M’s Roster Turnover Continues
With Nori Aoki claimed by the Astros and Chris Iannetta opting for free agency, the M’s added two more players the other day. They claimed lefty reliever Dean Kiekhefer off of waivers from St. Louis, and then traded Vidal Nuno to the Dodgers for veteran catcher Carlos “Chooch” Ruiz.
Kiekhefer is a side-arming lefty specialist who came up through the Cards system as an extreme control guy (he walked 4 in over 60 innings in the Midwest League, for example), which made up for some seriously underwhelming raw stuff. Ethan Novak’s article at Lookout Landing has some stats and a video, so check that out. Ethan finds an interview he did where he mentions that he changed the grip on his (underwhelming) change-up in order to make it a legitimate pitch against right handers, which is good in that Kiekhefer is well aware of his biggest problem. Like a lot of guys with a funky arm angle and low velocity, he essentially has nothing to offer righties, and they torched him last year. In the majors, Kiekhefer K’d 12 of the 46 lefties he faced…but just *2* of the 52 righties struck out, and they ended up with an OBP over .400 against him. He’s fine against lefties, but it’s actually really, really hard to use someone purely as a LOOGY. Vidal Nuno faced far more righty batters than lefties, Charlie Furbush is very close to 50:50, but has faced more righties than lefties in every year of his career. True LOOGYs like Oliver Perez actually see more lefties, but 1) that’s in the National League, and 2) he still sees ~45-48% righties. Given that managers can pinch hit, managing (not dominating, but just not getting dominated) opposite-handed batters is a critical skill. And it’s one Kiekhefer hasn’t learned yet.
He IS trying something new, though. Like Roenis Elias used to do, Kiekhefer employs two different release points, one for righties and one for lefties. In the early part of the year, like the game that video’s from, he dropped way down against lefties, but was more low-3/4 than straight-up sideaarm to righties – just like Elias. His fastball sat at around 88, and his change-up (a pitch he threw to righties only) came in at around 85 with, and this is problematic, nearly identical movement to his fastball. Brooks calls his fastball a four-seamer, but it functions like a sinker, with very little vertical ‘rise’ and a ton of armside run. Think Daniel Hudson minus 6 MPH, maybe.* In those early games, his change broke 10″ armside, just like the FB, and was within 2″ of vertical movement. That’s close enough that it’s tempting to say it’s not a separate pitch – he threw four-seam fastballs and four-seam nearly-imperceptibly-less-fastballs.
At some point, presumably tired of getting pushed around by righties, Kiekhefer tried something else. He pushed his release point v. righties down, not quite to where he is agaisnt lefties, but the gap narrowed.
Here’s his release point in May:
And here it is in his final game, back on October 2nd:
At the same time he was doing that, he must’ve tweaked something in his change grip, because he started getting a bit more separation between it and the fastball. In the Dodger game in May, his ave. FB and CH vertical movement were within 1″ of each other, and by October it was more like 2.5-3″. In several games, he got the gap up nearer 4″. If there’s a downside, it’s that these changes came at the expense of velo. Kiekhefer wouldn’t be the only guy who throws a bit softer as he drops down, and obviously he may have been tired at the end of the year, but he was averaging 85-87 in the autumn, and that’s something of a concern. Still, if the change works, then it’s worth it. With Nuno in LA and Charlie Furbush still hurt, there’s a real need for a lefty in this bullpen. I’d love more of a sure thing, but for now, Kiekhefer’s fine as a darkhorse candidate.
The bigger news, which I probably shouldn’t have buried under all of this LOOGY-minutiae, is the trade for Chooch Ruiz. In his prime from 2009-2012, Ruiz was an on-base machine as well as an expert handler of the vaunted Phillies pitching staff. He had an even-or-better K:BB ratio in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and while he finally broke that string in 2012, that was by far his best season as a pro, with an out-of-nowhere power spike and a slash line of .325/.394/.540. Of course, that version of Ruiz isn’t walking through the clubhouse door, as he’s hit as many HRs in every year since 2012 combined as he did in that magical 2012 season alone. After an abysmal 2015, Ruiz bounced back last year with his customary great batting eye and an OBP in the mid .300s.
As a back-up, that’d be fantastic, and it seems like that’s the role he’d settle into, with Mike Zunino starting. Ruiz will be 38 on opening day next year, so a full-time gig probably isn’t in the cards. Ruiz signed a 3-year contract with the Phillies after the 2013 season in a deal that was widely panned, with Ruiz’s age and the Phillies tentative rebuild underway (it was a lot less tentative a few years later). That deal carried him through 2016, but it included a $4.5m player option, and the M’s agreed to exercise that. That’s pretty hefty for a back-up, as Iannetta was on $4 million to start, but Dipoto’s a believer in Chooch’s leadership role. That clubhouse value is one reason the Dodgers acquired him for the stretch run last year, even agreeing to part with previous back-up C and clubhouse dynamo AJ Ellis in the process. It’ll be great to see what that hidden value gets the M’s, because Ruiz certainly doesn’t add value in framing. By Baseball Prospectus’ measures, Ruiz has been consistently poor, coming in at 7 runs below average last year and *19* runs below average in 2015. On the other hand, he’s got a great reputation for controlling the running game, as he’s gunned out 42% of base stealers in recent years. That pushes his Fangraphs defensive ratings well into positive territory, a fact that Bob Dutton notes in his post on the trade here.
Nuno was somewhat of an odd fit in the LOOGY role. Yes, he was much better against lefties, but he’d been a starter and his stuff didn’t play up in short stints. At age 29 (he’ll be 30 midway through next season), he’s perfectly fine as a swing-man or as rotation depth, but his platoon issues will make it hard to carve out a clear role, especially on a team as pitching-rich as the Dodgers. Still, he has his uses, and Dipoto used him well to make a clear upgrade to the M’s bench.
* The best comp for movement and release point (at least vs. righties) might actually be fellow waiver claim Ryan Weber. When Dipoto identifies a pitcher type or skillset he likes, he buys in bulk.