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40 in 40: Austin Adams

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Losing Austin Adams hurts. Bad.

MLB: JUN 16 Mariners at Athletics Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Mariners are going to miss Austin Adams. There’s no doubt about it.

You may be asking yourself, how much could a rebuilding team really miss a reliever? After all, relief pitchers are volatile and inconsistent. Hell, Adams himself only has 38 innings in the big leagues spread out over three seasons. 2019 was his best campaign, but it certainly wasn’t something to write home about.

It’s the numbers beneath the box scores that suggest Adams is on the precipice of becoming one of the best high-leverage arms in the league.

Seattle acquired Adams last May from Washington in exchange for southpaw farmhand Nick Wells. While Wells is intriguing, he had a broken arm at the time of the deal and never necessarily flashed big league potential. Adams, on the other hand, had some of the best raw stuff in the Nationals organization. Better yet, he still had four years of control ahead of him, not scheduled to become a free agent until 2024.

I’ll be totally honest. Even at the time of the transaction, I have no idea what the Nationals were thinking.

Seattle was desperate for relievers at the time, and if this wasn’t more than a favor from Mike Rizzo to Jerry Dipoto, I have no explanation.

Seattle didn’t necessarily unlock anything in Adams. He’s always had an elite slider, and a good fastball with heavy tail. The slider specifically had been ranked as high as a 70+ grade offering. The command has always been below average, but if he were ever to find even marginal control, the wipeout stuff would play.

Well, he found it.

In 32 innings with Seattle, Adams posted an 11.3% BB%, one of the best marks he’s posted across any level of his professional career.

While his 3.77 ERA is good, not great, his 2.96 FIP, and 2.50 xFIP tell a more clear story.

For the record, if you eliminate Adams’ appearances vs. the Houston Astros, his ERA drops to 2.56 and his FIP drops to 2.64. Hmmmmm.

Adams was the victim of some bad luck and worse defense behind him. His 49.2% ground ball rate is far better than the league average of 44%. Running an 18.6% line drive percentage is also indicative of the soft contact he induced, again besting the league average of 21%.

His .263 xwOBA, ranked among the 95th percentile of all pitchers in baseball, is even more indicative of a guy that allowed soft contact if/when he allowed the ball to be put in play at all.

None of this was an anomaly. None of this was luck. He has elite stuff.

Adams’ slider spins to the plate at 2829 RPMs, good for 15th best in baseball. His breaking ball bests some of the perceived supremes of the game. Better than Gerrit Cole’s. Better than Josh Hader’s. It’s a bona fide knockout pitch.

Not only can he spin it, Adams throws his slider, and he throws it hard. At 89.4 MPH, it’s the 12th firmest slider in the league.

I mean, look at this. Alex Bregman knew the pitch was coming and still struck out woefully.

Batters hit just .129 against the slider last season. Better yet, those batters swung at the pitch 48.2 percent of the time, whiffing on 47.7 percent of those hacks. He surrendered just four XBH on 581 sliders thrown last season. When he’s finding the strike zone, and he found the zone almost 50% of the time, his slider is simply one of the best pitches in all of baseball.

Although he throws the pitch 63 percent of the time, it simply wouldn’t work if he didn’t have a fastball to compliment it. Adams can rush it up there with the best of them, averaging over 95 mph on his heaters in 2019. The 7 inches of arm-side run he achieves is about league average, but with the aforementioned velocity and the threat of a devastating slider, the fastball’s lateral movement really plays up.

All of this adds up to a reliever who struck out 42.2 percent of the batters he faced in 2019, good for third-best in all of baseball among relievers who pitched at least 20 innings. He’s legitimately one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game.

Unfortunately, as alluded to earlier, the Mariners will miss Adams dearly the first half of 2020. After trying to make a play at first base in mid-September, Adam’s took a weird step and tore the ACL in his right knee. He likely won’t be able to contribute in Seattle until the All-Star break, but he’ll certainly be a storyline to watch as the season progresses.

It’s not often one can look at a reliever in the midst of a rebuild and think they’re likely to contribute when everything comes together. Austin Adams, if Seattle chooses to hang onto him, could be a very, very big piece to the puzzle in 2021 and 2022. He’s quietly one of the more dominant arms in the game. I look forward to watching his continued ascent the second half of 2020.