Changeup turning David Pauley into Mariners’ relief ace

Jun 2, 2011, 12:40 AM | Updated: 10:36 am
David Pauley’s 0.81 ERA is best among AL relievers with at least 10 innings pitched. (AP photo)

By Dave Cameron

Perhaps no part of the Mariners surprising success so far this season has been more unexpected than the development of David Pauley into a reliable relief ace for Eric Wedge to turn to. Pauley began the year as a long reliever, but has pitched his way into a highly valuable role as a rubber-arm who doesn’t give up runs, and his ability to get critical outs in front of Brandon League is one of the main reasons the Mariners are over .500 with an offense that is still pretty terrible.

It’s not that uncommon for starting pitchers to go to the bullpen and get better. In fact, almost all relief pitchers are failed starters who have resurrected their careers in relief. In many cases, relievers possess some flaw that keeps them from succeeding in the rotation, but those weaknesses can be hidden in short stints where they are only asked to get three outs at a time. Relievers also benefit from the ability to throw as hard as possible on every pitch, since they don’t have to pace themselves and stay on the mound for six innings or more.

That is why a pitcher such as League – the prototypical modern reliever – can succeed while throwing just two high-octane pitches. However, Pauley is different, and he’s succeeding in a way entirely different from most relievers.

Despite switching to the bullpen full time, Pauley is actually throwing his fastball at a slightly reduced velocity this year compared to last season. His average fastball is down from 88.5 mph last year to 88.2 mph this year, and instead of reducing his arsenal to focus on just a few pitches, Pauley has increased the usage of his change-up and is succeeding by mixing in three off-speed pitches to play off his fastball.

In fact, Pauley’s changeup has been among the very best in the game so far this year.

Using a statistic from FanGraphs that measures the value of the outcome of each pitch, Pauley’s changeup has produced the second best results of any reliever in baseball – only Philadelphia’s Ryan Madson has gotten better performance from his changeup this year. Madson, however, gets to use his changeup as a complement to his 94 mph fastball, which certainly helps throw hitters off balance. What is so remarkable about Pauley’s success with the changeup is that it has averaged 82.4 mph, only six ticks slower than his average fastball.

In other words, Pauley isn’t getting hitters out because they’re gearing up for something hard and are fooled by the timing of an off-speed pitch – he’s getting them out because his changeup has significant vertical movement and is just hard to make good contact with, even if they know it is coming.

The pitch has been especially effective for him against left-handed batters, against whom Pauley has thrown changeups in 30 percent of his pitches. The pitch is inducing ground balls against left-handed batters more than half the time they make contact, which allows him to limit home runs (he has yet to give up a single long ball this season) and generate double plays when he needs them.

The fact that Pauley also isn’t walking anyone is giving him a terrific one-two punch in preventing runners from scoring. It’s hard to start a rally when the opposing pitcher is just pounding the strike zone with pitches that are just going to be hit on the ground if the hitter chases it.

Of course, Pauley isn’t as good as his current numbers reflect – if he could sustain a 0.84 ERA, he’d be the best reliever in the history of baseball, after all. However, what is interesting to me about Pauley’s success is that it’s not based on minimizing flaws by tailoring his game to fit the mold of a reliever, but he is instead simply still pitching like a starter and seeing great success.

If the Mariners do end up trading Erik Bedard at some point this summer, Pauley should be the one to step into his rotation spot. He’s pitching like a starter right now and experiencing great success. While it’s tempting to leave him in the role with which he has seemingly found his groove, his style of pitching is still that of a starting pitcher, and I’d like to see what he could do if given the chance to finish the year in the rotation.

The Mariners may have found yet another unheralded potential starting pitcher who is better than everyone expected.

(Note from Salk: For the second season, Dave Cameron from USS Mariner and Fangraphs will be writing for this blog. This year, he’ll be writing every other Thursday, alternating with Jeff Sullivan of LookoutLanding. Dave will be focusing on the Mariners from a statistical perspective whereas Jeff will bring his own unique brand of analysis. I’ll also be doing some writing for USS Mariner, bringing a taste of the clubhouse to that site. Enjoy!)

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