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All that glitters is Justin Topaz

The cut gem of the 2023 Mariners bullpen.

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

In the seventh inning of the Friday night game in Houston a week and a half back, with Bryce Miller cruising through the Astros order, Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais went to the bullpen. Miller was encroaching upon the bottom half of the order, having escaped Yordan Alvarez but subsequently yielding a single led to a matchup with lefty Jon Singleton. It seems Miller’s fly ball tendencies and the short porches of Minute Maid Park were too much to let ride. Servais turned to righty Justin Topa, the de facto stopper of this bullpen, whose breakout is a huge part of what made the M’s willing to trade closer Paul Sewald at the deadline.

Topa responded as he has all season. Steady, smooth, and without incident. A strikeout of Singleton and a pop out to Chas McCormick by the member of “The Fearsome Foursome” whose teammates call him “Big Loaf” defused the threat before it could even manifest. The best Bombero, after all, is the one that effectively encourages the neighborhood to invest in fire-resistant roofing and construction materials so they rarely need to break out the hose. For much of the year, where Sewald, Andrés Muñoz, and Matt Brash have been the boys driving the big red truck, headed towards danger, Topa has been Smokey the Bear.

And yet, increasingly, the M’s have called upon Topa to extinguish, as they did Sunday against Kansas City Royals cornerstone and Mariners rock-in-their-shoe Salvador Pérez. Having been bested by the veteran in KC, Topa got ahead quickly with a cutter on the inside corner that was generously called a strike. Acquiring the first two strikes against the swing-happy Pérez is not often the problem, it’s fooling him for a third. Topa saw a low slider, a down and out cutter, an errant slider in the middle of the plate at the knees, and a pair of his best sinkers at 97 and 98 spoiled. Time for, as Topa would later remark, “the kitchen sink”, breaking out the changeup he’d essentially shelved prior to coming to Seattle and had never before thrown to a right-handed hitter in the bigs.

That’s a cambio King Félix would be proud of.

Looking at the improvements the 32-year-old rookie has made since the Mariners traded for him this winter from the Milwaukee Brewers for minor league RHP Joseph Hernandez, it’s exceptional to see another year, another elite reliever seemingly grabbed on a whim from Seattle’s developmental bag of holding. Given Topa’s injury history, which includes two trips on the Tommy John trolley, it’s all the more extraordinary that he has been one of the club’s most consistent and durable bullpen stalwarts.

The man we’ve taken to calling Topaz has racked up 53.0 innings pitched in 59 appearances, second only to Matt Brash among M’s relievers for each total and tied for ninth-most appearances in MLB. His 1.2 fWAR is 22nd in MLB among relievers, third on the club, and his 2.04 ERA is Seattle’s best among active players. He’s done this with a repertoire that is distinctly different from his fellow top Bomberos, striking out 23.4% of hitters, barely above league-average at 22.8% and below league-average for relievers (23.7%). As Topa himself put it after Sunday’s game in his comments to reporters regarding the Salvy strikeout, K’s are not typically his focus.

“Having an opportunity to get into a game like that and make an impact was awesome. For me it’s just trying to keep it simple. More often than not I’m trying to get a ground ball in that situation, obviously punch outs are awesome but for me, my strength is getting ground balls.”

That makes Topa anomalous amongst M’s relievers in the Dipoto era. Even with a fairly pitcher-friendly park in Seattle, fly balls are a scary currency to trade in for a bullpen, as the impact of even a single big fly are often catastrophic. Ergo, pitchers who can generate groundballs are at a premium, and, as Jerry Dipoto has noted for years, compensated at a premium. Since 2016, among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched in a season, only four Seattle relievers have generated a groundball rate over 50%: 2016 Mike Montgomery at 59.3% in consistent long relief, 2023 Topa (57.8%), 2022 Andrés Muñoz (52.6%), and 2017 James Pazos (51.0%). Lowering the threshold to 40 IP introduces a few more names, but only pushes Topa down to third on the list behind 2021 Casey Sadler, with fellow 2023 Bombero Gabe Speier slipping in the group as well.

In the words of Gordon Gekko, “greed is good”, provided very specifically that the greed is a team’s desire for a pitcher to give up contact on the ground. Seattle has rightfully been greedy, and fascinatingly so, as their bullpen has gone from 28th in MLB by groundball rate in 2022 to 3rd, for the first time in the Dipoto era aside from the non-competitive 2019 club showcasing a bullpen of predominantly earth bending arms, steadily paced by Topa.

