Relievers are volatile. One year they’re striking out the side in the seventh inning, the next they’re struggling to avoid a trip to Triple-A. “You can’t predict baseball,” says John Sterling. Perhaps there’s nothing more unpredictable in the game than the success of a relief pitcher from year to year.
Take Chasen Shreve for example. Last season, Shreve emerged as one of Joe Girardi’s trusted weapons out of the bullpen. When Andrew Miller landed on the disabled list with a forearm strain, Shreve stepped up and assumed greater responsibilities. He did it with style, too. Through August, he posted a 1.89 ERA (3.86 FIP). Shreve was better than anyone could have imagined.
Then, the calendar flipped to September. Shreve’s performance cratered, and it did so precipitously. He posted a 2.79 ERA on the month after allowing four home runs and issuing seven walks. That included an instance where Shreve inherited a bases loaded situation against the Blue Jays. He proceeded to walk in three runs; he had no feel for the strike zone. It looked as if Shreve forgot how to pitch.
There was hope that September crash and burn was the result of fatigue and that Shreve would return to form in 2016. That hasn’t been the case, as he struggled mightily so far in his sophomore season with the Yankees. Heading into the weekend series with the Red Sox, Shreve owns a 4.64 ERA (6.46 FIP). That’s comically bad.
Shreve missed time in May and June with a minor shoulder injury before being optioned to Triple-A. Now that he’s back up on the big league roster, is there a reason to believe Shreve might be effective once again? The answer may well reside in an adjusted slider grip.
Last season, Shreve baffled hitters with his splitter. It was nasty. Batters swung right over it. There has been little discussion of his slider, however. In September when Shreve’s splitter deserted him, averaging an anemic 6.4 percentage whiff, he found success with his slide piece. Take a look at the chart below:
That’s a pretty large jump from July to September. His slider emerged as a serviceable swing and miss pitch. Now it appears that Shreve is once again going to turn to his slider, this time with a new grip adopted from Masahiro Tanaka.
“It seemed to help me a lot," Shreve said of the new grip. "It helped me stay on top of the ball, and I threw it pretty good so far."
The devastating splitter is well-known, but it appears that the story got out and batters adjusted. By putting emphasis on the slider, Shreve’s showing that he can adjust back. He’s coachable, which is always good to see with players. More importantly though, it adds depth to his arsenal. If he manages to maintain an effective slider, it can complement his splitter. That could be a good starting point for Shreve returning to form.
Outside of the Big Three, the bullpen has been just short of disastrous this year. A healthy and effective Shreve would prevent Girardi’s blood pressure from skyrocketing in the middle relief. He’s not an insignificant arm out in the bullpen. Whether the Yankees fight back into contention or sell off pieces at the deadline, Shreve figures to play a prominent role for the Yankees in the second half.