Danny Farquhar (FAHR-kwahr) was selected in the 10th round of the 2008 MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, and by 2009, he had been traded to Oakland. That marked the beginning of four consecutive years of being traded, waived, and designated for assignment.
Later, after being sent to the Mariners as part of the Ichiro Suzuki trade, he established himself as a major league reliever and eventually replaced Tom Wilhelmsen as the closer in August 2013. Farquhar finished that season with a 34.7% strikeout rate and a 1.86 FIP, but also a 4.20 ERA.
Despite thriving in the closer's role, the Mariners signed Fernando Rodney before the 2014 season started, pushing Farquhar into a set-up role. He again thrived for Seattle, recording a 27.9 K% and bringing his ERA down to 2.88 in 2014. But some of the magic started to wear off during the 2015 season, as he jump from a 0.63 HR/9 to 1.9 HR/9, doubling his homerun per flyball rate and elevating his ERA up to 5.12. His strikeouts fell as well, landing at a pedestrian 21.9 K%, below league average for relievers (22.1%).
Now he's changing teams again. The Rays landed Farquhar in the six player deal with the Mariners last week, and despite 2015's performance, Farquhar just might add stability to a weak bullpen, with the potential to return to dominance under Jim Hickey's tutelage.
A man with a cutter
Many effective relievers have small arsenals because they don't need to worry about going through the lineup or being too predictable. Farquhar, on the other hand, features four pitches: a cutter, fastball, change up, and curve ball (and very rarely, a sinker too).
Farquhar relies heavily on his cutter, which had below average horizontal movement and vertical drop compared to other cutters in 2015. But this didn't stop Farquhar from throwing it 40% of the time last season. He used it like many other pitchers used their fastballs; throwing it early in the count and when the batter is ahead.
While the usage rates for Farquhar's cutter against left and right handed hitters are similar, the patterns of usage are not.
Against left handed hitters, Farquhar works the ball at different vertical locations away from he hitter, while against right handed hitters he keeps the ball strictly low and away. Throwing it away from lefties makes sense -- it moves horizontally away from the hitter, and runs off of the plate. But using it down and away to righties is a little more complex.
Because the cutter moves in a different horizontal direction than his fastball and change up -- toward a right handed hitter -- he runs the risk of it drifting back over the plate if he misses his spot. If he tries to throw it to break in toward the hitters hands and it doesn't break, it will sit on the inside of the plate and the hitter will have no problem catching an 89 mph, essentially flat fastball.
By throwing it low and far off the plate, he not only minimizes risk, but increases the chance that he fools the hitter and has it catch the corner for a called strike.
While (and perhaps because) he uses it often, the results on it have only been good, and not great. Over the past three seasons, he has generated slightly more ground balls with the cutter than league average and slightly fewer whiffs than league average.
The Seldom-Used Changeup
While his cutter usage is similar for both righties and lefties, Farquhar's tendencies begin to diverge with the secondary pitches.
Against lefties, Farquhar throws his changeup for 25% of his total pitches. His change features above-average movement in both directions, which helps it get nearly 47% whiffs (whiff/swing) against lefties. But because Farquhar has a relatively small pitch total and because this pitch is used infrequently, we are dealing with a small sample size, so results need to taken with a grain of salt.
Farquhar's actual ground ball rate isn't too meaningful because of the small sample, but we can generate an expected ground ball rate based on the shape of Farquhar's change up. Using this formula, we would expect Farquhar to get ground balls on around 54% of the balls he allows in play, which is not only above average but would give him one of the best ground ball-generating changeups in the Rays system.
Furthermore, Farquhar keeps his changeup low or even below the strike zone, as shown by the following heat map:
Work by Jonah Pemstein at Fangraphs shows that a pitch's ground ball rate increases as the pitch is thrown lower in the strike zone. This suggests that if Farquhar continues this tendency of pitching it low, his groundball rate on his changeup should be elite.
A Sneaky-Good Fastball
Against right handed hitters, Farquhar's primary out pitch is his fastball. This is particularly intriguing, because Farquhar essentially pitches backwards to hitters: he starts with something off-speed, and then goes to the fastball once he is ahead in the count.
Farquhar has a "Rays fastball," even though his usage patterns of the pitch are different.
Sitting 93-94 with 10.6 inches of vertical movement, Farquhar throws this pitch up in the strike zone to hitters from both sides of the plate, giving the pitch similarities to the fastballs of Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer. In doing this, Farquhar is able to maximize the perceived velocity of his fastball, and use it to miss bats and generate pop ups.
This helped Farquhar post a 28% whiff rate last year, which is much higher than the league average rate of 16%. But this high fastball trend seems to have developed only in the past year.
We are again dealing with small samples, but the above images suggest a upward trend of high fastball usage over the past three seasons. Regardless, I would expect the Rays to take full advantage of Farquhar's fastball shape and continue to have him throw his fastball high to hitters of both sides of the plate.
