Teams around the league are falling all over themselves to imitate the bullpen of the World Champion Kansas City Royals. It's not just the Mets being outscored by 14 runs in the late innings of the World Series. Bullpen failures cost the Houston Astros the AL West title and sunk the Oakland Athletics before they even got out of the gate. Looking back further, the Detroit Tigers sure would've loved to have a good bullpen to help them turn at least one of their division championships into a title.
Maybe that’s why this offseason the Boston Red Sox traded some highly regarded prospects and players for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith and the Dodgers wanted Aroldis Chapman to team with Kenley Jansen before questions of Chapman's domestic violence scuttled the deal. The Yankees reeled in Andrew Miller last year to form a one-two punch with Dellin Betances, the Pirates still have their "Shark Tank" bullpen, and last weekend the Astros paid a very high price for young fireballer Ken Giles.
Thankfully the Orioles have a lockdown bullpen already. It was the story of the team’s Wild Card run in 2012, it performed admirably in their division championship two years later, and it held together quite well in 2015 despite being asked to do more work than usual. The team has great setup men in Brad Brach and Darren O'Day and a lockdown closer in Zach Britton.
One new addition to the Orioles’ bullpen is Mychal Givens. He made his major-league debut this year and notched a superlative FIP of 1.73 on the strength of a 32.5% K rate, 5.1% walk rate, and a 0.3 HR/9. When you add in the facts that he used to be a shortstop and that he was promoted straight from AA, his 2015 season was really special.
Givens is not rare in that he's a reliever who throws 94-96 MPH heat. He is rare in that he throws said heat from a sidearm slot. In 2015, only 42 pitchers threw a pitch that fast from five feet or lower off the ground. Givens actually led the league in "sidearm heat" pitch rate at over 30%. This list that has some great names on it, such as Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Kimbrel. But there are also some forgettable ones like Odrisamer Despaigne, Fernando Abad, and Joe Kelly. To see where Givens might fit into this pantheon, I studied a few key metrics of pitchers who threw sidearm heat at least 10% of the time in 2013, 2014, or 2015.
Givens’ season ranks very high in K-BB%, which is an important metric for a pitcher. His rate of 27.40% was second only to Kimbrel’s 30.2% mark in 2013. But sidearm heat is no guarantee of success, as others who threw this way averaged just at 14.1% K-BB rate, which is well below league average. Hurlers like R.J. Alvarez, Chris Perez, and Jose Ramirez had walk rates nearly double league average. And no, Rhiner Cruz's line is not a typo. In 2013 he walked more batters than he whiffed.
Givens also excelled at limiting the long ball, but here again we see that his delivery is no sure thing. Many of his cohorts put up HR/9 rates above the major league average of 0.9. In fact these cohorts averaged a rate of 1, which is a tiny bit worse than league average.
As judged by FIP-, Givens’ 2015 mark of 41 is one of the best no matter how a pitcher throws the ball. But there’s evidence showing that this too could’ve gone worse. Just look at Jose Ramirez in 2014, Chris Perez that same year, or Rhiner Cruz in 2013. The group’s average FIP- is basically average, at 103.
By ERA- this group grades out well. Collectively its mark is 90, or 10% better than average when accounting for park and league. Givens’ ERA- of 44 this year ranks comfortably third.
The good news from these charts is that Givens’ core stats more closely mirror those of Craig Kimbrel and Tony Watson, who are well-regarded relievers, than those of Jose Ramirez and Rhiner Cruz. On the flip side though, Givens’ sidearm heat isn’t a ticket to winning the reliever lottery. As Ramirez and Cruz show, consistently getting batters out is difficult no matter how you’re delivering the ball or where it's coming from.
Fans should also appreciate that the ERA- of this group is substantially lower than its FIP-. This gap may mean that sidearm heat throwers induce weaker contact than other pitchers. Of course it may also mean they play in front of better defenses. If that's the case, the Orioles have Givens covered.
Because sidearm heat is so rare, I wanted to see how Givens’ individual pitch results compared to other sidearm heat pitches. For this comparison I looked at all sidearm heat pitches thrown from 2014-2015. Here are the results:
The way to read this chart is that 19.7% of Givens’ pitches that he delivered between 94-96 MPH, and from 5 feet or lower off the ground, were taken for called strikes. This rate is 1.6 percentage points higher than the league average called strike rate of such pitches from 2014-2015.
This chart shows that Givens is good at deploying his fastball. He gets more strikes and fewer balls than others who threw this same kind of pitch. You could say that, when compared to the league, he has to work on hitting batters, but he hit only one of the 117 batters he faced. That’s pretty good.
What does the future hold for Givens? Is he about to turn into Craig Kimbrel or settle into a dependable Tony Watson role, or will he wind up more like a late-model Chris Perez? Steamer projects Givens' FIP and ERA to rise to the mid-3’s next year. As you can see above, that’s not unreasonable given his peers.
But for the time being, he’s certainly won himself a spot in the bullpen. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t on the 40-man roster to start 2015. And not a bad way for the Orioles to prove they were on the bullpen-building train before all the trendy newcomers this offseason.