Even At 38 Years Old, The Best May Still Be Yet to Come for Rays Reliever Jamey Wright
By Robbie Knopf
Very few baseball players find a way to last 17 seasons in the major leagues. For the few that do, pitching that long means that the end of their career is rapidly closing in. But even at 38 years old, Jamey Wright is just getting started. Only after 12 seasons as a mediocre MLB starting pitcher was Wright finally converted into a full-time relief role. And since arriving in the bullpen in 2008, Wright has pitched quite well, going 19-21 with a 4.15 ERA in 312 relief appearances and 357.2 innings pitched, the most among major league relievers in that span. In 2012, he had a nice year for the Los Angeles Dodgers, going 5-3 with a 3.72 ERA, a 7.2 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 66 appearances and 67.2 innings pitched. What initially jumps out from the stat sheet is that Wright’s groundball rate was an unbelievable 67.3%, second-best in the major leagues minimum 50 innings pitched. But even more impressive was that removing unintentional walks, Wright’s strikeout to walk ratio was 54-23, a ratio of 2.35-to-1, making Wright just the fourth player in the history of major league baseball to have his first season of a 2-to-1 strikeout to unintentional walk ratio in the 17th season of his career or later with a season of 50 innings or more. The other three are Hall of Famers: Ted Lyons in his 17th MLB season in 1939, Herb Pennock in his 18th season in 1930, and Early Wynn in his 23rd season in 1963. At this point in his career, there is no chance that Wright is going to be a Hall of Famer. But considering just how good he has been the past few years, Wright could have several good seasons left. He looks to continue his fascinating MLB career in 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rays.
How has Wright done it? As you can tell from his ridiculous groundball rates the past few years, Wright is a sinkerballer, and his sinker has gained a couple miles per hour in shorter stints, helping him achieve a greater deal of success. What prevented Wright from ever achieving much success as a starting pitcher, though, was not really his sinker, which was a fine pitch that forced a lot of groundballs, but his other offerings. His big issue was that he simply could not miss any bats. Sinkerball pitchers try to use their sinker to force opposing hitters to hit the ball in play on the ground. But every pitcher needs additional offerings to keep hitters off-balance, and especially with two strikes, they need a pitch they can use to force swings-and-misses when necessary. Wright did pair his sinker with a good cutter, but just 2-3 MPH separated the two offerings and that was not enough for Wright to miss bats with it on any regular basis. Wright did also throw a curveball and changeup, but both were extremely inconsistent and Wright was often left pounding the zone with his sinker and cutter and hoping for the best. At the end of the day, Jamey Wright was a starting pitcher who forced a lot of groundballs but didn’t strike anyone out and walked too many batters because he couldn’t put hitters away, and that pitcher was a mediocre 5th starter at best. In his first three years out of the bullpen, Wright remained that same type of pitcher, only in a middle relief role. But in 2012, Wright has made a breakthrough, particularly with his breaking ball. Here are two charts comparing Wright’s arsenal in 2010 (the last year before he saw a major uptick in strikeouts) to his arsenal in 2012 using the Pitch F/X data from Brooks Baseball.
The two charts look extremely similar at first glance, but there are some key differences. Looking at the first two columns from the left, Wright threw about the same number of total fastballs between the two years, throwing his sinker, cutter, and four-seamer a combined 74% of the time in 2010 compared to 71% in 2012, but the major difference is that Wright threw a ton more cutters in 2012, throwing it 23% of the time versus just 15%, and basically stopped throwing his fastball dropping from 10% of his pitches in 2010 to just 3% in 2012. Wright also threw his cutter over 2 MPH harder in 2012. Then in terms of Wright’s breaking ball, he threw his curveball at right about the same frequency velocity from 2010 and 2012, but he trashed his changeup for a slider. Glancing at the third column, Strike%, Wright threw his sinker and cutter for strikes right around the same amount of the time, but he saw a major increase in Strike% for his curveball and in his slider (compared to his changeup). Based on we’ve seen so far, we can tell that Wright has moved away from his fastball and changeup in favor of his cutter and slider, and that he’s been able to throw his curveball for strikes more consistently. But how does that explain the last two columns of the graph? How in the world did Wright see an uptick in Whiff% and GB/FB for just about every single one of his pitches?
