Yesterday, after a terrible outing, the Rays designated former-closer Grant Balfour for assignment. Balfour has been a big part of the history of this team, and that side of the move is deservedly getting all of the attention. But for the Rays right now, the other half of the transaction is actually more important. They didn't just get rid of a struggling pitcher. They've called up Brandon Gomes, and it will be his job to get the outs that Balfour could not.
I used to think that Brandon Gomes was going to be really good. For one and a half months in 2013 he was, but the promising start was cut short by a shoulder strain, and when he returned later in the season, Gomes wasn't quite as sharp.
Still, although Gomes ended 2013 with a 6.52 ERA, his peripherals were strong in his 19.1 innings of work, as he struck out 34.9% of the batters he faced while walking 8.4%. Here's how Gomes worked in 2013:
Early in the count, he got ahead of batters (both righties and lefties) by mixing his 92-93 mph fastball and his low-80s slider. Once he got to two strikes, all three of his pitches were on the table. Or maybe "off the table" is the more appropriate phrase, because that's where his splitter falls. When they swung in 2013, batters missed his splitter 40% of the time, and his slider 56% of the time (numbers from Brooks Baseball).
Gomes broke camp with the Rays in 2014, after deciding during the offseason that something was broken (particularly against lefties, who hit a number of home runs against him in 2013) and that he should try to fix it. He introduced a new pitch—a high-80s cutter.
On the graph, this cutter looks like a pretty good pitch. It's decently hard, but it still has good horizontal movement. It's clearly a live pitch. If Gomes were a starting pitcher, this would have been an excellent development. But Gomes is a relief pitcher, and when you're pitching only one inning at a time there are real opportunity costs to adding a new pitch.
The cutter completely replaced Gomes's slider (why would you replace a pitch with a 50% whiff rate?) and stole market share from the four-seam fastball. Moreover—and while this isn't visible on these graphs it is very important—Gomes couldn't quite command the cutter yet like he had commanded his fastball or his slider. That meant that he was no longer setting up his pitches by establishing locations within the zone, and he also lost some of the speed differential between his setup pitch and his putaway pitches.
Everything became less effective, and in May the Rays sent Gomes back to Durham essentially to undo the changes he had made during the offseason.
I saw him use the cutter some during Spring Training this year, so it's still in the mix, but I have to believe that Gomes and the Rays have learned their lesson and that they'll avoid the pitfall of subtraction by addition, using the pitch only if he can command it, and only when most appropriate.
It was supposed to be his year in 2013, but injury ruined that. It was supposed to be his year in 2014, but tinkering ruined that. Now at 30, Brandon Gomes is unlikely to ever become the back-of-the-bullpen stalwart I once thought he'd be. He's already in his decline phase, and there's simply not enough there. When he succeeds, he does it by smart mixing of unexceptional but complimentary pitches. When he's right, he's good, but the margin of error is small.
But the Rays don't need Gomes to become Jake McGee (who's now scheduled to make three appearances for Durham), Brad Boxberger, or Kevin Jepsen. They already have those guys. They just need him to be decent right now, and to be able to handle a tough situation the couple times there's no one else available. They need him to be another Steve Geltz, and that I think he can do.