for all subsequent appearances. The move allows the run on his pitches to fully thrive, but leaves the particulars Seattle may be angling for less clear. Better command and comfort from his new setup could help him cut his uncharacteristic walk rate while maintaining the best strikeout rate of his career in his brief big league cameo. Most likely, Valdéz will get to start that refinement with Rob Marcello in Tacoma, with less weighing on his heart and mind than a year ago.