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Daniel Coulombe might be the Oakland A's best pitcher

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Especially his curveball

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Oakland Athletics
This was probably a good pitch, because Coulombe is good.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I’m here to spread the word — Daniel Coulombe is a really good reliever.

In case you don’t remember, Daniel Coulombe is the left-handed reliever who pitched for the A’s and the Nashville Sounds last year. He’s going to be in the A’s bullpen again this year, and over the course of the offseason, I’ve seen a lot of people question whether the A’s need another left-handed reliever, or whether Coulombe deserves a spot in the bullpen. I’m here to show you that Daniel Coulombe is not only one of the best relievers on the team, but one of the best relievers in all of baseball. Particularly, Daniel Coulombe is absolutely elite at getting left-handed hitters out, which is theoretically his job.

Before we get into the numbers, let’s just take a moment to watch his beautiful curveball. There are a lot of great things about baseball, but I’m not sure anything tops the aesthetic experience of a wonderful big curveball, particularly from a left-handed pitcher (because of the offset camera angle which makes pitches that move from left to right look especially exaggerated and exciting). From Barry Zito to Travis Blackley to Rich Hill now to Daniel Coulombe, A’s fans have a glorious recent history of big left-handed curveballs.

Watch this video of Daniel Coulombe striking out five Royals in relief last year to see some beautiful curveballs. Strikeouts 2-4 in this video are on the curve (and the one at 17 seconds is my personal favorite, because nothing beats a called 3rd strike on a big curve):

But alright, you’ve seen pretty curveballs from pitchers who weren’t that good. Hell, Barry Zito kept his great curve his entire career but was pretty terrible from 2011 until he retired after 2015.

So let’s dig into the evidence for why Daniel Coulombe is so good.

Numbers-wise, we’re going to get one thing out of the way quickly. Daniel Coulombe did not have a very good ERA in 2016. His ERA was 4.53. He gave up 6 HRs, which skyrocketed his ERA. His FIP was a quite good 3.59, and his xFIP was a sensational 2.82. We’ll get to these great numbers soon, but to begin, I want to quickly go over his ERA.

  • Coulombe had a 62.2% GB rate. That’s good for 13th best amongst all pitchers in the MLB last year with at least 30 innings (just a fraction of a percentage below noted sinkerballer Dan Otero).
  • And yet, Coulombe still managed to give up 6 HR, due to a ridiculous 24% HR/FB. HR/FB for pitchers usually coalesces in the 8-12% range. There are a few outliers, but not only are they extremely rare, but it takes years of data to conclude that a pitcher is outperforming or underperforming their HR/FB% due to some sort of talent (or lack thereof). Moreover, HR/FB outliers still have nowhere near the sort of outliery numbers that a 24% HR/FB rate is.
  • Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that Coulombe should be expected to revert towards the mean of HR/FB, bringing his HR numbers down — that’s essentially what xFIP accounts for, and why Coulombe’s (2.82) is SO much better than his ERA.
  • Additionally, Coulombe had a ridiculously low LOB% — 65.8%. And while it’s possible that Coulombe is worse out of the stretch, LOB% is largely unassociated with talent, and therefore we can expect that to regress towards the mean as well.

The LOB% is a big reason why Coulombe’s ERA (4.53) was so much worse than his FIP (3.59) in 2016, and the HR/FB% (24%) is the main reason why his FIP was worse still than his xFIP (2.82).

So, now that we’ve noted Coulombe’s bad 2016 ERA and the reasons why it’s less predictive than his good FIP and his great xFIP, let’s delve a little bit further into the — spoiler alert — sensational season that Coulombe actually had in 2016, and what makes Daniel Coulombe so good.

* * *

Let’s talk statistically about Coulombe’s best pitch, that wonderful curveball. Here are some facts about Coulombe’s hook:

  • In 2016, Coulombe’s curveball had 9.1 inches of vertical drop.
  • Coulombe threw 236 total curveballs and got a strike 64% of the time.
  • With his curve, Coulombe had a 49.5% K rate and got swinging strikes 15.3% of the time he threw it.
  • When batters did make contact, they hit a ground-ball 72.7% of the time and hit 0 homeruns.
  • In total in 2016, batters had a .101 BA, a .114 SLG%, and a -28 wRC+ against Coulombe’s curve. The average wRC+ is 100. So a -28 wRC+ is really really bad.

This is the moment when usually one would say something witty like “against Coulombe’s curve, every batter hit like [Willie Bloomquist or some other terrible hitter]” ... but in this case, I don’t think any hitter has ever been that bad. I could say “against Coulombe’s curve, every batter was as bad at hitting as Babe Ruth was good in 1923.” Babe Ruth put up 15 WAR that year.

So that sure sounds pretty damn good, but you don’t really have a reference point — maybe curveballs are just hard to hit in general! Let’s compare those numbers above to a famous curveball that you’ve seen a lot recently.

That’s right, according to the voiceover on this video, Clayton Kershaw has “the dirtiest curve in baseball”! So how does “the dirtiest curve in baseball” compare to Daniel Coulombe’s?

Stat Kershaw Coulombe
Vertical Drop 9.5" 9.1"
K Rate 44.1% 49.5%
Swinging Strike% 14.6% 15.3%
Groundball% 69.2% 72.7%
AVG .118 .101
SLG .161 .114
wRC+ -21 -28

So they were pretty similar. But Coulombe’s was a little better.

Since I’m trying to make the point here that Coulombe is one of the best relievers in baseball, let me put his numbers into a little bit more context. Let’s start with that curveball.

Coulombe’s CB’s vertical movement in 2016 rated 17th best of all pitchers in the MLB w/ at least 30 innings. #1 on the list was actually Mets’ pitcher Seth Lugo — watch this amazing curveball:

Other pitchers of note ahead of Coulombe on this list — Mike Fiers, Garrett Richards, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Daniel Mengden (!!!), Clayton Kershaw, Darvish (tied with Coulombe).

