On the continuum of topics that merit the use of the word 'sexy,' middle relievers fall somewhere between Bartolo Colon's abs and the latest Paul Blart: Mall Cop sequel. Being one is sort of like playing the bass guitar in the band that is a professional baseball team. On occasion, though, the middle relievers deserve their share of the love--and doesn't a winning streak seem as good a time as any?
About two months ago, I wrote an article on why the bullpen shouldn't be a cause for concern (and why Mark Melancon should be a cause for concern, but, hey--let's focus on the positives). It included this table:
Pirates Bullpen Performance as of 4/22/15
Here's the same table, from today (06/17):
Pirates Bullpen Performance as of 6/17/15
Significant (and thoroughly predictable) positive regression in BABIP and HR/FB have led to a much-improved ERA. The bullpen has changed how they're retiring people (from strikeouts to managing contact), but their underlying performance still pegs them in the 5-10 range of MLB relief outfits.
The contact management, in particular, is interesting. They're running a 51.6% ground ball rate--highest in the majors. And they allow a 25.1% hard-hit rate--lowest in the majors. There's probably an article here somewhere, but for now I'm less interested in discussing the bullpen on a macro level and more interested in discussing one specific middle reliever who has been critical to the success depicted above. The title probably gave it away, but I'm talking about Arquimedes Caminero.
Here's a quick summary of the point I'll be making:
Arquimedes Caminero is a ridiculous baseball-emitting laser cannon.
Undoubtedly, a phenomenal amount of raw talent is required to throw a baseball at close-to-triple-digit speeds. An even greater amount of talent is required to do so while maintaining some idea of where said baseball's magical journey toward the plate might take it.
Upon being designated for assignment and subsequently acquired by the Pirates last winter, Caminero appeared to possess only the former of these skills. I can empathize with Arquimedes. While I never had the good fortune to be named after multiple Greek philosophers (Caminero's middle name, fantastically enough, is Euclides), I remember the shame I felt when, despite dealing pure upper-40s gas, my nine-year-old self failed to develop the necessary command to succeed as a Little League ace. Such is the struggle of a zero-tool player.
Caminero's poor control, combined with his propensity for coughing up dingers, conspired to limit him to the realm of generic middle reliever-dom and make his DFA pretty unremarkable. He was a mildly intriguing acquisition for the Pirates, but 'hard-throwing righty with control problems' isn't exactly an uncommon description for ultimately-ineffective AAAA pitchers.
And yet Caminero is currently 16th in the game in reliever WAR. He's been the most valuable member of our bullpen. He's posted a 2.51 FIP and a 3.18 ERA, aided in part by an extremely low .242 BABIP and 3.8% HR/FB rate.
When confronted with such an improbable rags-to-riches success story, our natural impulse is to ask why?
To begin with, Arquimedes Caminero throws really, really hard. His average four-seam fastball velocity of 97.8 mph is second in the majors, trailing only Aroldis Chapman.
Caminero's velocity, however, has actually increased since his prior big-league exposure. In 2013, Caminero's average four-seam fastball velocity was 94.6 mph. In 2014, it was 93.9 mph. So he's gained 3-4 mph on his fastball. Which is absurd. We can see a graphical illustration of this below:
Putting this in context, here's a list of the biggest season-to-season changes in four-seam fastball velocity since 2011:
Biggest Four-seam Velocity Changes, 2011-2015
The first thing to note is that Hunter, Abad, Myers, Davis, and Hochevar (half the list) all achieved their respective velocity increases while transitioning to the bullpen. Diekman's placement on this list is entirely due to only throwing four four-seam fastballs in 2014, and both he and Rzepcynski experienced decreased velocity in the following year.
The largest four-seam fastball increase of the past half-decade? Our own Charlie Morton, also coached by Ray Searage. Chris Tillman and Adam Ottavino similarly achieved higher velocity without a change in role. This should demonstrate just how rare it is for a pitcher to suddenly add three ticks of velocity--there only only four real cases over the last half-decade. Time will tell if Caminero can sustain his improvement over the entire season, but as of now I imagine Searage's work with Caminero to be something like this.
This isn't the first attention Caminero has received for his improvements--in addition to Charlie's commentary here on Bucs Dugout, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan highlighted some of Caminero's mechanical changes earlier in the season, which in turn prompted this response.
Nor is velocity the only way Caminero's improved. His control is better, obviously--his walk rate is lower in the majors than it was in AAA last year, and he's throwing roughly half of his pitches in the strike zone (among the highest on the club), an increase of ten percentage points over last year. Maybe it's as straightforward as simply not trying to be cute--when your raw stuff is as nasty as Caminero's, 'Here it is, try and hit it' becomes a much more viable strategy.
Most interestingly, he's suddenly become a contact-management savant (remember how our relievers allow the least hard contact in the league?). Out of all qualifying MLB relievers, Caminero's 14.9% hard hit rate is the second-lowest, bested only by Wade Davis's absurd 7.9%. This makes it more likely that his uncommonly low HR/FB and BABIP (both of which tend to be more an indicator of luck than skill for pitchers) might be sustainable.
Check out this spray chart of the contact Caminero's allowed:
Caminero was always a fly ball pitcher, and while his ground ball percentage is still a modest 41.8%, that represents marked progress. More significantly, most of the fly balls he has allowed have been of the softly-hit can of corn nature.
It's not yet clear that Caminero's success is sustainable--I might be over-interpreting a relatively small sample of batted ball data, for instance--but he and Searage both deserve credit for what he's already accomplished.
After all, he's gone from a guy with an awesome name and a probable minor-league future to a guy with an awesome name and a key role on one of the best teams in baseball.