Fun with Small Sample Sizes: Three Relievers Who Have Impressed So Far in 2019

Baseball statistics are incredibly volatile in the early part of the season. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. Tim Beckham is leading the majors in WAR for crying out loud! No position is wonkier in small sample sizes than relief pitching. When a pitcher only faces a handful of batters in a time frame, anything can happen. Indians reliever Neil Ramirez didn’t give up a single run the entire month of June 2018, a sample of 11.2 innings. The following month, his ERA was 7.36. Basically, what I’m saying here is that stats mean nothing this early into the season, especially for relief pitchers who may have only thrown two or three times. But it sure is fun to pretend they do.

There are three relievers in particular who have looked especially impressive through their first ten games. Can they keep it up for a full season? Only time will tell. Josh Hader and Ryan Pressly began their breakout 2018s with strong first months, but so did Mets reliever Paul Sewald. The following guys may not become anything the rest of the season, but they’ve certainly done enough so far to warrant a mention.

Ty Buttrey, Los Angeles Angels

A former fourth-round pick, Buttrey was cast off by the Boston Red Sox in exchange for a 36-year-old Ian Kinsler. Though the Sox season turned out just fine, they probably wish they could have had that one back. While Kinsler posted just a 62 wRC+ down the stretch, Buttrey was brilliant after getting the call to the majors, locking down the closer role while posting a 1.63 FIP. This year, he has been even better. In six appearances, he has struck out just shy of 50% of his batters faced, and his FIP is a rare -0.17. He has yet to allow a run or even walk a single hitter. This year, he has cut his changeup usage in favor of his slider, which has gotten whiffs on over 70% of swings this season. Don’t expect his walk rate to remain at 0 for the rest of the year, but Buttrey looks like a legitimate guy who can pitch for the Angels in the 9th inning.

J.B. Wendelken, Oakland Athletics

The A’s have possibly the best bullpen in all of baseball. Blake Treinen posted a 0.78 ERA in 2018 as the team’s closer, and Slippery Rock University’s Lou Trivino looked like one of the best pitchers in the league before allowing a Tony Kemp home run on Sunday. But one guy who hasn’t gotten enough credit yet is Wendelken. Another former Red Sox farmhand, he was traded twice before landing with Oakland prior to the 2016 season. After a miserable cup of coffee (9.95 ERA, 6.39 BB/9), Wendelken underwent Tommy John surgery. He came back in 2018 with a much heavier reliance on his cutter, which he has thrown over 20% of the time in each of the past two seasons. His 0.53 ERA last year was propped up by a .167 BABIP, but this year he has been effective in a much more sustainable way. Wendelken’s K/9 has risen from 7.56 to 11.32, and like Buttrey, he still has not walked a batter this year in over 10 innings of work. On Sunday against the Astros, he had possibly the best performance of his career. After Mike Fiers failed to escape the second inning, Wendelken pitched 3.1 beautiful innings, striking out four and allowing just one baserunner. If he can continue his hot start, the Athletics’ bullpen could be a formidable three-headed monster come playoff time.

Nick Anderson, Miami Marlins

One can be forgiven for not paying attention to the goings-on of the Miami Marlins pitching staff. Their de facto ace Jose Ureña has a 10.38 ERA, and someone named Tyler Kinley has already pitched 6.2 innings (and done alright.) But there is one reliever on this team worth talking about. Nick Anderson, whom it is impossible to google without adding a ‘baseball’ qualifier at the end of his name, is leading all of baseball with 20.77 K/9. Anderson has faced 19 batters this year, and he has struck out 10 of them, walking just one. The 28-year-old rookie has an impossibly low -0.94 FIP; no reliever in baseball history has finished with a sub-zero FIP despite its mathematical plausibility. And Anderson has done this in big moments. On April 1st, he struck out Robinson Cano on three pitches. Five days later, he did the same to Ozzie Albies in a 2-2 game. However, when hitters can catch up to his fastball and slider, they hit the ball hard. Six of the eight balls put in play against Anderson have been hit for hard contact, with an average exit velocity of 91.7 MPH. But if Anderson can continue to miss bats, he is definitely a guy to keep an eye on.

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