Perhaps we should’ve seen the Burke Badenhop trade coming. After all, the role of groundball specialist on the Rays has turned into a revolving door of cheap arms. Once Badenhop’s salary jumped over the $1 million mark he became a target because similar pitchers can be had at lesser prices. Hence why the signing of Jamey Wright was more predictable than the Badenhop trade.
Typically, pitchers are converted into relievers when they demonstrate durability issues, severe splits against right or left-handed pitchers, or an inability to change speeds. Wright moved to the pen after spending nine years as a fulltime starter because of his inability to miss bats, leading to some of the lowest strikeout rates amongst starters from 2004 to 2007. (He also walked more batters than he struck out in his final season in the rotation.) The transition to the bullpen resulted in Wright’s strikeout rate increasing from 12 percent to 16 percent.
Wright gave those gains back in 2010 before last season, in which he set a career-high strikeout rate by fanning 18 percent of his batters faced. In addition to the newly acquired taste in strikeouts, Wright has become a groundball-generating machine. He has the fourth-highest groundball rate of all qualified relievers over the past three seasons at 62.4 percent.
The cause for the improvements are tough to finger. Wright’s shift on the pitching rubber—a la Fernando Rodney—is a visual change and may have resulted in a more important, albeit harder to track, alteration in his curveball location. Take the two maps below. The top one is from 2010 while the bottom is from 2012:
Wright appears to have found the perfect spot to entice hitters: right there underneath the strike zone. Perhaps it’s just a visual trick, but it looks like Wright’s curveballs are more concentrated in areas where batters are unable to get underneath the ball. This change has led Wright from generating 40 percent groundballs on his curveball to generating 70 percent groundballs on the same pitch.
If Wright can maintain his 2012 level of performance then the Rays may have upgraded while saving money. The strikeouts are the key difference between Wright and Badenhop and could provide Joe Maddon with a new wrinkle. Whereas Badenhop only had uses in situations where groundballs were required, Wright could work out of jams by missing bats. In short, by making the switch the Rays are getting a specialist who can be used as more than a specialist.
Data and visualizations courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info