BTW, 3 off-topic points, but interesting:

  1. Joe Smith had the sinking-est fastball/sinker of any pitcher in baseball in 2016. A close second: Andrew Triggs.
  2. The pitcher with the most horizontal movement on their 4-seamer in 2016? Sean Manaea.
  3. Top 5 pitchers with most horizontal movement on curveballs: Sam Dyson, Sonny Gray, Aaron Nola, Corey Kluber, Andrew Triggs.

Next, according to Fangraphs, Coulombe’s curveball was worth 2.89 runs above average per 100 pitches thrown. That ranked 12th amongst all pitchers in the MLB with at least 30 innings, directly below curveball artists David Robertson and Lance McCullers. And ahead of Craig Kimbrel and Rich Hill.

But “okay, enough already,” you tell me, “we get it, he has a great curveball! But that doesn’t mean he’s a great pitcher!” I like your skepticism! Let’s examine the pitching stats, which tell the whole story about Coulombe.

Coulombe’s xFIP was 2.82. xFIP aims to quantify the true talent of a pitcher on a scale that looks like and is predictive of ERA. As we noted earlier, xFIP makes an attempt to scale HR/FB towards the mean, which is a particularly good idea for Coulombe, considering his fluky HR/FB in 2016. So where does Coulombe’s 2.82 xFIP in 2016 rank? Tied for 16th best amongst all pitchers with at least 30 innings. Just below Kelvin Herrera, Ken Giles, and Noah Syndergaard. That’s right — according to our most predictive ERA indicator, Daniel Coulombe was the 16th best pitcher in the MLB last year.

By the way — no relief pitcher on the A’s placed higher than Coulombe.

Now, there’s something we’ve been ignoring — Daniel Coulombe’s position on the roster in 2017 is going to be dedicated specifically to getting left-handed hitters out. With Doolittle either slotted in as the closer or as a general set-up man, the A’s will have only one other lefty available to come in to get outs against LHH, and Coulombe is that guy. And all the stats we’ve been looking at, like how Daniel Coulombe was the 16th best pitcher in 2016 according to xFIP — these numbers are all despite the fact that Coulombe faced right-handed hitters 58% of the time last year!

And here’s the thing. As good as Coulombe was overall, he was way better against LHHs than RHHs. Take a look:

Coulombe vs LHH: 10.13 K/9. 1.27 BB/9. 0.42 HR/9. 1.93 FIP. 2.10 xFIP.

Coulombe vs. RHH: 10.25 K/9. 4.78 BB/9. 1.71 HR/9. 4.93 FIP. 3.41 xFIP.

Those numbers against left-handed hitters are astounding. Just how astounding? Take a look at this:

2016 FIP leaderboard LHP vs. LHH:

  1. Clayton Kershaw, 0.74
  2. Danny Duffy, 1.58
  3. Zach Duke, 1.79
  4. Aroldis Chapman, 1.89
  5. Daniel Coulombe, 1.93

That’s right, if you remove Kershaw and Duffy, who are starting pitchers, Coulombe was the third best reliever against left-handed hitters in all of baseball last year, and the second best LOOGY. How about by xFIP?

2016 xFIP leaderboard LHP vs. LHH:

  1. Andrew Miller, 1.23
  2. Clayton Kershaw, 1.72.
  3. Daniel Coulombe, 2.10.

Have you ever noticed how un-hittable Chris Sale looks against LHH? Well, Coulombe was better than Sale last year against LHH by both FIP and xFIP. By xFIP last year, Coulombe was better than Aroldis Chapman against LHH. Coulombe was better than Andrew Miller against LHH by FIP last year.

Beyond a reasonable doubt, Daniel Coulombe was one of the five best relievers against left-handed hitters last year. So the next time someone tells you that the A’s might need to sign a LOOGY ... just ignore them and put on your Coulombe jersey and sit back and watch him strike out lefty after lefty with his beautiful curveball! (Also, buy a Coulombe jersey.)

Finally, you might ask, in wondering if Coulombe should be expected to continue his dominance of MLB hitters, if Coulombe put up similar numbers in the minor leagues.

This is Coulombe’s last three years in the minors:

2016, AAA: 12.60 K/9. 2.16 BB/9. 0 HR/9. 1.08 ERA. 1.64 FIP.

2015, AAA: 8.93 K/9. 5.23 BB/9. 0.22 HR/9. 3.27 ERA. 3.82 FIP.

2014, AA: 13.29 K/9. 4.29 BB/9. 0.43 HR/9. 2.57 ERA. 2.57 FIP.

2014, A+: 12.38 K/9. 3.45 BB/9. 0.61 HR/9. 3.05 ERA. 3.09 FIP.

Coulombe’s numbers in the minors, particularly his strikeout numbers, have been extremely good and more or less in line with what he did last year in the MLB. His first time in AAA in 2015 looks to be a slight outlier, as his K-rate didn’t surpass 9 for the only time in his minor league career. But his generally elite numbers in the minor leagues only back up what he did in 2016 in the MLB, eating up lefties more ferociously than Chris Sale!

So, is Daniel Coulombe worthy of a roster spot? Hell yes. Is Daniel Coulombe better than almost anyone in baseball at getting lefties out? Absolutely. Is Daniel Coulombe better than almost anyone in baseball at getting anyone out? You bet. Is Daniel Coulombe the best pitcher on the team? All I’m saying is Melvin said he hasn’t decided on a closer yet ...

Editor’s Note: By sheer coincidence, Beyond the Box Score ran a story about Coulombe on Tuesday. If you haven’t learned enough about him already, check out their writeup here!