Adam Kolarek has a chance to make the 2019 Rays as the final (or penultimate) man in a bullpen that’s expected to carry a heavy load. Last season, in 34.1 innings, he put up a 3.93 ERA with some very unusual peripherals:
- A 13.5% strikeout rate (that’s low, not good)
- A 3.6% walk rate (that’s also low, but in a good way)
- A 59.1% ground ball rate (that’s high, also good)
- No home runs allowed (that’s as low as you can go).
That gave him a sterling 2.58 FIP, and an iffy 4.02 xFIP, with more advanced ERA estimators falling in the middle (3.71 SIERA).
Brief major league performances aren’t everything, so you should probably also know that over the past two years Kolarek has thoroughly dominated Triple-A, with strikeout rates of 25.0% in 2017 and 29.2% in 2018. He has nothing left to prove in Durham.
All he has left to prove is whether his stuff plays in the majors, and that remains an open question. Partly because his stuff is weird. Let’s talk about it.
The Good Stuff
Any discussion of Kolarek starts with his sinker (~90 mph) and changeup (~82 mph). They both have huge amounts of armside run (around 12 inches!), and they both fall off the table. Coming from his low arm slot, these pitches can be expected to rack up ground balls, as well as a good number of whiffs.
Check out Kolarek’s strikeout of Rees McGuire. He dots the inside edge of the strike zone. McGuire is swinging at the middle of the zone. These two pitches are the anchor that everything else builds upon for Kolarek.
This Misfit Pitch Shape
Now we all know what a lefty-killer looks like. He throws from a low arm slot—like Kolarek—either three quarters, or fully side-arm. Often he stands on the first base side of the rubber. He almost always throws a slider, usually a slow one. This slider, starting from behind the batter’s back, sweeps across the plate, and sometimes hits the outside corner. Other times it’s off the outside. Lefties can’t see it, and they definitely can’t hit it.
Even if they can’t do anything else other than befuddle left-handed batters, these pitchers still get major league jobs as LOOGYs (Lefty One Out GuYs), because there are a lot of dangerous left-handed sluggers with big platoon splits who need to be dealt with.
Here’s the pitch movement from one of the LOOGYs from recent Rays memory, Randy Choate.
Note the green dots, the 78 mph slider without much drop but with over five inches, on average, of gloveside run. And while we’re at it, note the 87 mph sinker, with major drop, and major armside run, which combines with that slider—two pitches moving in opposite directions.
Kolarek looks a lot like a LOOGY, when you first see him on the mound. He throws from that lowered arm slot, and he throws a slider. With the naked eye, a slider from that arm slot looks like it moves a ton, horizontally, as it comes across the plate.
Except that Kolarek’s doesn’t sweep. Below is his movement chart.
I’ve said it a lot of times, but breaking ball movement isn’t straightforward to evaluate. Kolarek’s slider moves more than plenty of major league sliders, but it’s also slow, averaging around 79 mph. When thought of in three dimensions, it really doesn’t have a lot of movement for its speed, and most specifically in this case, it doesn’t have a lot of horizontal movement. I concentrate on the horizontal movement here, because of how horizontal slider movement interacts and multiplies with a low arm slot, and because that horizontal movement is what provides separation from Kolarek’s really excellent sinker and changeup.
Kolarek has faced only 18 innings worth of major league lefties, but his results haven’t been ideal. Over 70% of his balls in play have been grounders, but he’s only struck out 13% of opponents, for a 3.75 xFIP. That’s decent anti-lefty pitching, but it’s not lefty-killing.
With what he’s shown so far, it’s fair to wonder if Kolarek actually works as a LOOGY.
The Misfit Pitch
The good news for Kolarek is that he’s not just a LOOGY. In addition to the sinker, changeup, and slider that come flying out of his low sidearm armslot, he does something else, and it’s something pretty unusual.
Below is a graph of Kolarek’s release point last year.
The red clump is a four-seam fastball, that he throws out of a much higher, more over-the-top slot. It’s not an amazing rising four seam by any stretch of the imagination, with only about 7.5 inches of rise to it, and velocity in the low 90s. Still, it’s remarkably different from his sinker, which has two inches of drop to it.
This is where we’re squarely in the territory of elephants and rhinoceri*. What do batters do when confronted with a high-80s true sinker out of a low arm slot, and a low-90s four seam out of a high arm slot? Can major league batters identify the delivery fast enough, and adjust to the movement of the two pitches? Or do they guess, swinging wildly at the two fastballs, separated in their arrival point by a foot?
We don’t know, because this isn’t a thing that major league pitchers do, most of the time. We do know that minor league hitters couldn’t touch it.
*What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhinocerous? Elephino.
The Late-Season Adjustment
I spent a long time earlier talking about Kolarek’s slider, and how it didn’t really match the movement of a traditional lefty-killer, like Choate.
