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A non-tendered Angels reliever might be a perfect project for the Cincinnati Reds

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A bullpen makeover is in the cards either way...

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

For the longest time, baseball roster building was based so much on what players had accomplished in their careers to date. That’s still a huge factor, obviously, but with the ability to monitor player performance and potential in so many different, advanced ways these days, roster building has increasingly begun to lean more on identifying players with elite skill potential, even if the results haven’t been there too often in the past.

That brings me very quickly to this, courtesy of MLB.com’s Statcast:

Not ERA, not FIP, not walks, not innings...just pure, unadulterated arm potential. And if there’s anything we’ve noticed from the way the Driveline crew has begun revolutionizing the Cincinnati Reds pitching development, velocity and spin are two of the larger driving factors.

That 96th percentile velocity, 85th percentile spin guy is fresh off a season in which he allowed 19 ER in just 16.2 IP, with a 1.74 WHIP that showed he really, really struggled to retire hitters in 2020. That’s why he’s available in the first place, of course, as the Los Angeles Angels non-tendered him just yesterday.

That’s Hansel Robles, who was set to make some $4 million in his final trip through the arbitration process had he been tendered a contract. That’s because prior to 2020, he’d shown flashes of brilliance, including a 2019 season where those Statcast numbers above fueled him to a 2.48 ERA, 2.88 ERA, 4.69 K/BB, and 23 saves for the Angels in 72.2 brilliant innings. That was precisely the kind of output that the New York Mets had long hoped to see from him in his wildly talented, yet mostly wild early career before they waived him and lost him to Los Angeles in what ended up being a very successful waiver claim.

For a time, that is. While his production declined in 2020 across the board, so, too, did his velocity and spin rate. After averaging a career best 97.4 mph on his fastball in 2019, that dipped to just 95.7 mph in 2020 despite no apparent injuries to speak of. It sank his Stacast ratings to only 82nd percentile in velocity and 64th in spin, but what’s intriguing about him despite that dip is a strange, confounding note about his pitch-mix.

After sporting what FanGraphs valued as one of the most valuable changeups of any big league reliever in 2019, he...simply did not throw it at all during the 2020 season. He leaned on it some 22% of the time during the 2019 season, yet abandoned it completely for a new-found splitter, one that he threw nearly 36% of the time during his brief 2020 season. That’s quite the development given how great his success was with the previous approach the previous year, one that Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors noted prior to the start of the 2020 campaign.

Things get a bit more interesting when you realize the Angels hired a new pitching coach prior to the start of the 2020 season - one Mickey Callaway, the former manager of the New York Mets. That’s the same Mickey Callaway who was manager of the Mets during a 2018 season that saw Robles waived by the club (and claimed by the Angels).

Where things get murkier is when you circle back to an excellent piece written by Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register last September, at the tail end of Robles’ excellent season. In it, Fletcher gets some fun quotes from Robles and insight into his personality, but he also notes that Robles had long relied on a mix of fastball, slider, and a pair of different changeups, one in particular thrown with a split-finger grip. Andrew Bailey, the bullpen coach for the Angels during the 2019 season, is cited as helping Robles accentuate that latter pitch, and it was Bailey’s departure to be the new pitching coach of the San Francisco Giants prior to the 2020 season that opened the door for Callaway’s return.

So, when you put two and two together, it would appear that perhaps Robles didn’t abandon the lights-out changeup from 2019 for a splitter in 2020 - maybe it was just the same pitch thrown in a slightly different, much less effective manner under slightly different tutelage. And, if that’s the case, that could be precisely the kind of mechanical tweak that Kyle Boddy and the Driveline crew can mend.

Point being, Robles is a guy who still looks like he should have plenty of miles left on a right arm that has long been touted as elite, one who has, at times, had the ability to turn that into elite level results. And for a Cincinnati bullpen that lost Archie Bradley via non-tender just yesterday and may well see Michael Lorenzen move back to the rotation to fill another void, Robles could end up the kind of bargain-ish reclamation project that isn’t just cost conscious, but also has the potential to be a truly positive addition.