The Rest of the Arsenal
Farquhar also throws a curveball, which is spread more evenly between right and left handed hitters, but is used more often against right handed hitters. At 75 mph, it's slower than the average curveball, and features -5 inches of vertical movement.
Like the changeup, Farquhar keeps his curve extremely low in the strike zone. It has gotten average whiffs for a changeup, but generated few ground balls in a small sample last year. This pitch isn't anything special, but it serves as a solid out pitch against righties, as they whiffed 38% of the time they swung at it last season.
Overall, Farquhar's arsenal features four distinct bands of velocity, which helps keep hitters' timing off balance, and four distinct bands of vertical movement, which helps him get the hitter to change eye levels. These "bands" are illustrated below.
In general, relief pitchers tend to have smaller arsenals than starting pitchers. Because relievers face fewer batters, they can sacrifice some variability in approach in order to increase individual pitch performance. But, if a reliever can effectively utilize many pitches, like Farquhar, he can be less predictable and cant tailor his approach to the circumstances. It also enlarges the affect game-planning can have on a pitcher's results (relative to a reliever who can only pitch one way)
While Farquhar's arsenal looks to be solid based on the individual parts, there was a disconnect last year between the process and the results. His strikeout rate decreased for a third straight season, his homerun rate ballooned, and his ERA doubled. He had negative WAR according to both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.
Looking at surface stats, it may appear that this was a sudden change in performance, but Farquhar has gotten fewer whiffs on each of his pitches over the past three seasons.
This is a cause for concern, but the graph overstates the problem.
Whiffs, unsurprisingly, correlate highly with strikeout rate, meaning that the drop in strikeout rate was legitimate. It was not a result of getting called strikes or being unlucky, it stemmed directly from a change in Farquhar's performance.
But, looking closely at the y-axis, we see that in 2013, Farquhar got over 60% whiffs on his changeup and curveball in a small sample, which is essentially impossible to sustain. So, while the decline in whiff rates from 2013 may look like a collapse, it is instead simply regression from an extreme rate.
Even when his whiff rates were at their lowest, they were still at or above league average. Furthermore, his pitch shapes and velocity have stayed generally the same over the past three seasons, so there isn't a red flag that suggests something irreversible has happened, from a PITCHf/x stand point.
Looking at his pitch arsenal and current usage tendencies, the Rays could make adjustments to Farquhar's approach that would help him rebound from last season.
First, Farquhar should throw more changeups in general, and specifically to right handed hitters. While it would likely be less effective against left handed hitters, it would still be a valuable weapon. Currently, 76% of the pitches opposing lefties see are "fast", being either Farquhar's fastball or cutter. Increasing his changeup usage would introduce another option that is a distinctly different speed than the majority of the other pitches that he throws to lefties. This would help keep hitters off balance, and help combat the .400 wOBA he allowed against righties last season.
Additionally, Farquhar should use his fastball more often earlier in the count.
While pitching backwards to hitters can be effective, mixing in his fastball in place of his cutter will benefit both pitches, as he will be less predictable. His fastball has been an incredible out pitch for him, and it will benefit him greatly if he can translate some of the success to the pitch to earlier in the count. While he already got to 0-2 or 1-2 against 34% of the batters he faced (excluding duplicates), getting ahead more often will allow him to use his off speed pitches more liberally and force hitters into making mistakes.
These are not only tweaks the Rays should make to Farquhar's process, but based on what we know about the Rays approach, they're ones they're very likely to make.
Based on run-expectancy, the 1-1 pitch is the most pivotal pitch in an at bat, and the Rays know this, as their pitchers generally do not shy away from using their best pitches to get to two strikes rather than saving them for once they're there. So mixing in Farquhar's fastball earlier in the count seems like an improvement Hickey and company will be well-aware of.
And using the changeup to same-handed hitters has long been a part of the Rays approach, so this one seems like a no-brainer.
What does this mean for 2016?
Overall, Farquhar should be a key contributor for the Rays next season, even if he doesn't return to his 2013 form. The Rays bullpen contributed 1.2 WAR last season, which was well below the average of 2.9, and far cry from the elite bullpens of the Orioles and Astros. Obviously, if Farquhar can bounce back to being elite it'll be better, but he should help regardless.
While his last year was uninspiring, the "process" looked similar in 2015 to past seasons -- similar pitch shapes, velocities and tendencies. His wide arsenal will allow him to be creative in approaching hitters, and even though his whiff rates on all his pitches have been trending downward, his fastball, changeup and curveball all had above-average whiff rates in 2015.
If I were to set a projection, I would expect a significant improvement from last season's performance. With the adjustment the Rays make and upward regression, Farquhar can be a crucial piece for the Rays this season and going forward.
Statistics used are from Fangraphs and BrooksBaseball.