Well, Kolarek was fiddling with his slider all year, which you can see by looking at its meandering release point in relation to his other pitches. In mid-September, something noticeable happened to its movement. Below are the graphs of 2018 movement through Sepetember 13 (which you’ve already seen), alternating with the movment graph starting on September 14.
We’re really not talking about a lot of games, so I don’t want to read too much into Kolarek’s late-season pitch mix (almost entirely sinker-slider). What I do want to point out is that it looks like he got a new spin angle on his slider, trading some vertical drop for horizontal sweep.
That late-season slider movement would place him squarely in “the Choate zone.” Relievers who can dominate lefties get major league jobs and keep them.
On August 16, the Rays entered the bottom of the ninth inning with a 3-1 lead over the Yankees. Blake Snell had gone five innings, and Chaz Roe, Jose Alvarado, and Ryne Stanek had already pitched. Sergio Romo came on for the save, and immediately gave up two singles and a walk to load the bases with no outs.
With lefties Greg Bird and Brett Gardner due up, Kevin Cash turned to Adam Kolarek to pitch out of the jam.
Walk with me through the sequence. These strike zone plots are from the catcher’s perspective. First up, the lefty Greg Bird:
The first and only pitch was a sinker up and in. It was at a good hitting level, and caught plenty of the plate, but the strange angle and the extreme movement fooled Bird, and got in on his hands. Remember that the left-handed batter is standing to the right of the zone, from our perspective, and that Kolarek’s sinkers are running in toward him, with a full foot of spin movement.
Bird popped this one up; Matt Duffy caught it in foul territory for the first out.
Next up, that second lefty, Brett Gardner:
Every pitch in this sequence was a sinker, and you can see why—Gardner never saw it:
- Pitch one was squarely in the zone, and was Gardner’s best chance to get a hit, but he took it for a strike.
- Pitch two was a miss outside, plain and simple, taken for a ball.
- Pitch three was very much like the pitch to Bird, but actually in off the plate. Like against Bird, the pitch jammed Gardner, for a foul. Strike two.
- If he can’t see it, keep throwing it, right? Kolarek moved that sinker further inside, way off the plate, and Gardner—normally a hitter with good plate discipline—swung wildly over the pitch for the strikeout.
Now with two outs, the batter was righty Austin Romine. This where it gets interesting, and telling, because Kevin Cash had Diego Castillo available in the bullpen. Instead he stayed with Kolarek. Because the Rays believe that Kolarek is more than a LOOGY.
With the batter now standing in the right-handed batters box (to the left of the above strike zone plot), Kolarek changed up his approach, and leaned instead on his excellent running, diving, sinking changeup.
- Pitch one was a changeup, falling off the outside corner. Fooled him. Swung at and whiffed.
- Pitch two was another changeup, but too far outside. Romine saw it the whole way in and spit on it.
- Pitch three brought that changeup back to the zone, but tumbling far below it. Fooled him. Swung at and whiffed.
- Pitch four was the emphatic stamp on this game, and the pitch that makes this sequence special. After toying with the off-speed, down and away, Kolarek came over the top and fired his four-seam fastball to the top of the zone—at 95 mph. Game over.
Go watch the highlights of that inning to feel the emphasis as Kolarek slammed the door.
The final pitch wasn’t a great four-seam fastball. It only rose seven inches, and there are plenty of relievers who can reach back and find 95. But there’s very few who can throw that pitch after throwing that changeup, after throwing those sinkers, from that arm slot.
I wonder a lot of things about Kolarek:
- I wonder if his four-seam fastball will continue to blow the Austin Romines of the world away once they know to look for the change in arm angle.
- I wonder if he’ll be able to keep his late-season slider spin angle, and whether that will more efficiently pair with his sinker.
- I wonder if any of the versions of his slider are good enough to have a meaningful impact in the big leagues.
- He pitches from the first-base side of the rubber. I wonder if this makes the run on his changeup less effective, and I wonder if he should move to the third-base side to accentuate what I think is his best pitch.
- I wonder if that’s wrong, actually, and if pitching from the first base side is necessary for him to play up the deception in his low arm angle.
- He’s such a weird assortment of pitches. I wonder if everything will stop working for him one day once the novelty wears off.
- I wonder if it won’t, and if he might actually be a late-inning relief ace, about to click.
I said before that there are very few pitchers who can throw that fastball after throwing that changeup, after throwing that sinker. But I do know of one who can do a pretty similar sequence: Kirby Yates.
Nowadays Yates throws an average four-seam, a good sinker, a workable changeup, and a fringy slider. This is very similar to Kolarek’s stuff, but I happen to think Kolarek’s is weirder, and that in a vaccum, three of Kolarek’s four pitches are better.
Kirby Yates 1.0 was a Rays reliever who dominated the minors but was never quite able to translate himself into the majors. Kirby Yates 2.0 is an excellent major league reliever in San Diego, with a well-deserved 2.14 ERA in 2018.
Relievers are hard to figure. Adam Kolarek could be a Kirby Yates. Either one.