We all know by now the Rays have a well documented history of turning unheralded pitchers into big league contributors. Now, not every pitcher who comes to Tampa Bay succeeds, but it’s safe to say the Rays have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing when it comes to pitching development.
The current major league bullpen is filled with guys who were castaways at one point in their careers and are now pitching important innings on a 100-win team. Andrew Kittredge, Matt Wisler, JT Chargois, Jeffrey Springs, and Chris Mazza were all either DFA’ed or released by their teams at some point over the last few years.
You know who else was released just this past year? Jason Adam.
Before this year, Adam pitched in parts of four big league seasons and put together a 4.71 ERA and 4.75 FIP across 78.1 innings. Over that span he produced an above average strikeout rate (27.9%), but a below average walk rate (11.4%). The strong strikeout rate is key here because it indicates that his stuff plays well at the big league level, even though he hasn’t always had the best command of it.
Adam has mostly used a four-seam, curveball, slider, and changeup pitch mix throughout his career. While he’s only appeared in three games so far with the Rays, it already looks like that pitch mix has begun to change, so let’s dig in.
Please note that we are dealing with extremely small 2022 samples so far, but because pitch shapes tend to stabilize quickly and pitch results do not, this article is going to focus on the former.
In 2021 with the Cubs, Adam was throwing two distinct breaking balls, a curveball and a slider. Per Baseball Savant, his slider averaged 82.4 mph, while his curveball sat at 79 mph with more movement in both the horizontal and vertical planes (as is expected with a slower breaking ball).
This season, however, Adam has thrown a breaking ball that does not resemble either of the two breakers he threw last year. This new pitch (we’ll call it a slider) is being thrown at a velocity that falls in between that of his previous breaking balls and also has a completely different movement profile, mainly in the horizontal direction. The chart below shows a visual of what I’m talking about:
What this is telling us is that Adam has, in a way, morphed his two breaking balls into one new pitch.
He took the best qualities from his old slider, it’s velocity and vertical break, and coupled those with the good horizontal movement of his curveball (and actually added even more sweep on top of it) to build a completely new breaking ball.
As a result, Adam now has a pitch that gets excellent two-plane movement for the velocity it’s thrown at. Here’s what it looks like sweeping out of the zone:
You can compare that to his slider from last year, which didn’t contain nearly the same amount of horizontal sweep:
Earlier in the offseason I wrote about how the Rays have been borderline obsessed with sweeping breaking balls recently, and Adam looks like the latest Rays pitcher to buy in. In theory, this adjustment should lead to even better results for an already good looking slider.
Let’s move on to Adam’s other secondary pitch, his changeup. Before this year, Adam had only throw his changeup 10.7% of the time for his career. The Rays appear to like that pitch a whole lot more than that number would suggest, as he’s already up to a whopping 42% usage of it in three appearances this season (16 of 38 pitches).
Why do the Rays like this pitch of his so much?
For one, Adam throws this thing hard, like really hard. He’s always thrown it in the upper 80’s and the pitch is actually averaging 90 mph so far this season. What’s interesting is that, unlike his slider, this pitch is not a new development for Adam. He has always had this weapon, but just hasn’t ever used it a whole lot until now.
The other great quality of this pitch is the movement that it gets. The raw vertical movement (the amount of drop the pitch gets) is nothing crazy, but when you contextualize that value with the high velocity that the pitch is thrown at, you get an impressive pitch.
The chart below shows the velocity and vertical break that each changeup in 2022 is averaging:
There’s a small sample caveat here because of the very few games that have been played, but again, pitch shapes stabilize quickly, and we can already see a trend forming in this plot.
Generally speaking, changeups that are thrown at slower speed are able to generate more downward movement. You can see how Adam’s changeup defies that trend, because no other changeup in baseball is both thrown harder and with more drop than Adam’s is averaging right now.
On top of this, Adam’s changeup is also averaging 17.4 inches of horizontal movement (arm-side run), which ranks in the 85th percentile of all changeups thrown this season. When you pair all of Adam’s changeup traits together, it becomes clear that this offering is essentially a unicorn among pitches.
With the heavy usage he’s shown so far, it looks like the Rays are ready to find out just how strong of a pitch this can be. Here’s a whiff he induced with it in his first appearance this year:
Adam has also shown comfort in throwing his changeup to same-sided hitters, which isn’t something we see with many pitchers on this Rays staff:
A recently DFA’d pitcher who signed for only $900K on the open market, and possesses a wicked slider and changeup almost surely has to have a pedestrian fastball, right?
Adam’s fastball already had intriguing traits, and looks to be blossoming even more in 2022. The chart below displays Adam’s fastball metrics and how they stack up against the league:
Jason Adam 2022 4-seam Fastball Metrics
|Spin Rate||2618 rpm||99th|
|Release Height||5.7 ft||32nd|
|Induced Vertical Break||18.4 in||83rd|
|Horizontal Break||9.8 in||78th|
The high percentiles here show how lively this fastball is. The only percentile that is on the lower end of the 0-100 scale is his release height, but make no mistake, lower release heights are usually a good thing when it comes to high riding 4-seamers, as it allows them to induce better results due to the flat angle that the pitch approaches the plate at.
Adam’s vertical approach angle (VAA) ranks very well compared to most fastballs, and the combination of his low release with his strong velocity, spin rate, and perceived vertical rise is the reason why.
It’s also worth noting that Adam is throwing his fastball 1.3 mph harder than last year, and it’s also getting about 1.6 more inches of rise (induced vertical break) than it was last year. Last week against Oakland, Adam threw one of the hardest pitches he’s ever thrown in his big league career, and it totally froze Stephen Vogt:
Again, it’s probably too soon to know whether or not these changes are indeed legit — the season is young and the arm is fresh — but both of these fastball metrics are worth monitoring and are also exciting developments for him if they last.
Jason Adam has a loud arsenal, period. There’s also been some new pitch shape developments for him this year that are making his arsenal look even more impressive. The big question for him now will be whether or not he can throw consistent strikes with this new repertoire.
Per FanGraphs, Adam has thrown 44.7% of his pitches in the strike zone so far this year, which is up from his career rate of 38.7% before this season. Adam has also yet to walk a hitter so far with the Rays, so he’s off to a good start control-wise. It will also be interesting to follow how often he uses each of his pitches throughout the season, as we’ve already seen some pretty drastic changes in that department.
Overall, Jason Adam has just about everything you could ask for as far as pitch traits go to succeed at the highest level. As long as he can harness his arsenal (and he hasn’t had any trouble with that so far), it sure looks like the Rays have unearthed a new high leverage reliever.