You’ve probably heard it more than once: the Mariners overperformed in 2021. If you’re anything like me, you’re sick of hearing it. The fact that the Mariners’ actual win-loss record didn’t correspond to their Pythagorean record has been held over their heads all offseason, with some using it to argue that the team must drastically improve to repeat their surprising success, others simply using it to cheapen their 90-win effort.
What everyone seems to agree on is how they managed to outperform their run differential. With the Mariners going an incredible 33-19 in one-run games, they repeatedly excelled in high-leverage situations. No unit was more important in those situations than the bullpen.
The 2021 Mariners had the fourth-highest bullpen fWAR in all of baseball (7.0). That success was due in large part to the contributions of lesser-known players. Kendall Graveman, arguably the Mariners best-known reliever going into 2021, led the charge in the first half up until he was famously traded, much to the chagrin of the clubhouse. Graveman, however, chalked up just 0.8 fWAR on the year. The other 6.2 came mostly from the likes of Paul Sewald (1.4), Casey Sadler (1.1), JT Chargois (0.5), and Anthony Misiewicz (0.5). Almost as valuable as any of them, however, was Drew Steckenrider (1.3).
A college arm drafted in the eighth round of the 2012 draft by the Marlins, Steckenrider’s development was delayed almost from the beginning. After a single season in short-season A-ball, constant elbow pain forced Steckenrider to undergo Tommy John surgery less than a year into his professional career. By the time he finally returned, he found himself as a 24-year-old in Single-A ball, already running out of time to make a name for himself.
After mixed success during his first year back as a starter, the Marlins converted Steckenrider into a reliever. It’s a familiar story: that conversion allowed him to pump his velocity and immediately begin making up for lost time. Now 25, Steckenrider obliterated High-A and Double-A in 2016, forcing his way through the Marlins system and reaching Triple-A New Orleans by season’s end.
His success in the minors began to earn him some attention and placements on top-prospect lists. In particular, the inimitable John Sickels of Minor League Ball wrote that “everyone likes the fastball”, but cast doubt on his secondary offerings, ultimately projecting Steckenrider as a middle reliever. Steckenrider continued his 2016 success into 2017, posting a 1.62 ERA and forcing himself onto the Marlins’ roster by May.
The next two years were relatively rosy for Steckenrider after his early-career injury: his strong ERA was backed up by a relatively good FIP. He continued to lean on a solid 95-MPH fastball with some movement, throwing just enough of his changeup and curveball to keep hitters off-balance.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long before the injury bug again bit Steckenrider. Just a month into the 2019 season, Steckenrider again began feeling pain in his right throwing elbow and was ultimately diagnosed with a flexor bundle strain. While there was thought that he might again require surgery, he ultimately opted to rehab the injury without surgery. Numerous setbacks unfortunately caused Steckenrider to miss the entire rest of 2019 and all of 2020.
Perhaps now viewed as an injury-prone pariah, Steckenrider was cut by the Marlins in October of 2020 before being picked up the following month with little fanfare by the Mariners. Like Sewald and Chargois, Steckenrider found himself on The Pile of non-roster invitee relievers at Spring Training last season. Seven relatively successful innings of Spring ball were enough to get Steckenrider the nod into the Mariners’ Opening Day bullpen.
He never looked back.
While the Mariners have garnered a reputation for getting the most out of their relievers, Steckenrider didn’t actually look much different last season from his previous self. His fastball looked about the same in terms of spin rate and movement, though the velocity was just a tick lower. His peripherals looked just-okay: a 6.4% walk rate is nothing to sneeze at, but a 21.7% strikeout rate isn’t exactly world-beating.
So how was Steckenrider so successful? His 3.35 FIP is seemingly at odds with his 4.37 xFIP, with the culprit being a seemingly unsustainable 6.6% HR/FB rate, less than half of the league average of 13.6%. HR/FB is one of the less stable stats out there, though if a pitcher is consistently preventing hitters from putting the barrel on the ball, there’s reason to believe an outlier season might be repeatable.
Unfortunately, that seemingly wasn’t the case for Steckenrider. His HardHit% given up was right around league average, while his average exit velocity surrendered was abysmal, checking in at the 11th percentile. Indeed, that 6.6% HR/FB rate seems to have been cushioned by the sky-high rate at which Steckenrider induced infield pop-ups. His 19.7% IFFB% (infield fly ball percentage) was good for fourth in all of MLB. IFFB% is even less sustainable than HR/FB from year-to-year, and I wouldn’t expect Steckenrider to repeat his run of forced pop-ups.
None of this is to say that Steckenrider will be bad in 2022. When healthy, he’s never been bad. It’s just likely that his 4.37 xFIP is more of an indicator of his true talent than his 2.00 ERA. With Paul Sewald, Diego Castillo, and Ken Giles all slated to take on major roles in the 2022 Mariner bullpen, the M’s don’t need the “Steckasaurus” to be a world-beater. A repeat of his 2018 season, which saw him record 0.5 fWAR, would be plenty good enough.