Wright threw his curveball essentially the exact same percentage of the time from 2010 and 2012. However, he used it so much more effectively that it made his entire arsenal better. Wright has always shown flashes with his curveball, but somehow in 2012 he finally found a way to command it more consistently and the result was that he finally had a g0-to offering with two strikes. He was able to attack early in the count with his sinker and cutter to try to force contact on the ground before going to his curveball and slider with 2 strikes to put hitters away. Once Wright had established his breaking balls as legitimate threats for hitters, that also helped his sinker and cutter because hitters couldn’t always be expecting them and were caught off-balance too often. Wright established his curveball as a plus pitch and his slider as a solid offering against right-handed hitters, and once he did that, he tied his entire arsenal together and made himself not just a sinkerballer but a pitcher who could divert hitters’ attention with several effective pitches and beat them in multiple ways.
How is Jamey Wright a project for the Rays? He’s already done so much to adapt as a pitcher and develop other capable pitches to go along with the sinker that has been his money pitch all these years. That’s true, and the good news with Wright is that he’s reached a certain baseline of performance and there’s a very good chance that even if the Rays did nothing to tinker with him, he could manage an ERA between 3.50 and 4.00 for them as a groundball-heavy middle reliever. But there remains even room for Wright to grow, and that’s in terms of pitch selection.
In 2011, Wright began throwing his cutter a lot more often than he had before, using it 28% of the time compared to 15% in 2010. He also threw it a lot harder, jumping from 87.45 MPH in 2010 to 89.31 MPH in 2011. Doing that helped Wright have a nice season in 2011 with the Seattle Mariners, managing a 3.16 ERA, a 48-30 strikeout to walk ratio, a 0.8 HR/9, and a 58.2% groundball rate in 60 appearances and 68.1 innings pitched. But hitters were able to adjust to Wright’s cutter from 2010 to 2011 as his whiff rate with the pitch decreased from 10.15% to 8.11% even as his newfound curveball made all of his pitches miss more bats. The reason is pretty clear: they’re just too similar pitches, separated by just 2 MPH, and instead of complimenting each other like intended, they in fact make each other a little worse because the difference between them wasn’t enough to fool hitters. The classic combination is sinker-slider, and by using primarily sinker-cutter, Wright lost something. Now that he actually has a slider he can use, why shouldn’t he use it more often? The difference between his sinker and slider would allow Wright to force more swings-and-misses while still getting weak contact on the ground from hitters off-balance. And of course, he doesn’t have to abandon his cutter entirely and can pick his spots to utilize the slight difference between it and his sinker to force more groundballs. Wright has been always an unorthodox sinkerballer in that he has thrown his sinker only 47% of the time for his career while many others are at 55% to 60%. Now that he finally has the slider to back it up and of course his great curveball, Wright has the opportunity to go to his bread-and-butter more often and force more groundballs while still keeping hitters guessing thanks to the great breaking pitches that have to be in the back of their minds.
Jamey Wright is never going to be a big strikeout pitcher. But with better pitch selection, say using his sinker 60% of the time, his cutter 5%, his curveball 25%, and his slider 10%, he could maintain his high groundball rate while adding more strikeouts to the equation, and that would make him a significantly more valuable pitcher. Wright may be 38 years old now, but he still has excellent stuff, especially after finally breaking through with his curveball and bringing his slider into play, and there’s a real chance that Wright could have at least three or four good years left in him if his stuff continues to hold up. Jamey Wright had a new beginning as a pitcher in 2008 when he moved to the bullpen and then again in 2012 when he vastly improved his breaking pitches. But with a slight tweak to his pitch selection in a Rays uniform this season, Wright has the ability to be even better and make the final chapter of his career the most successful.