Relief pitchers have always been the hardest position to project in baseball. They are prone to wild swings in value, performance, and talent levels. Some of the best relievers on the planet will become worthless minor league pitchers in a blink of the eye, while some worthless minor league pitchers will become the best relievers on the planet. As quickly as a bullpen arm can flame out, they can break out and have stellar seasons. Often, talented pitchers will fly under the radar, only to become recognized around the league when they are thrust into pivotal roles in the bullpen. It’s always surprising to see who, out of nowhere, starts to put up sub-2.00 ERA numbers. Here is a couple players that could have huge 2016s.
Caminero checks off all the things you want from a top pitcher—great velocity, great pitches, and a great name. Caminero’s average fastball velocity sits at 98.2 mph, good for fifth best in the majors. Besides the blazing velocity, he also has a unique arsenal made up of a four seam fastball, a sinker, a cutter, and a splitter. He doesn’t have the deadly offspeed pitch that you’d like for a pitcher, but the combination of four fastballs could be enough for him to succeed.
Although his fastball was hit harder than the Pirates would have liked like last season, he may be dealing with something similar to the ‘Nate Eovaldi effect’—despite the huge velocity, a lack of other weapons for hitters to look out for allow them to sit on the fastball. Luckily, his splitter shows a lot of promise and was nearly impossible to drive last season, as opposing batters hit just .103 against it. His cutter isn’t quite as nasty, but a .167 batting average got the job done. The only problem now is his pitch usage: the fastball is thrown 52.72% of the time, while the cutter has a usage rate of 22.21% and the splitter sits at 11.24%. Caminero isn’t risk-free, in fact, he had a 3.62 ERA last season. That said, he has all the tools to have a huge 2016. Using more of his splitter and cutter could do wonders, and the 28-year-old will be fun to watch next season with his elite velocity.
This one may be cheating a bit, given Vizcaino’s 1.60 ERA last season, but he only threw 33 2/3 innings and has flown under the radar thus far. Vizcaino has been floating around the minor leagues for a while, failing as a starter for the Yankees and Braves before getting traded to the Cubs and subsequently missing three seasons with Tommy John surgery complications. Vizcaino finally got healthy and was traded back to the Braves last offseason, but was suspended for the first 80 games of 2015 due to the use of a banned drug, Stanozolol.
Now, Vizcaino is presumably healthy and clean, and will look to perform over a full season in 2016. The 25-year old went from zero to hero by drastically improving his walk rate: cutting down his BB/9 to 3.48 last season in the big leagues. Vizcaino then let his fastball velocity, tied for fifth in the league with Caminero, and deadly curve, shut down the opposition for the rest of the season. Vizcaino’s 1.60 ERA came with some good luck, like his minuscule home run totals despite a below average ground ball rate, but his BABIP was also a bit higher than expected. Hopefully these two factors can balance out next season and allow for another huge season.
Givens is a bit like Vizcaino: he was elite last season while on the mound, but hasn’t been a widely-recognized reliever just yet due to a strange track record. Givens was drafted in 2009 by the Orioles, but first threw a minor league pitch in 2013. That’s because he was drafted as a shortstop, but was unable to ever get comfortable at the plate. Givens quickly picked up pitching, though, and was dominant in his first taste of the big leagues last year.
Givens has a unique delivery with a sidearm arm slot. It’s worked very well for him though, as he was lights out last season. There’s not a whole lot that Givens doesn’t have— he showed excellent control in the majors, along with elite strikeout rates, and the ability to limit the long ball. His ground ball rate was a bit low, but he threw just 30 innings and batted ball rates take longer to stabilize. The only thing working against Givens right now is track record, but his deadly four seam fastball and slider combination should thrust him into the upper echelon of relievers next season.
If you’ve heard of Arquimedes, Arodys, and Mychal, hopefully Tony Zych is a new name to your ears. Zych, whose last name is literally the last name in the baseball player alphabet, came out of nowhere last season to have a 2.45 ERA in 18 1/3 innings. This is an extremely limited sample size, but there’s a lot to get Zych’d about with the 25-year-old.
Despite low expectations due to a mediocre 2015 season in the minors, Zych opened eyes once reaching the show. He showcased great strikeout stuff and impressive control— walking just three in his 18 1/3 innings. Despite an unlucky .348 BABIP, he still managed a very low ERA and even lower FIP (2.04). There’s reason to be skeptical of Zych, due to doubt about whether he took a real step forward, or if his 2015 debut was smoke and mirrors. It makes sense to lean towards the former though, as Zych’s stuff is real: a high-90’s fastball and a unique slider that could neutralize both righties and lefties.
Finally, here’s a pitcher that could truly go from a below-average option out of the bullpen to a great one. Diekman’s profile is centered around his 96.9 mph fastball. Compared to some other relievers, that may seem a bit unspectacular, but it happened to be the second highest velocity from a southpaw last season. Diekman pairs that fastball with a slider that the competition hit a mere .155 against last season, giving him a potentially deadly two pitch combination. Diekman also brings elite strikeout numbers to the table— he has a career K/9 of 11.31. So, why did he have a 4.01 ERA last season?
Like a number of high velocity relievers, Diekman struggles with control. It’s what has held him back from becoming an elite strikeout arm, and a 4.78 BB/9 last season isn’t promising. But, there’s a reason why I’m mentioning Diekman here. A throw in from the Cole Hamels trade, Diekman came to Texas and cut his BB/9 from 5.9 in Philadelphia to 2.9 in Texas. It’s a limited sample size of 21 2/3 innings with the Rangers, but improved control could be why his ERA in Texas was 2.08, over three runs lower than it was with the Phillies (5.15). His strikeout rate also was lower, likely a side-effect of the better control, but we’ll live with depressed strikeout numbers if it comes with that ERA.