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The reinvention of Craig Breslow

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The lefty reliever brings a new delivery to an already-crowded bullpen

Minnesota Twins Photo Day Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

When the Twins signed ex-Twin and journeyman reliever Craig Breslow to a minor-league deal on February 8th, let’s be honest: it didn’t exactly shake up the 2017 playoff picture.

As Andrew Bryzgornia mentioned in his initial write-up here at TT, Breslow hasn’t been out here twirling gems.

The 36-year old has a career 3.35 ERA though his FIP and xFIP have been significantly higher. He hasn’t really been good for three years now, but Breslow announced that he was going to change his arm slot from a three-quarters to a low-three-quarters (perhaps even sidearm) to revive his career.

The arm slot has been the big story this off season, and the Star Tribune’s Phil Miller covered that story in more detail earlier this week.

Breslow’s mechanical adjustments spurred an inconceivable 10-team bidding war. (“Craig Breslow Bidding War” certainly has an odd ring to it, at least for this Twins fan.) Breslow ultimately agreed to an incentive-laden minor-league deal with the Twins, per MLB Trade Rumors.

Breslow will earn $1.25MM if he makes the MLB roster, per Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN (via Twitter). The deal includes $1MM in available incentives, per Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press (via Twitter). Breslow will have an opt-out opportunity, too, with Berardino tweeting that the clause can be exercised “around 10 days before Opening Day.”

A 59-win team adding a recently ineffective 36-year-old lefty specialist on a minor-league deal doesn’t set the world on fire, to be sure, but Breslow is especially intriguing because of how he reached his mechanical adjustments.

Miller covered this well, so I’ll quote his piece at length:

After watching numerous recordings of great relievers, he decided to experiment with the height of his arm and the grip on the ball in order to create the greatest movement possible on his pitches. He retreated to his laboratory, in other words, and tried to turn his Jekyll pitches into Hyde weapons.

“I got this machine [called Rapsodo] which measures movement and spin rate and was able to quantify the changes I was making. I could measure how much the ball moves horizontally from each arm slot, and how much vertically, and how much better I was getting as I worked on it. And I could show teams, here’s how much my pitches used to move, and here’s what they do now,” Breslow said. “The difference was sometimes five or six inches. That felt like it could be effective.”

He settled on lowering his arm angle to just above sidearm, and made another heartening discovery.

“There’s another piece of technology, a sleeve that you can wear that measures stress on your elbow,” Breslow said. “As I lowered my angle, the velocity went up and the stress went down. The obvious conclusion is, ‘Why didn’t I do this years ago?’ ”

The idea of better pitching through science appeals to us egg-headed types; with all these cutting-edge tools at our disposal, what better way to use them then to actually improve one’s baseballing? Seems a far more fruitful application of the data than, say, writing soporific blog posts on trivial roster moves, just to pull one example super randomly out of the air.

Louie ambles toward the bathroom in search of tissues with which to dry his tear-soaked keyboard. There are none. He grabs the last piece of bread, a butt, and soaks up the salty droplets for his best meal in days.

Whew! How’s everyone doing?

So, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that Breslow’s adjustments are real and they’re spectacular.

Where does he fit in the Twins’ bullpen?

Crowded house

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins
Taylor Rogers was dominant against lefties out of the ‘pen last year for the Twins
Photo by Marilyn Indahl/Getty Images

In our current era of one-inning-or-less relief outings, left-handed relievers have essentially one job: get lefties out.

Though a lefty quartet of Taylor Rogers, Buddy Boshers, Ryan O’Rourke and Fernando Abad may not exactly jump off the page, Twins left-handed relievers were damn good against lefties last year.

Twins RP lefties vs. lefties (by FIP)

Team IP FIP x FIP ERA w OBA K% BB% K-BB% WHIP
Team IP FIP x FIP ERA w OBA K% BB% K-BB% WHIP
CLE 28 2.33 2.99 3.21 0.273 26.32 6.14 20.18 1.14
OAK 63.2 2.58 2.76 4.10 0.278 28.52 5.08 23.44 1.08
COL 72.1 2.59 3.09 2.74 0.256 27.4 6.41 21 0.91
MIN 73 2.69 3.29 3.58 0.252 25.85 5.78 20.07 1.03
KCR 40.1 2.77 3.25 1.79 0.261 23.13 6.88 16.25 1.12
CHW 47 2.81 3.49 2.87 0.287 23.71 9.79 13.92 1.23
SDP 83 2.81 3.96 2.39 0.239 27.73 10.59 17.13 0.95
LAD 77 2.86 3.44 3.39 0.269 24.2 6.05 18.15 1.09
DET 58.2 3.13 3.63 4.30 0.303 21.31 6.56 14.75 1.26

Though the Twins’ lefty relievers had the 18th-best ERA against same-handed opponents, their peripherals were top-notch: in 73 innings against lefties, Twins lefties were fourth in MLB in FIP, fourth in wOBA against, fourth in K-BB% and fifth in BB% — all without the help of one Glen Perkins.

