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A Tyler Mahle extension is unlikely, but may be a good idea

The 26-year-old righty turned in a career-best year in 2020.

St Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way up top: The Cincinnati Reds have little incentive to pursue a contract extension with Tyler Mahle. The 26-year-old right-hander is three years away from free agency, and is unlikely to ever command a daunting price in arbitration. He also doesn’t have that strong of pedigree — though he was one of the top prospects in the system when he debuted, he had to work a long time to get there, given he was just a seventh-round pick when the Reds took him out of high school back in 2013. After debuting in September 2016, Mahle experienced a fair mount of bumps in bruises over his next two seasons in the Reds’ rotation. There is no rush on Cincinnati’s side to get a deal done here, so it’s unlikely one will.

But that doesn’t mean the incentive doesn’t exist at all, nor does it mean an extension should be ruled out completely. It’s become increasingly common for teams to award extensions not just to the star players in their organization, but also to the supporting cast. That’s because teams value cost certainty and years of control, enough so that they will agree to pay up earlier in a player’s career in exchange for the ability to delay free agency and hopefully secure a bargain in the later years of that extension.

As Wick Terrell noted earlier this week, the Reds are not flush with cash at the moment, after a global pandemic upended a season just weeks after the team’s first real foray into free agency in franchise history. Bringing back NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer — who is either going to command a massive one-year salary if he follows through on his promise not to sign multi-year deals, or secure a contract well into nine figures if he buckles under pressure — is probably out of the cards. Locking up a more controllable star, such as Luis Castillo, to an owner-friendly deal may prove to be too expensive as well. It’s a long offseason, though, and a front office could get a tad antsy sitting on its hands while fans beg for moves to be made. Throwing those fans a bone in the form of a cheap extension for one of the team’s secondary players may be the kind of deal the Reds are willing to make.

As potential targets for a deal like that go, Mahle makes a lot of sense. After getting hit pretty hard from 2018-19 — he had a 5.06 ERA and 4.93 FIP — his numbers finally turned around in the truncated 2020 season. He finished with a 3.59 ERA and 3.88 FIP, both of which were comfortably superior to league average. He also blew away his previous career best in strikeout rate, finishing with a 29.9% mark (11.33 per nine innings) that was nearly a seven-point improvement over his previous career high set in 2019. He did so while experiencing a modest bump in his walk rate from the previous year, but his K-BB% of 19.4% was still the best he’s ever achieved. In fact, of all pitchers who threw at least 40 innings this year, Mahle — hardly ever thought of as a swing-and-miss pitcher before — finished 18th in strikeout percentage, directly behind teammates Sonny Gray (16th) and Castillo (17th).

Mahle’s surge in bat-missing ability came with a set of changes to his arsenal, which he’s dramatically played with every year of his big league career. Here are his pitch type distributions over the last four years, per FanGraphs:

Tyler Mahle Pitch Types, 2017-20

Year FB% SL% CT% CB% CH% SPL%
Year FB% SL% CT% CB% CH% SPL%
2017 65.6% 25.2% 0.0% 1.9% 7.3% 0.0%
2018 67.9% 20.1% 0.0% 0.7% 11.3% 0.0%
2019 56.7% 0.0% 6.8% 23.1% 0.0% 13.4%
2020 55.6% 33.0% 0.0% 0.4% 0.0% 11.0%

Mahle’s slider didn’t work well for the first two seasons of his career, so he abandoned it in 2019 in favor of his curve while also morphing his changeup into a splitter. The curve performed well, but he and/or the Reds’ pitching instructors weren’t content, reinstalling the slider and having him rely on it more than ever. Mahle also threw with more velocity than ever in 2020, adding a tick and a half to his fastball since 2018 and more than three and a half miles per hour to his slider in that same span. That leads to some disagreement among pitch evaluation systems; Brooks Baseball says it’s a cutter, not a slider, that Mahle was throwing this season, despite the fact that the pitch is three miles per hour slower than the cutter he threw in 2019 and moves, according to Baseball Savant, very similarly to the slider he was throwing in 2018.

Whatever it was, it did its job. Mahle’s slider held opponents to a .249 wOBA over 68 plate appearances in 2020, the best performance he’s had on any of his breaking pitches in the last three years. It also generated whiffs on 41.5% of all swings, far and away the best of any pitch he’s ever had. He also improved the whiff rate against his four-seamer by 10 points from last season. With those two working in tandem, Mahle became a legitimate strikeout force, while simultaneously cutting down dramatically on hard contact, as his average exit velocity allowed dipped by two miles per hour. Mahle didn’t just earn a full-time rotation gig this year — he looked like something close to a No. 2 arm.

Tyler Mahle Statcast Percentile Rankings, 2018-20

Year Exit Velocity xwOBA xERA xBA xSLG K% Whiff%
Year Exit Velocity xwOBA xERA xBA xSLG K% Whiff%
2018 7th 18th 18th 20th 22nd 47th 45th
2019 31st 46th 46th 41st 35th 53rd 33rd
2020 65th 77th 77th 90th 77th 80th 85th

What does this mean for Mahle’s extension chances? Well, it could mean the Reds’ pitching regime — as it has seemed to for several other arms — has figured out how to unlock the still-young righty who was not long ago the darling of Cincinnati’s minor league pitching development. He’s always been regarded as a very smart pitcher who has maturity beyond his years, but one who would need to have excellent command to succeed with ho-hum stuff in the majors. But as he’s built velocity (and, importantly, spin rate) over the last few seasons, and continuously tinkered with his secondary offerings, that stuff suddenly looks a lot different than it did when he debuted in 2017.

Mahle still isn’t without his possible weaknesses. His new approach on the mound, while broadly successful, did result in a 17.7% cut to his ground ball rate that was the largest of any pitcher in the majors this year, down to just 29.3% overall. For Mahle, that’s dangerous territory — his downfall in his previous two seasons was the fact that he had an outsized portion of the flyballs he allowed turn into home runs, peaking at over a 20% HR/FB ratio in 2019. This year, his luck turned around, and his HR/FB rate was cut in half. That could be partially due to better luck, and partially due to the fact that his rate of infield flies more than doubled this season, to one of the highest rates in baseball. In any case, we know Mahle has gotten burned by fly balls in the past, so him getting more extreme in his batted ball distribution is something to keep a careful eye on.

It’s also worth being careful with the fact that we’re dissecting a 2020 season that, for Mahle, lasted only 47.2 innings, about a third of the workload one would expect him to get as a full-time starter in a normal season. That smaller sample size may cause the Reds to be skeptical about his improvements, or act conservatively in waiting to see what he’s capable of in what will hopefully be a more routine 2021.

If they do believe they’ve found something special with Mahle, though, now would be the time to invest in that kind of accomplishment. This far from free agency, it likely wouldn’t require a large guarantee up front to purchase a pair of owner-friendly team options down the line. Mahle is young enough that those team options could start to kick in before he even turns 30, and would net the right-hander that first major paycheck he missed out on by falling to the seventh round in 2013. At a time when players, teams — all of us, really — is eager to find any kind of certainty, this would be a reasonable way for both parties to achieve that.