On June 27th, I found myself sitting inside, suffering on a hot summer day. Not just any hot summer day, but the second day of a heat wave that ended up being the second-hottest temperature recorded in Seattle, ever. I’d escaped to the confines of an uncomfortably bourgeois cafe, with the goal being to indulge in a cold brew or two, but mostly to immerse myself in an environment that had air conditioning and (unlike my house!) actually had insulation in the walls.
While I was there, I wrote about two relievers that were having career seasons at the ages of 30 and 31. One of them was J.T. Chargois, who pitched so well that he found himself traded in a package for Diego Castillo. The other pitcher? Paul Sewald. And, much like Seattle that day, he’d been scalding hot.
It’s important to note that the road to 2021 was a bumpy one. Sewald spent six full seasons in the minor leagues before getting the call. Once he did, he posted solid peripherals (97 FIP-), but with mediocre outcomes (138 ERA-). He’d struggled so much that he’d started to think more about life after baseball.
In Seattle, Sewald experienced more of the same, racking up strikeouts, but getting hit hard in spring training. He ended up assigned to the Mariners’ alternate training site, where he made several adjustments that turned him into the pitcher that he is today. The team had him emphasize two things: getting his fastball to the top of the zone, and getting more horizontal movement on his slider. An internal cue to get “under” the ball to hit the top of the zone with his fastball helped him better locate it upstairs, but, as a byproduct, it also lowered his arm slot, which flattened his fastball’s vertical approach angle (VAA).
Here, you can see that Mychal Givens — who I wrote about as a comp for Sewald — is a release point outlier. But that little dot, circled in red? That’s Sewald — and he’s in his own area code out there:
By horizontal release point, Sewald is more than one standard deviation from average. By vertical release, though, he’s three standard deviations from average. That’s...really, really substantial! Sewald’s arm slot helps to create unique movement, adding flatness to his fastball and extra sweep to his slider that helped him create not one, but two unicorn pitches: by zone-adjusted VAA, his fastball is the second-flattest in MLB, and his slider gets five more inches of horizontal movement than is inferred, or expected. That means that his slider’s non-magnus sweep ranks in the 99th percentile in MLB — it’s a deceptive pitch.
As you might imagine, a pair of elite pitches like Sewald’s will induce a lot of silly swings. And Sewald induced a loooot of silly swings.
Let’s start with the fastball! Here’s a silly swing from Justin Upton, on a wicked fastball running up and in:
Another silly swing! This time, on a fastball to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.:
And perhaps the silliest swing of all, from my archnemesis, David Fletcher:
Despite sitting around 92 miles per hour, Sewald’s fastball was mostly unhittable, but his slider was arguably even harder to barrel up. We’ll start with DJ LeMahieu waving over a sweeper in the opposite batter’s box:
Here’s Andrew Vaughn, chasing a slider waaaaay out of the zone:
And then here’s a whiff from Randy Arozarena, followed by Sewald demonstrating some of the competitiveness and intensity that he’s become so well-known for:
You can’t hear it, but Sewald lets out a guttural YEAH, LET’S GO, followed by a sword sheathing. That’s not something you see every day! And while it was the lone time Sewald sheathed his imaginary sword on the year, the passion he flashed post-strikeout wasn’t the exception, it was the rule. Given his affinity for putting out fires in high-leverage situations, Sewald got to release plenty of visceral roars to end innings and, oftentimes, to end games. Don’t believe me? See it for yourself!
Now, I’ll admit, it’s easy to appreciate a player who’s as dominant as Sewald, but part of the reason I adore him is who he is when he walks off the mound.
Sometimes literally! Watch what Sewald does after he punches out Carlos Correa:
Towards the end of the season, Sewald’s wife gave birth to his daughter, Chloe. Given the nature of his work, he was afforded less family time than he’d have liked, so, at the end of his appearances, Sewald started signing “I. Love. You.” to his wife and daughter, who were watching from home. See what I mean? The man’s easy to root for.
My connection to Sewald dates back to early July, when I coined the Paul Sewald Appreciation Club because of his penchant for loud grunts and missing bats. But what strengthened that connection was a tweet that I made in September. In it, I talked about how children are a gift, and that they bring me a lot of light. As an aside, I’d mentioned having dealt with increased suicidal ideations in the preceding weeks, and how they’d lifted momentarily.
It certainly wasn’t my intention — I just wanted to express my appreciation for kids! — but what proceeded were dozens and dozens of replies, one of them being from the man himself, Paul Sewald:
Mikey, as you can see from these responses your mental health is so important and we are here for you and we are proud of you for working through these tough moments. Thanks for being such a supporter I really appreciate it! DM me an address so I can send something your way!— Paul Sewald (@ItsPaulSewald) September 6, 2021
Growing up, I learned to love the Mariners. I learned to love the Mariners because my dad and I watched the Mariners. I’ve always had a special relationship with baseball, because my dad made it special. As I grew older, that love for the Mariners morphed more into an obsession with baseball analytics, more of the abstract part of the game that’s examined off the field. The combination of the two has gotten me to where I am today.
Baseball’s charm had worn for me, deteriorating from one of the things that mattered most to me to static in the background. Part of that is growing up — the nostalgia has faded, now I’m bored and old! — but there’s also that the Mariners haven’t made the playoffs since 2001, and controversies off the field have made it difficult to appreciate whatever product is on the field.
There’s the firing of high-performance director Dr. Lorena Martin. There was the sexual harassment of several women at the hands of several Mariners executives. Or how about former Mariners president Kevin Mather openly making racist comments and bragging about service time manipulation? I mean, what was I supposed to be romantic about? 2001? 1995? My appreciation for the game had dwindled, because, more than anything else, I learned to love baseball because I loved the Mariners. And for a long time, there hadn’t been many reasons to love the Mariners.
Then 2021 happened. There are a lot of things I’m going to remember about this past year. I’ll remember the feeling during the last week of the season, which was the closest I’ve ever been to believing — no, knowing — the Mariners were going to make the playoffs, the most buzz I’ve seen the team receive at the end of the season for two decades. But more than anything else, I’ll remember Paul Sewald. He not only gave me a player to root for, but a person too, and, for the first time in a long, long time, he helped me love Mariners baseball again. He helped me remember what it felt like to watch baseball and feel like a kid.