By comparison to some tweaks the M’s have made, Topa’s motion is not dramatically altered from years prior. The righty throws the same speed, and perhaps even a slightly lower effort level. His slider still sweeps at an elite level, generating a late downward bite that makes it his best swing-and-miss pitch.

And yet, it’s the medley of Topa’s other offerings that have helped him emerge for the M’s as an unassailable bullpen stopper. First, the heater, which like most fastballs is still ultimately Topa’s most vulnerable offering. Sitting 95 but cranking up at times to 98, Topa’s sinker has generated the greatest positive run value per pitch of any sinker in Seattle’s pen, and is neck and neck with longtime relief dragon Josh Hader for among the most valuable sinkers in baseball.

Baseball Savant

The pitch is not a bat misser, nor are most sinkers (Hader being anomalous in this regard as you can see in the Whiff% line above), but Topa gets precisely what he and the Mariners are looking for with his sinker time and time again:

The 69.5% groundball rate Topaz generates on his sinker is 5th-highest in MLB (min. 300 pitches) behind four excellent relievers: RHPs Brusdar Graterol (LAD), Justin Lawrence (COL), Clay Holmes (NYY), and Yennier Cano (BAL). And this would be enough, Topa as a sinker/slider specialist is a competitive big leaguer. But when our Kate Preusser asked him postgame about how he’s refined his repertoire with the M’s coaching staff specifically, we got to see how Topa has set himself apart.

“It’s been really cool to be able to see the profiles of all the pitches I’ve thrown. I implemented the cutter this year, that was an off-season project. I’ve always had a changeup but I don’t really throw it a ton in years past but this year we’ve kind of [reintroduced it] exclusively against lefties—and obviously, threw one today against the righty—but it’s been cool to map that stuff out and say hey, we can use this pitch in this situation and attack guys differently. That’s been fun from the get-go, day one, getting in to spring training and sitting down with everybody. It’s been kind of eye-opening to see those numbers and, hey, let’s exploit it here if you’re in that situation. It’s been fun overall.”

We’ve discussed the changeup a bit above, and it’s a good pitch that mirrors his heater well with enough extra drop to be effective to lefties. However, it is the cutter that I wish to interrogate here to close this celebration. What Topa has done, in developing his low-90s cutter, is fascinating. A cutter, in theory, is the mid-point between a four-seam fastball and a slider, traditionally with almost exclusively glove-side break and minimal drop, thrown at a higher speed than other off-speed pitches with the goal of leading a hitter to miss the barrel as they swing and either be jammed or take the pitch off the end of the bat.

Topa’s cutter... is not that.

143 pitchers have thrown at least 100 cutters in 2023. 120 of them have cutters that fit the description I laid out, with glove-side movement. Another 14 are essentially throwing spinners, like throwing a football spiral with plenty of drop and a tick of arm side movement. And then there are nine weirdos, Topa included, whose cutters have multiple inches of arm side movement - like a two-seamer typically would - despite spinning like a slider.

Topa throws this pitch primarily to lefties, with a well-consolidated location up and in, consistently living as he has with most of his pitches in the shadow zone on the edges of the plate. In all honesty, this pitch is bizarre enough that my conjecture is the best I can muster, however assuming this oddity of a pitch was Topa’s intent, it is a fascinating balance with his other offerings. By spin, the pitch will resemble his extreme sweeping slider, which if located up and in on lefties at release would cross the plate in their ribcage. However, despite the 10 mph bump up in velocity from the slider, it could still be in range of his heater. And yet, three mph slower than his sinker, the cutter actually drops half a foot less on its approach, leading to hitters whiffing, freezing, popping up, and otherwise missing the barrel entirely.

Topa will continue to be leaned on heavily by the M’s down the stretch, particularly once the schedule flips beyond the AL Central and into the monstrously important late September divisional matchups. He’s optimistic about the challenge, especially finally feeling himself.

“For me it’s always been about staying healthy. So I’ve been able to stay healthy all year and then get the opportunity to come into any situation, whether it be, you know, the fifth inning all the way to the ninth, extra innings, kind of getting thrown into different situations. It’s been awesome to kind of roll with the punches throughout the whole year. And just to get that opportunity, for me, has been huge.”

Luckily for the Mariners, with that opportunity, Topa’s been a gem.