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Emilio Pagan is my MVP

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Does he throw a slider or a cutter? We don’t care, as long as hitters keep swinging and missing

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

ST. PETERSBURG. Last December the Rays were part of a three-way trade with the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers. The only big name in the trade was Jurickson Profar who went from Texas to Oakland. The Rays gave up pitcher Brock Burke, a once-heralded 2014 draftee who had lost time to injury.

And without much fanfare, the Rays acquired a then-27 year old reliever with two major league seasons under his belt, the first of which (with Seattle) was pretty good, the second and more recent of which (with Oakland) was not. Emilio Pagan, a South Carolina native, had been a tenth round draft pick in 2013.

Did Rays fans realize, in December 2018, just how much that move had strengthened the Rays bullpen?

Because Pagan has been quite a find.

If you aren’t into advanced statistics, you can like his 2.26 ERA and his 17 saves. If you prefer to dig a little deeper, there are his 12.7 strike outs per nine innings, coupled with just 1.8 walks per nine innings, both marked improvements from 2018. His ERA+, which adjusts for park factors (with 100 representing a league average) is 199. If you are wondering whether that is good, well, Justin Verlander’s 2019 ERA+ is 177.

DRB contributor Carl Gonzalez was quick to recognize Pagan’s potential before the season started. Gonzalez praised Pagan’s fastball/slider combo, and suggested that Pagan’s 2018 weaknesses — elevated home run and walk rates — could probably be corrected with some tweaks.

We spoke to Pagan recently at Tropicana Field, and these were indeed some of the points he addressed.

We asked about his pitch mix — 65% fastballs in 2018 but down just a tick to 60% in 2019 — and he acknowledged making an offseason decision to become a little less fastball reliant:

I’ve always leaned a lot on the fastball and I still do compared to other guys in the league. But the game is changing so much and you have to be able to throw more than one pitch for strikes, especially in different directions. It used to be primarily fastballs at the top of the zone.

So if he’s using fewer fastballs, what offspeed stuff is he using more often? Well, Statcast and Brooks Baseball thinks he is throwing a slider, one that averages around 84 mph. But Pagan begs to differ:

I’m definitely leaning more on what I call my cutter. It probably looks like a slider on TV but I keep my hand speed aggressive through the zone so it gets a little more late life.

Whatever it’s called, when batters swing at it they whiff nearly 34% of the time, so it is effective, and it also makes the fastball more effective.

Perhaps Pagan’s biggest improvement over last year is his better walk rate. As a pitcher who will give up the occasional home run, he realizes how crucial it is to limit free passes:

Early on last season I was giving up the home runs and I was also putting a lot of runners on base, doing damage to myself. I made a point this year to get back to what I do well, throw strikes, and attack hitters and make them beat me. I’m going to get beat every now and then because hitters are good but if I’m not beating myself before they beat me, not giving up those 2 and 3 run home runs situations, that’s my best.

Another difference from last year is that Pagan has been used almost exclusively as a one-inning pitcher; his is usually the highest leverage inning in a game (although since the trade deadline Nick Anderson has been sharing some of those high leverage duties). With Oakland and Seattle he had been used more frequently for multi-inning stints. But he thinks his stuff plays well in any spot:

I think I’m pretty effective in any situation. I have done a lot of multiple inning in most of my career. This year it’s been more single innings, and that’s what I did...earlier when I came up with Seattle. But I just enjoy pitching. Whatever role the team sees me in, I want to be out there pitching.

Pagan, you may recall, didn’t even make the team out of Spring Training; he was optioned to Durham in favor of lefty Adam Kolarek. He was up and down in April before joining the team for good at the end of the month. Still in his pre-arbitration years, Pagan could be holding down the Rays backend bullpen for years to come.