Sliding Into Andrew Vasquez’s Experiment

Currently, there are only 31 full-time relievers (not pitchers following an opener) with an ERA lower than Andrew Vasquez’s 1.69 mark and at least 10 innings pitched. Among them, only Penn Murfee of the Mariners throws his fastball at a lower velocity than the Phillies lefty. Something isn’t adding up there.

Meanwhile, in that same sample, no pitcher throws fewer fastballs than Vasquez (15.3%), whose slider (76.9%) is currently the most-used non-fastball in baseball, per Sports Info Solutions. Entering his age-29 season, he had pitched for five organizations over the past two seasons, and had only accumulated 15.1 career MLB innings. Yet, he needed to find a role in the defending National League champions’ bullpen, which features multiple lefties (Jose Alvarado, Gregory Soto) lefties capable of reaching triple-digits when needed. That’s not an easy assignment.

Nevertheless, we’re a month into the season, and only Connor Brogdon has pitched more innings out of the bullpen for Philadelphia than Vasquez, who is tied for 12th among relievers in Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Average (WAA) metric. That’s quite the sudden change of circumstances, and would beg exploration on its own.

That being said, I am not here to analyze Vasquez’s role in Philadelphia, or project his future value. Rather, I am here because I tuned into the Red Sox-Phillies game on Friday, May 5th, and was completely perplexed by what I saw. No, it wasn’t Chris Sale reaching 99 MPH with his fastball or the Red Sox winning their seventh straight game. Nor was it this specific moment, in which Philadelphia had the tying run on base in the bottom of the 9th:

Down 5-3 in the 6th inning against a team scoring the third-most runs per game and a bullpen ranked in the top-ten in ERA and FIP? That’s where the Phillies found themselves prior to this situation, but, lo and behold, Kyle Schwarber represented the winning run for them. Unless you’re scoring runs, the only way to prevent a deficit from increasing is to simply not allow runs, and they called on just the person to do that.

With two scoreless innings, Vasquez was able to accomplish something he’s done often this year – keep the game in check by providing the Phillies with needed length out of the bullpen. That’s an exciting development on its own, but it’s the “how” that is even more intriguing here. As he entered the game in the 8th inning, he was instantly greeted by Jarren Duran, boasting a 199 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) for Boston this year. As he does with most hitters, Vasquez made sure to attack him with sliders:

Two quality sliders, and, all of a sudden, Vasquez had himself in an extremely advantageous position. As such, he decided to turn to his bag of tricks:

Wait, that’s a completely different release point from the other two! Where would Vasquez go next? Well, let’s just say that the release point was far from Duran’s only concern:

Yet, in complete “Nuke Laloosh hitting the bull” fashion, he then turns back to his over-the-top delivery to finish the job:

Simply put, that did not look like a comfortable plate appearance. Naturally, that leads right into the next question: is this something Vasquez has done before? Thankfully, Baseball Savant continues to make our lives so much easier:

Ah ha! Clearly, Vasquez has two very distinct release points – straight up and side arm – with his slider the only pitch with a varying delivery. The most fascinating part, perhaps? This is not something he employed last year:

So, rather than something that has come naturally to him, Vasquez is attempting to learn this new trick on the fly, which makes sense – when you don’t can’t reach the high-90s with your fastball and are trying to work your way onto an MLB bullpen, why not be creative? That being said, it’s very rare that a new skill develops overnight, meaning there’s a process to mastering it. Eventually, for Vasquez to keep doing this, the results would theoretically need to be there as well. That’s where further investigation is needed.

Notice how Vasquez chose to drop his armslot in two advantageous counts (0-2, 1-2)? Well, that’s been common for him. He’s yet to operate with the side arm motion when there is more than one ball in the count, while 96.8% of these pitches came with at least one strike. Again, it’s remarkable how relatable this experiment has been for him. Generally, don’t we all tend to try new things in comfortable situations? When the consequences of a pitch not being a strike are less severe, that what be the time for Vasquez to opt to mix it up.

After all, it would be one thing if Vasquez found instant success with this strategy, but it’s been a work in progress for him. So far, the results with the side arm motion haven’t been ideal:

Certainly, having 70.9% of his pitches with this specific delivery end up in a ball or hit by pitch isn’t what Vasquez is looking for, and puts the sustainability of this strategy into noticeable jeopardy. By only using his new motion one time in four appearances between April 10th and 25th, him going past to a more methodical approach seemed to be the most likely outcome, but he’s persevering through the struggles:

As someone who prefers when baseball players stray from the norms set by conventional wisdom, seeing Vasquez continue to push through with this plan is a very pleasant surprise. Sure, it’s nice to see relievers come out of the bullpen and fire 100 MPH with ease, but the only way that remains fun is if there are also pitchers on the other side of the spectrum. It’s all about balance in life, and, most of all, pitchers without the same natural raw talent as others are responsible for finding their own path to success. That’s what Vasquez is trying to do, and, hey, he’s still here!

There is so much more exploration that could be done on the effectiveness of this approach, particularly since there are several predictable elements to when he’s decided to change his arm slot. At the same time, that’s not what we’re here to do. Rather, consider this an ode to Vasquez, and, on a bigger picture level, and ode to uniqueness and creativity. If we all attempted to solve the puzzle the same way, we’re completely reliant on that solution being 100% bullet-proof. Rather, the solution is more likely to be found if different individuals try to solve the puzzle in unique fashion – every invention started somewhere! Is Vasquez the first pitcher to try to use multiple arm slots? No, yet we’re watching an experiment play out in real time, and that’s incredibly fascinating. Sometimes, the story is right on your television screen; you just need to make sure not to miss it.

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