Computer, show me a relief pitcher.
Ah, I see you’ve generated one of your own. I was actually hoping for a real example, someone who works as a relief pitcher in real life.
*puts hand to earpiece* Mmhmm…oh…well then. I’m getting word that these are in fact, the same person. The man we presumed to be a virtually created player is in fact, a relief pitcher from the physical realm. We apologize for this error.
Anthony Misiewicz, a 26-year-old lefty from the thumb part of Michigan’s mitten, showed up on Opening Day 2020 with about a generic a profile as you could get. This is not a knock on Misiewicz, who led all Mariners’ relievers in appearances during his rookie season, but more of a commentary on relief pitchers in general. Major League Baseball employs approximately 3,500 Misiewicz-types at any given point in history. Nondescript face, chosen between the 15th and 20th round of the draft, longtime minor league guy who was traded for other longtime minor league guys.
Guys of this ilk love to debut in the mid-to-late summer months, provide a Kodak moment for their loved ones, post like a 5.39 ERA, disappear, then resurface a few years later for the Reds or Orioles. It happens trillions of times every day and the government does nothing about it.
But something happened with Misiewicz, who is trying to break the mold. While he did technically debut in a mid-summer month, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed that debut to happen on Opening Day, which meant unfortunately his family could not be there to see it. Rather than just gobbling innings and hoping the manager remembers his name, though, Misiewicz proved to be a valuable piece of Seattle’s 2020 relief corps.
The Midwestern migrant struck out José Altuve the first time he ever took a big-league mound and never looked back. He finished the season with 25 strikeouts in 20 innings – good for a 30.1 K% – an 3.04 FIP, and a walk rate of just 7.2 percent. It’s almost like the Mariners got Misiewicz as a temporary tattoo, kept it for a few months, liked the way it looked, and are now thinking they should just make it permanent.
Despite only playing 60 games, the 2020 Mariners still managed to use 23 relief pitchers (24 if you count utilityman Tim Lopes’ cameo). Misiewicz was maybe the best of that group, and certainly the one Scott Servais seemed to trust the most. Roughly 14 percent of the Mariners’ total relief innings went to Misiewicz, who became an unlikely constant during the peculiar season. As one of the only dependable lefties in the bullpen, Misiewicz also got beaucoup opportunities to face same-handed hitters. His success in that arena is perhaps his greatest argument for a long-term roster spot. Left-handed batters hit a dreadful .216 against him with just one extra base hit* and zero home runs. Of the 39 plate appearances Misiewicz battled against lefties, 12 of them ended in a strikeout while only eight resulted in a hit.
*For our useless trivia fans, the lone left-handed extra base hit Misiewicz allowed in 2020 was a double by Ryan McMahon of the Rockies
Given the nature of the 2020 season, Misiewicz’s first and only “full” season as a Mariner is also a mighty small sample. The rigors of a full schedule could be less kind to him, and now his robe of anonymity is slightly tattered too. When he was introduced to Major League Baseball in the hellish cave known as Minute Maid Park, we noted that Misiewicz did not even have a Wikipedia page yet. He has one now, though it still features a six-year-old photo of him at Michigan State, and you have to think that American League opponents are using that and his pitch data to plot his demise.
Strapped with a four-seam fastball, cutter, and curveball, Misewicz has a fairly simple plan of attack. Heaters up in the zone, cutters and curveballs to his glove side.
This means a steady diet of outside cutters for the left-handed hitters who struggled so madly against Misiewicz. According to Baseball Savant, he flung the cutter 59.5% of the time when facing lefties, compared to just 47.2% against righties. He threw nearly 100 more total cutters than he did four-seamers in 2020, and with his strategy now so plainly exposed, it may be time to increase the usage of his other two pitches. This might not actually be a bad course of action.
Compared to the cutter (31.5% whiff rate), the curveball (37.5%) was a better pitch for missing bats but was thrown less than half as often. His fastball sits around 94 MPH and isn’t a mucho-whiff pitch either. It did, however, get opponents to wet burp a .100 batting average. Whether that’s due to its increased velocity over the cutter, hitters’ surprise to see this cutter machine throw something straight, or pure batted ball luck, it’s interesting to see a pitch that produced so little offense be so seldom used.
Eleven of his 25 strikeouts came via the curveball, but so did the only two home runs he allowed. Misiewicz doesn’t seem to be a fan of the curveball when he’s behind in the count – he tossed it just 14.6% of the time in those situations, compared to 29.7% when ahead – which could be another avenue toward prolonged success. This current deployment follows safe, traditional pitcher logic: hard stuff to get ahead, breaking stuff to put them away. But with increased confidence in himself after a solid go-round against the West divisions, maybe we’ll see the curve play a bigger role as the Mariners’ schedule expands for the upcoming year.
The cutter still elicits the lowest exit velocity of his three pitches and seems to be the one he’s most comfortable with, but scaling it back a tiny bit in favor of the four-seamer and curve could be his ticket out of Future Forgettable Reliever Land. What he was doing in the pandemic season certainly worked, and it’s hard to convince any MLB pitcher to abandon or tweak the things that got them there, but it’s also hard to expect a repeat of last season’s prosperity now that there will be more games, more information on him, and more hitters he has to face for the first time. Again, this is all a very small sample, and I’m certainly not a pitching coach, just someone wondering how Misiewicz can build on accomplishments rather than merely duplicate them.
The Mariners’ history of rookie relievers to post at least 0.5 fWAR includes several pleasant memories (Kazuhiro Sasaki, Rafael Soriano, Edwin Díaz), some who have largely been forgotten (Bryan Clark, Roy Corcoran, Sean White), and a few whose rookie seasons did not portend a fruitful career in Seattle (Calvin Jones, Brandon Morrow, Eric O’Flaherty).
With the hopeful return of a semi-normal season in 2021, Anthony Misiewicz has a chance to stake his claim in Mariner reliever history, for better or worse.