Relief pitchers are the most volatile performers in baseball. They do their work in particularly small sample sizes, and you can never quite be sure what to expect from them in a given year. Hopefully they’ll repeat past success, or build on the first stages of a budding breakout, but just as often they can disappear into Quad-A oblivion.
The Oakland A’s took a chance on a relatively untested reliever last winter when they traded Ryon Healy to the Mariners for Emilio Pagan and a prospect. Pagan had put together a promising rookie year at age 26, and the A’s were hoping to see more of it. It was mostly low-leverage work, like middle relief and mop-up duty, but he generally retired the hitters who were put in front of him.
Pagan, 2017 SEA: 3.22 ERA, 50⅓ ip, 56 Ks, 8 BB, 7 HR, 39 hits, 3.28 FIP
Fast forward to 2018, and things did not begin well in Oakland. Pagan’s first dozen games yielded disastrous results, and along the way he looked nothing like the pitcher who had wiped out the competition with his slider the previous year.
Pagan, 2018 (1st 12 gms): 5.93 ERA, 13⅔ ip, 7 Ks, 4 BB, 4 HR, 20 hits, 6.98 FIP
On May 2 the A’s optioned him back to Triple-A. For whatever reason he wasn’t missing bats (9.1%), after doing so at an above-average clip (13.3%) in 2017. With just one good year on his MLB resume, it was fair to wonder which was closer to his true talent — the breakout season, or the sophomore slump.
Fortunately, Pagan seems to have turned a corner since his slow start to the year. He returned to Oakland on May 18, and his numbers since then are like night and day compared with his first stint.
Pagan, 2018 (last 13 gms): 1.06 ERA, 17 ip, 25 Ks, 6 BB, 2 HR, 10 hits, 2.93 FIP
Suddenly he’s missing bats again, at an incredible rate. To put his 19.5% swinging-strike rate into context, the only full-season mark higher than that so far this summer belongs to Josh Hader of the Brewers (20.9%), and Blake Treinen’s 18.5% ranks fifth in the sport. Pagan is inducing whiffs at an elite rate over the last month, and it’s helping him strike out 36.8% of the batters he faces.
Over those last 13 games he’s allowed runs in only one of them, with both dingers coming in the same blowout loss to the Astros. Otherwise he’s been more or less unhittable. When opponents do occasionally make contact they’re still stinging it for extra bases (including eight of those 10 hits), but they simply aren’t putting wood on the ball often enough to do any damage.
The point for now isn’t to figure out what he changed. He may have toyed with his release point, and he seems to be throwing a few extra fastballs this time around at the expense of some sliders. Or this may just be the law of averages correcting itself, with the pitcher’s true talent finally shining through after a brief slump. One way or other, it’s happening right now and it demands our attention.
Just as Pagan didn’t continue stinking for long, we shouldn’t expect him to keep dominating at this level forever. The real answer tends to be somewhere in the middle of two extreme stat lines. But he’s showing us what he’s capable of at his best, and it’s more in line with what we’d all been hoping to see from him last winter.
Pagan, 2018: 3.23 ERA, 30⅔ ip, 32 Ks, 10 BB, 6 HR, 30 hits, 4.74 FIP, 14.4% SwStr
The next question is whether this resurgence is enough to vault Pagan into a higher-leverage, late-inning role. Treinen and Lou Trivino have carried the load so far alongside an inconsistent Yusmeiro Petit, and Ryan Buchter just got back from the DL to help out the setup crew, but there’s always room for another reliable shutdown arm if that’s what he turns out to be.
For now, let’s appreciate Pagan’s turnaround and hope it continues as long as possible. He’s so hot right now, and with Healy sporting a .290 OBP in Seattle at Matt Olson’s position, this trade is once again looking like a shrewd move by the A’s.