Thomas Pannone might just have reliever potential that no one expected

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Thomas Pannone has looked excellent out of the pen thus far. (CP)
Thomas Pannone has looked excellent out of the pen thus far. (CP)

When you’re trying to develop a top-notch reliever, the easiest way of going about it tends to be converting a starter.

If someone is able to have success as a starter at a high level, chances are they’d be more effective in relief where they can throw max-effort, simplify their repertoire, and not have to turn over a lineup. That said, Thomas Pannone doesn’t profile as the type of starter who’d obviously convert into a lockdown bullpen arm.

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The soft-tossing southpaw didn’t crack a 90 mph average on his fastball in any appearances last year whether he was starting or relieving. He’s also got a simple three-pitch mix with no superfluous offerings. Control is not his problem, nor is tiring late in ballgames. That’s why he’s continually pegged as a “back-end starter’ type.

It’s time to start recognizing Pannone’s relief potential, though. He opened some eyes with his immaculate inning on Sunday, but he was looking sharp in the pen long before that. Because the southpaw has generally been beaten up in his seven MLB starts, his overall stats (4.07 ERA, 4.31 FIP, 5.07 xFIP) are far from impressive.

Things look far different when you split his numbers by role:

Via FanGraphs
Via FanGraphs

The sample here is awfully small, but that difference is pretty astounding. Having given up no home runs in relief certainly helps (Pannone’s xFIP as a RP is 3.38), but it’s pretty damn hard to fluke your way into a K/BB ratio of 20:2. Pannone has struck out just five fewer hitters out of the bullpen than he has as a starter despite throwing less than half as many innings.

It’s also worth pointing out that his raw stuff has taken a significant step up this year. Pannone’s average fastball has gone from 88.0 mph on average in 2018 to 90.5 mph this year. Some of that is a function of pitching more frequently in relief, but in his single start this year he averaged 90.2 mph — a number higher than any of his outings last year. During his immaculate inning he got as high as 92.4 mph on the radar gun.

Pannone has also experienced an uptick in his spin rate. Now, the correlation between spin rate and efficacy isn’t as tidy as we might like, but everyone seems to agree that on four-seam fastballs and curveballs more spin is preferable.

Here’s how the left-hander’s spin rate on those two pitches has changed over the past two years:

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

The change in MLB ranks is exaggerated by the fact that fewer pitchers have appeared in 2019 than there were all of last season, but the absolute gains are significant.

Along with this improved “stuff” has come very solid hard contact suppression. Pannone’s exit velocity against is down a full 2 mph in 2019 and his “Hard Hit” rate of just 20.7 percent is one of the best in the league.

That’s how you wind up with an exceedingly complimentary Statcast summary like this:

Via Baseball Savant.
Via Baseball Savant.

The Blue Jays are looking at a guy whose stuff is better than ever, who’s both dominating the strike zone and limiting dangerous contact. There is quite literally nothing not to like about Pannone’s work right now. The only thing to question is whether he can sustain this run of success. It’s a question well worth asking — to which there isn’t an obvious answer — but It’s awfully difficult to find any warning sign that this isn’t related to his lack of velocity.

Because Pannone’s best assets coming through the minors were his command, stamina and three credible pitches, it was always assumed he’d be a starter — even if he lacked top-end potential. As a result, the southpaw only made eight appearances above the Rookie Ball level prior to last season.

Now that he’s getting an extended look as a reliever, he’s done an impressive job seizing the moment. Theoretically, any starter should make a good reliever, but Pannone is precisely the type of guy you’d expect to be the exception to that rule.

Instead of being the exception that proves the rule, it looks like he’s the guy who proves the rule is a really good one.

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