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40 in 40: Sam Delaplane

A Sam with a Dela-Plan(e)

San Diego Padres v Seattle Mariners
Short King Sam
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Yesterday the Mariners announced an interesting free-agent signing: RHP Jaime Schultz, a 14th-round pick by the Rays in 2013. What’s interesting about Schultz is he does this:

Hard-throwing relievers aren’t uncommon in MLB these days, but hard-throwing relievers who are also 5’9” are. Even less common are sub-six foot pitchers who aren’t hard throwers who also aren’t left-handed or wildly deceptive in some other way. The Mariners, though, firmly adhering to Short King Marcus Stroman’s edict of HDMH (Height Doesn’t Measure Heart), have a few of these unicorns in their stable of pitchers, and the short king of them all is Sam Delaplane.

Delaplane, selected by the Mariners in the 23rd round of the 2017 draft, had been toiling in relative obscurity in the Mariners minors before a stint at the Arizona Fall League landed him on prospect radars. In 2017, the Mariners sent Delaplane to Rookie ball in Arizona, where he struck out 36% of batters faced—good, but still trailing Mariners teammates Darren McCaughan and Chris Castellanos. 2018 saw Delaplane promoted to Clinton and the Midwest League, where he bumped his K% up to 38%, still within the top 20 relievers in the league, but again still trailing a couple of his Mariners teammate (Joey Gerber and Kyle Wilcox) in overall K%.

In 2019 at Modesto, however, under the tutelage of pitching coach Rob Marcello, Delaplane took a step forward, striking out 48.4% of batters in his 30 innings, trailing just Raffi Vizcaino of the Giants and Jesús Luzardo for overall strikeout percentage. His K/9 of 17.62 was the highest in all of High-A, and his K% the highest among all pitchers at the middle minors (A and High A), minimum 20 innings pitched. Delaplane was promoted to Arkansas mid-season and continued his dominance there, posting the highest K% of any pitcher with more than 20 innings (43.3%) in the Texas League, and coming in third in raw strikeout percentage, just behind Joe Barlow of the Rangers and new Mariner Andrés Muñoz. Across all of Double-A, Delaplane gets edged out at the top by some premium prospect names like James Karinchak and Tarik Skubal, but holds his own with these heavy hitters, especially in the K-BB ratio column.

What’s most impressive about Delaplane is he hangs tough with these big names despite seeming on the surface like a perfectly ordinary pitcher. He doesn’t have the blistering upper-90s velocity of Muñoz or Barlow, or the ultra-funky delivery of Karinchak; he’s not a 6’3” lefty like Skubal. Delaplane relies on a fastball that ranges between 93-95 on a good day and his true weapon, a slider that he calls a curveball that batters call a “that’s not fair” or “why are you doing this to me.”

It’s that slider that helped Delaplane garner national notice at the Arizona Fall League in 2019, when he struck out 15 of the game’s best prospects in just eight innings and earned an invite to the Fall Stars game.

Here’s Delaplane this summer rudely introducing himself to Shed Long:

sorry Shed

Unfortunately, Delaplane only got to pitch for a short while in the AFL before having to be shut down due to some triceps tendonitis, an issue that might have nagged at him for a while as he came into spring training this year not looking as sharp as he had been in the past. Pre-shutdown, it wasn’t the simply dominant Delaplane we were used to seeing, and he didn’t seem to entirely have his mojo back when spring training 2.0 started back up. At the time, I wondered if it was maybe just a case of nerves for the reliever who stood on the precipice of making his major-league debut. But a reported slight decline in velocity in summer camp and at the alternate site, plus the Mariners opting not to call up Delaplane despite the fiery garbage barge that was the 2020 bullpen, would seem to indicate that maybe his arm troubles weren’t fully behind him. Luckily, Delaplane will enter 2021 having had ample time to recover from any nagging issues that might have been bothering him, and as a member of the 40-man roster at last, poised for his call-up and ready to bring his elite strikeout game to the bigs.

As for Delaplane, he says he doesn’t think too hard about the strikeouts. As a recent guest on the LL podcast, he told us he just tries to get into good counts, and then simply lets hitters dig their own graves from 0-2 (sounding very nonchalant, like “If I were a pitcher, I would simply strike out every hitter”). And that’s the big difference between Delaplane and fellow short king and recent organizational addition, the fireballing Schultz who struggles to command his big stuff. Delaplane aims to get himself into good counts rather than trying to blow the doors off hitters, and then uses his slider to put them away as tidily as a coroner sliding a body into the cooler. It’s that efficient, surgically precise, and deadly. Like a 94.6% strand rate in Double-A kind of deadly. Strikeouts reign supreme in MLB, but it undersells Delaplane somewhat to call him a strikeout pitcher, despite the gaudy numbers. He’s a cerebral craftsman who tries to outwit the hitter, saying he enjoys the “chess match” aspect of pitching. And if that happens to come along with a boatload of strikeouts, well, so be it.

Hear more from Sam on the LL podcast here or wherever you get your podcasts: