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Adam Kolarek is good, and interesting

Can he be more than a LOOGY?

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

This past Sunday, Adam Kolarek entered the game in the ninth inning, with the Rays leading 6-1. He promptly gave up a walk, an infield single, a bunt single, an RBI groundout, and a groundball RBI single, tightening the game and forcing Kevin Cash to bring in Jose Alvarado to slam the door.

The untidy outing started a bit of grumbling in the DRaysBay masthead slack, including from one writer, who shall remain nameless, who griped, “Are we done thinking Kolarek is interesting?”

That was a poke at me. In the spring, I wrote about how interesting Kolarek’s stuff is. Shortly after, I noted that he’d shifted sides on the rubber, so as to better pound lefties inside with his sinker. Lemme take the bait.

Are we done thinking Kolarek is interesting? Maybe, but that depends on what we find interesting.

Adam Kolarek is Good (against lefties)

Before the season began, I legit didn’t know whether Kolarek’s stuff was going to translate to the majors, even just as a Lefty One Out Guy (LOOGY). I thought Kolarek had upside worth checking on, but that with the superior slider, Hoby Milner might be the better LOOGY.

Now we know. It works.

No, Kolarek isn’t the traditional LOOGY. With 40 left-handed batters faced, he’s only struck out 17.5% of them;, only rarely does he put lefties on via the free pass (5%, Sunday was the exception). But the overall results are fantastic.

With a .111/.200/.139 AVG/OBP/SLG slash line, Kolarek has allowed the 6th lowest wOBA against lefties in all of baseball, at .167.

“Don’t believe in a .138 BABIP,” you say. “Ball-in-play results, when not backed up by peripherals, should be regressed heavily,” you say.

Well, of course. We shouldn’t fully believe any outlier stat, especially not over a small sample. But a funny thing happens to pitchers at the ball-in-play extremes. Players with the most extreme groundball and flyball profiles are the most likely to outperform their peripherals, and Kolarek has been truly extreme.

Against lefties, Kolarek has the highest GB% in baseball, and the lowest FB%, with a 77.8% groundball rate and a 3.7% flyball rate.

Adam Kolarek lefties launch angle
Baseball Savant

Lefties are pounding the ball into the ground against him, at a ridiculous rate, beyond what any other pitcher is inducing. I think that’s interesting. But it’s also good. Kolarek is good.

But Against Righties . . .

Kolarek has actually pitched against two more righties than he has lefties, with 42 batters faced, and the results have been different. His .510 wOBA is the second worst in baseball. His 9.14 FIP matches up with that ugly number. He’s walked 11.9% of those righties, and struck out only 9.5%.

That’s interesting, right? A pitcher who has been among the best in baseball against lefties—with an extreme batted ball profile that seems to break everything we know about pitching peripherals—and among the worst against righties?

So what are we to make of it?

Twenty innings into his 2019 season, we know more about Kolarek than we did to start the year. He has a role in the major leagues—getting lefties to pound the ball into the dirt. With Chaz Roe perhaps returning to form, the Rays can be hopeful that going forward, Roelarek (the combination of the two) will be one of the better relievers in baseball.

But baseball players are not static, extremes tend to regress, and “best against lefties, worst against righties” seems like an unstable state. The Rays want to help that state resolve itself to “best against lefties, serviceable against righties,” and that’s why we will continue to see Kolarek pitch againt righties in low leverage situations, either with a big lead or with a big deficit.

Kolarek needs to learn to find the outside corner with his changeup, to work ahead in the count, and to find a second trick against righties (such as changing eye level with his over-the-top four seam).

The Kolarek that the Rays have now is good, in a limited role, as one of the most extreme LOOGYs in the game. But the payoff for giving him work outside of that role (like he got both this past Sunday, and the day after on Monday) is potentially real, both for the Rays, and for Kolarek’s career.

He’ll be far more useful to the Rays even now if he can be trusted at least a little against right-handed batters; and once the Three Batter Rule is fully adopted, the traditional LOOGY who might only face one batter will become extinct.