In 2016, the bullpen southpaws had one job and they did it well.

Only four lefties — the aforementioned quartet of Rogers, Abad, O’Rourke and Boshers — pitched substantial innings out of the ‘pen. Here’s how they fared against left-handed batters last year.

Twins lefties vs. lefties in 2016

Player IP ERA SO BB HR WHIP OPS sOPS+
Player IP ERA SO BB HR WHIP OPS sOPS+
Taylor Rogers 22 2.86 27 6 1 1.045 0.547 49
Fernando Abad 15 1.2 10 2 1 0.667 0.458 23
Buddy Boshers 14.1 3.77 17 2 0 1.116 0.56 52
Ryan O'Rourke 9 5 11 3 1 0.556 0.359 -3

That last number, sOPS+, is these fellas’ split OPS+ compared to the league — 100 being the league-average OPS of left-handed hitters against left-handed pitchers in 2016. 49, 23, 52, -3 — these four did great! Good job! I, for one, am proud.

Abad is out, having been shipped for hard-throwing righty Pat Light, which leaves Rogers, Boshers, O’Rourke and Perkins, whenever he’s available. Rogers was a legitimate bullpen weapon last season, and here’s hoping he continues to be deployed as such. Boshers’ chipmunk cheeks and rosy complexion belied a sneaky-good 2016. The Twins also have lefties Randy Rosario and Mason Melotakis on the 40-man roster.

So, where does Breslow fit?

Here are two graphs, via Fangraphs, that may illustrate why Breslow was so keen to overhaul his mechanics.

Such a precipitous dip in K% and a healthy leap above league average in contact rate represent what I’d call a “poor development” in the late stages of a player’s career.

And how does Breslow do in that most vital of lefty jobs: getting lefties out? Here’s his career wOBA against lefties — again, in graph form! (This time, it’s a homemade Louie graph, so it’s not super pretty.)

From the beginning of his career to today, Breslow’s left-handed opponents have gone from hitting like Jordan Schafer to hitting like Robinson Cano. That’s no knock on Breslow; age is undefeated, as they say.

“I realized I was probably going to be out of baseball,” the 36-year-old lefthander told Phil Miller. “So I decided I had to make some changes.”

I’m realizing now that I probably spent far too much time trying to illustrate the unimportance of Craig Breslow to the 2017 Twins bullpen.

But the Breslow signing does signify something far more important than how the back end of the Twins’ rotation will shake out.

The shape of things to come

MLB: General Managers Meetings
Thad Levine is taking over GM-ing duties for the Twins in 2017
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Craig Breslow is a smart guy. This fact is a contractually obligated part of every Craig Breslow story. Journalists may as well just copy-and-paste Miller’s paragraph covering said subject, because it’s evergreen.

But Breslow — Yale grad, molecular biophysics major, World Series champion — isn’t most ballplayers.

Mmm... That’s some tasty profiling. #NotAllBallplayers

All joking aside, the Craig Breslow Bidding War could have gone 10 different directions, reportedly, and Certified Smart Guy Craig Breslow chose the Minnesota Twins — and the rationale behind his decision is not one to which modern Twins fans are accustomed.

Breslow picked the Twins not because of the promise of playing time — the teams’ primary selling point to pitchers for years now — but because of our evidence-based, sabermetric, analytical approach. Strange times are these in which we live, my friends.

Phil Miller, again:

Breslow could hardly have found a better match for his approach than in the Twins’ new front office, which intends to aggressively search for new ways to evaluate players and maximize their talents. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were looking for bullpen help; Breslow not only offered it, but he had the data to convince them.

“It was very unique,” Falvey said of Breslow’s pitch to the Twins. “Anytime you can talk about an evidence-based approach, that’s what we’re trying to do with all our players. … Not just data, but some evaluation that we feel has real evidence. … When you make a bet on something, you want to make sure you have the information behind it.”

Breslow said he was offered more money by other teams, and could have signed with more likely contenders. But a player often billed as “the smartest man in baseball” made an intellectual connection with Falvey, who wanted Breslow for his leadership and experience as much as his pitching.

“I spoke to Derek for hours. He’s really innovative, he’s got a vision for where he wants to take this organization, and I think he’s going to be successful,” Breslow said. “It’s exciting and compelling to be a part of that.”

Breslow may not move the needle at all this year; he may not make the team.

But his signing — a minor-league deal to a journeyman, 36-year-old lefty specialist — may actually be the Twins’ biggest offseason signing for what it represents and, Twins fans hope, portends.

We’re a team that “aggressively search[es] for news way to evaluate players and maximize their talents.”

That’s all we ever wanted to hear.