Emilio Pagan was acquired along with minor league RHP Rollie Lacy and the 38th pick of the 2019 draft by the Rays mid-December in a 3-way deal that sent Jurickson Profar to the A’s, and three Rays prospects (including Brock Burke) to the Rangers.
The deal was met with some understandable skepticism as Brock Burke was a rising prospect in the Rays system. Though this deal very likely occurred because of the 40-man roster crunch the Rays were facing. With Burke being on the 40-man at the time of the trade, it obviously cleared a spot for someone who could bring value right and the 38th pick that was acquired essentially allows the Rays to push value further down the line.
Emilio Pagan on the other hand is a very intriguing add to the bullpen. He pitched 2 innings or more ten times in the 2018 season and that fits into right into the Rays plans, considering they’re going to use the same Opener plan that was instituted last year.
The glaring issue with Pagan however, is his susceptibility to giving up the home run. His HR/9 rate ballooned to nearly 2 which would represent the highest on the Rays staff. What I find slightly ironic is that his HR rate was higher at home (2.10) than on the road (1.69).
Digging deeper into the HR issue, I ran across data on his fastball. On fastballs that were put in play, hitters slugged .806 when behind in the count. That’s incredibly ridiculous. 11 of the 13 home runs he allowed in 2018 came off fastballs and 4 of those came while Pagan was ahead of hitters — and three of those came while he had 2 strikes in the AB.
The weird thing about this homerun issue is that Pagan actually has a good fastball, with plenty of spin (2489 RPM) and velocity; it generates plenty of whiffs for the pitch (15%).
Pagan could simply be running into bad luck. By giving up homers consistently in ballparks like in Oakland and Seattle, this could very well simply be the case. His HR rate could be stabilizing right now but it’s really hard to tell for relievers because, well, they don’t pitch as much as a starter does.
Former DRB site head Steve Slowinski pointed this out on Fangraphs a good decade ago; the actual HR rate stabilization number for a pitcher is around 1320 batters faced. Pagan sits at 458 right now.
Steamer projects him to face around 170 hitters which is reasonable considering it probably expects him to spend some sort of time in the minors, Pagan should face more MLB hitters in the real world this year.
Yet, even if he were to face the same amount he faced last year (262) he still wouldn’t come close to the 1320 figure that Slowinski pointed out. It takes years to get a true indicator of the actual talent of a reliever. They’re incredibly volatile, we know this. The sample size on Pagan is still way too small to make a reactionary concerning comment regarding his HR rate. We’ll see what happens with time, but this one can be chalked up to plain bad luck.
To his credit, Pagan is more than his fastball. His slider has given hitters fits and you might be itching to call for Pagan to lower his fastball usage from 65% and increase the slider usage from 30% based on the stuff; however, it should be noted Pagan’s slider generates whiffs 16% of the time — barely an increase from his fastball.
Beyond the home run problem, Pagan also took a slightly concerning step back in his K and BB numbers. Both numbers went the wrong way. I say slightly concerning because you can’t point this strictly at a loss in velocity (which would definitely make it more concerning). In fact, Pagan actually threw harder in 2018 than he did in 2017.
Pagan added an extra half MPH on his fastball through the 2018 season and his fastball was clobbered for a .311 ISO, which is a far from the .140 ISO he posted in 2017, and yet here were the results in Barrels:
The sharp increase in the Barrel % on his fastball is also accompanied by the fact that his total Barrel % was in the bottom 1% of the league last year. There was nowhere to go but up!
A slight velocity increase could point to the loss of command Pagan had overall through the ‘18 season. Attempting to add extra velocity with a delivery that’s already high-energy as it is could very easily cause some body parts to move out of whack and make the fastball a bit more hittable, but that’s purely conjecture.
The ballpark thing is an interesting piece of the puzzle with Pagan.
The righty reliever does have a habit of working his fastball up in the zone (as evidenced by his incredibly low 24.9% GB rate), so pitching in Oakland and Seattle should’ve helped his case considering those two parks are notoriously vast and pitcher-friendly, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
So what makes the Rays any different? Perhaps the answer is not the location but the personnel.
With Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows patrolling the outfield more times than not, that gives the Rays practically three center fielders in the outfield grass. League average sprint speed comes in at 27 ft/s. Pham, Meadows and Kiermaier all come in within the 28.6-28.9 range. Throw in Avisail Garcia at 29 ft/s.
The Rays have a rangy outfield that at the very least, can track down flyballs that other outfields would have trouble getting to. With elite outfield defense behind him, he should feel as confident as ever to just strictly pitch.
But while Pagan can still cook with his slider, he’s clearly going to need his fastball to survive. Should the increased velocity be the issue that hampered his command and HR rate, Pagan could likely rekindle the success of 2017 with a grade A outfield behind him. While Tommy Pham isn’t going into row V in section 143, covering ground in the outfield should not be an issue for anyone.
With 4 years of control, a knack for pitching more than an inning, and stuff that continuously works (aside from the HR issues), Emilio Pagan fits right into the Rays recipe of success that should hopefully end in a playoff appearance sooner rather later.