Brandon League is who we wanted, and who we didn’t

May 2, 2011, 11:57 PM | Updated: May 3, 2011, 12:39 pm
League
Mariners reliever Brandon League has converted all seven of his save opportunities this season despite not missing as many bats as he did in either of the last two seasons. (AP photo)

By Jeff Sullivan

When the Mariners traded away Brandon Morrow back in December of 2009, they knew they were dealing a potential destroyer of worlds, into which Morrow is on the path towards developing.

But at the same time, Morrow had a ton of question marks, and the M’s weren’t just giving him away — in return, they were getting a talented young outfield prospect named Johermyn Chavez, and they were also getting a flame-throwing reliever in Brandon League.

League was a guy who made scouts and statheads alike fall in love in an instant. From a scouting perspective, he threw a hard tailing fastball in the mid-90s, and paired it with an impossible splitter. From a stathead perspective, he was coming off a breakthrough season that saw him post a K/9 over 9 with a zillion groundballs, and in terms of swings and misses, his splitter had been the single most unhittable pitch in baseball over the 2009 season.

Cost of the trade aside, League certainly looked primed to establish himself as a dominant late-inning reliever with Seattle.

Needless to say, he hasn’t done it. League wasn’t bad last year, but while he posted a respectable ERA, his strikeouts tumbled and he proved to be entirely more hittable than we would’ve liked. Batters made a lot more contact against League in 2010 than they had in 2009, and a huge reason was that he cut his splitter usage in half. In part on his own and in part due to coaching advice, League started throwing more fastballs and sliders at the expense of his splitter, and his Dominance Index* slipped down a few levels.

*I just made this up, it’s awesome

As it became clear that League wasn’t throwing his splitter as much as he had with Toronto, a lot of us freaked out in response. League’s splitter became a constant topic of conversation, as we couldn’t understand why a pitcher would deliberately go away from a pitch that had been so unthinkably effective in the past. As 2010 hydroplaned to a close, we could only hope that League would realize the error of his ways and go back to the old him in 2011.

Well, for us Brandon League splitter fans, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that, according to Fangraphs, his splitter usage is back up in the early going this season:

2009: 32% splitters
2010: 18%
2011: 27%

What could possibly be the bad news, then? The bad news is that, while the splitter usage is up, the results haven’t yet begun to follow. Below you’ll see the percentage of League’s pitches that batters have swung on and missed:

2009: 14% whiffs
2010: 11%
2011: 6%

To date, League’s gone a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities as the interim closer, and he’s allowed just four runs over 11 innings of work. But that success hides the fact that he hasn’t been missing bats, and a reliever who struggles to miss bats is a reliever who will struggle to keep runs off the board.

It’s early enough in the season that this could simply be a misleading result over a small sample size. League has, after all, thrown only 11 innings and 149 pitches. It’s too soon for us to arrive at any sweeping conclusions — about anything, really, but certainly about a single relief pitcher on the Mariners.

But even so, the early evidence is troubling. League’s whiff rate is down. Additionally, his overall strike rate is down, and he’s generated fewer groundballs than usual. A lot of League’s early indicators are pointing in the wrong direction.

So we’ll see where he goes from here. The fact that he’s throwing his splitter a lot more often than he did in 2010 is encouraging, in that it might help him get back to what he was in 2009, but it’d be nice to start seeing some corresponding results one of these days. One can’t help but wonder if League’s still trying to find the feel for his splitter again after cutting down on it to such an extent a year ago. Pitches require repetition in order to remain effective.

Gun to my head, I think as long as this keeps up, League’s strikeout numbers will improve substantially. He still has the same fastball with the same movement and the same heat, and his splitter still looks dangerous to the eye. It should get more consistent as the season wears on. But then, if I could actually predict the future performance level of relievers, I wouldn’t pay the bills by writing about them.

Editor’s note: Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing will be writing a column every other week during the baseball season for the Brock & Salk blog on 710Sports.com.

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Brandon League is who we wanted, and who we didn’t