Michael Blazek’s Balanced, Killer Arsenal

Like his relief compatriots Francisco Rodriguez and Will Smith (each of whom BP Milwaukee has covered previously), Michael Blazek has shined this season with a sub-two ERA and peripherals to match. Unlike the other two, though, Blazek hadn’t accomplished much prior to 2015, and because of that, he perhaps hasn’t received much time in the spotlight. That’s a shame, because he really has pitched well for the Brewers so far — and has done so with virtually every pitch he possesses.

We should back up for a moment, to note some of the means by which Blazek has attained success. He has struck out 23.2 percent of the batters he has faced, while walking 8.3 percent; the former mark rises above the major-league average by a significant margin, and the latter doesn’t sit too much above the league-average. When hitters have put the ball in play against him, they’ve posted a 52.6 percent ground-ball rate, also notably above-average. Blazek hasn’t shown any real weaknesses. His arsenal doesn’t have any obvious problems — something that regularly plagues the standard reliever.

Blazek throws four primary pitches: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, and a curveball. None of them completely dominates the opposition, but none of them have harmed Blazek through the first three months of the season. By FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights, each member of the quadrumvirate ranks above-average:

Pitch Fourseam Sinker* Slider Curve
Value 1.0 4.1 2.4 3.3
Value/100 0.54 4.20 1.36 1.86

*FG calls the sinker a two-seam; I’ve listed it here under its classification.

The sinker is arguably Blazek’s most dangerous pitch. It certainly doesn’t lack power, traveling an average of 92.3 miles per hour with -9.8 inches of vertical movement (the 2015 MLB averages are 90.6 and -4.5, respectively). That kind of bite has led to an astounding 10.9 percent swinging-strike rate against the pitch, along with an incredible 73.3 percent ground-ball rate; keep in mind that an above-average sinker garners 5.6 percent whiffs and 50.6 percent grounders.

The sinker has its flaws — chief among them being that Blazek has only thrown that pitch for a strike only 50.0 percent of the time. It hasn’t granted him many looking strikes either, with only a 7.6 percent clip in that regard. Rates that low will lead to a lot of walks and not enough strikeouts, which may have something to do with the fact that Blazek has used the sinker less often than any other primary pitch, at 14.4 percent.

Blazek’s most leaned-upon pitch has been the slider, which he’s utilized 32.6 percent of the time. While this pitch has traveled at a below-average velocity (82.8 mph, compared to 84.2 mph for the average pitcher), that’s largely due to the fact that it carries impressive vertical movement. The slider has actually moved down 1.6 inches, the biggest drop among qualified relievers. That deception, and the velocity differential between the slider and the faster stuff, has made the offspeed pitch extremely effective. Hitters have whiffed at it 18.8 percent of the time, taken it for a looking strike 18.7 percent of the time, taken it for some sort of strike 67.9 percent of the time, and put it on the ground 61.5 percent of the time (in which they’ve put the ball in play).

With outstanding results across the board, the slider might reign superior to the sinker. Nevertheless, Blazek can’t throw a slider for every pitch — he needs a four-seamer, the aggression of which contrasts with the softer slider and keeps batters on their heels. And Blazek owns a formidable four-seam fastball in his own right. Thrown for 29.5 percent of his pitches, it has hurtled toward the plate at 94.5 mph (two miles per hour faster than an average heater), and consequently induced 7.9 percent whiffs and 20.1 percent looking-strikes.

Marks such as those have undoubtedly helped Blazek rack up the strikeouts; nevertheless, the four-seamer has hurt him when it comes to walks and balls in play. It’s only gone for a strike in 63.0 percent of its appearances, and for a grounder in 40.4 percent of its trips into the field of play. Overall, it’s certainly served Blazek well, but its ability can’t stack up to the slider or sinker — though it remains vital to the success of his other offerings.

Then, finally, we get to the curveball. This pitch, which Blazek has implemented 23.2 percent of the time, at average velocity (77.7 mph), hasn’t turned heads with swinging strikes (9.4 percent), strikes (58.4 percent), or ground balls (37.5 percent). The curveball essentially has two simple jobs: Land in the zone, and fool the hitter into not swinging. Excelling at both of these tasks has given it a massive 29.5 percent looking-strike rate, allowing Blazek to accumulate backwards Ks with the pitch.

For Blazek, no singular pitch stands out. Even the slider, while dominant, can’t reach the level of Will Smith (among others). But the harmony between Blazek’s four pitches elevates him beyond Smith, to the upper echelon of relief pitching. If Blazek can maintain this all-encompassing prosperity, he’ll serve as a Milwaukee relief ace for years to come.

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