Mariners reliever Paul Sewald goes in-depth on secret to bullpen’s success
There’s no debate about what the biggest strength of the Seattle Mariners was throughout their first 90-win season in 18 years.
Seattle’s bullpen ranked eighth in MLB and fourth in the American League in 2021 with a 3.88 ERA, and it was fifth in the majors and third in the AL with a 1.22 WHIP. Seattle also had 51 combined saves and 100 combined holds from all of their relievers, both of which led the AL, was third in MLB with 3.13 walks per nine innings and was fifth with a 2.9 strikeouts to walk ratio.
The Mariners did all that despite having one of the more unconventional bullpens in the league. They had no designated closer, with three different relievers recording 10 or more saves. And most notably, their key relievers tended to be players who either didn’t have track records of MLB success or were signed on deals that went under the radar.
No Mariners player typifies that more than Paul Sewald, a non-roster invitee to spring training who emerged as a breakout reliever at 31 years old in a season where he was called from Triple-A in May. So if anybody would have knowledge about how the Mariners got so much out of their relievers in 2021, it’s him.
Sewald joined 710 ESPN Seattle’s The Mike Salk Show for a two-part interview last week, and he spoke in-depth about why the Mariners’ bullpen usage turned out to be so successful.
“You know, I come in as a non-roster invite and haven’t had a ton of success in New York,” said Sewald, who spent the previous four seasons with the Mets. “The Mariners took a chance on me and we went over some things that they thought I could be better at, and that all clicked into a perfect season for me.”
Sewald finished the year with a 3.06 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, .176 batting average against, 11 saves and 16 holds, but the thing that really stood out was his ability to get opponents to swing and miss at his combination of a low-to-mid-90s fastball and stellar slider. That’s why he averaged 14.47 strikeouts per nine innings, which had him approaching the elite company of All-Star relievers like Josh Hader (15.65), Aroldis Chapman (15.5) and Craig Kimbrel (15.08).
For Sewald, the results came from committing to an approach laid out by the Mariners’ staff.
“We talked to the group in spring training with the analytical team and the pitching coaches and they gave me a couple of ideas, and it didn’t work in spring training,” he said. “It was kind of tough in spring training, but then I went to the alt site and I got the ability to practice in a game situation for the first time and I could try things. And and when it clicked, it clicked, and we realized this is what works. And obviously during the season it really clicked and so that became who I am as a pitcher. It was a pretty big adjustment mentally, but I think once it once I got it mentally, it was pretty easy physically.”
As much as a change to Sewald’s pitching repertoire paid off, Seattle’s unique approach to bullpen roles may have been just as important. Instead of designations like closer and set-up, Sewald and his fellow relievers were assigned certain parts of the opponents’ batting order. So while the pitchers may not have known what inning they would pitch, they only had to prepare themselves to face certain hitters.
“When the one through five (of the opponents’ order) came up in the biggest situation when we were winning, I was going to pitch against them,” Sewald said. “Whether it’s the eighth inning, the ninth inning… I knew when I was going to pitch, I just didn’t know what inning it was going to pitch. So there was that ability to prepare that it’s like, no, I know who I’m facing. I know exactly what I’m gonna face, so I was always prepared.
“I think anyone who watched any of our games, that clearly showed that that’s why we were the best bullpen in the league, is that everyone had their specific role and they knew what role it was and they were fantastic in it.”
Oddly enough, Sewald said the Mariners may have received more buy-in from their relievers to that approach because of how they found their way to the team.
“Frankly, we were lucky that we had a bunch of guys who are teetering on that arbitration and you know, mostly are just still trying to establish themselves as consistent major league relievers,” he said. “So at that point, what am I supposed to say? I want to pitch whenever you tell me to pitch, whether it’s the eighth inning against (Oakland’s Matt) Olson, (Jed) Lowrie and (Ramón) Laureano, or if it’s the ninth inning when we face 7-8-9 and we’re actually up by four so it’s not really that big of a situation.
“I wanted to win, everyone down there wanted to win more than anything, so whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what we wanted to do. The coaching staff told us our spots, we were ready to go in those spots, and I think everyone saw that’s why we’re successful.”