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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Pedro Báez

Báez’s best years are likely behind him, but can he still bolster a bullpen badly in need of depth.

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In his seven years with the Dodgers, Pedro Báez has been more than solid as the team’s setup man. While the Dodgers’ closer role has been a revolving door since Kenley Jansen’s decline from stardom, Báez has held down the seventh or eighth inning in LA for the better part of the last decade. Despite his relatively consistent performance, Báez’s velocity over the past few seasons has quietly declined.

In 2020, Báez’s average fastball velocity was 94.4 mph, the lowest of his career. That mark was not only nearly a mile and a half per hour slower than the previous season, but also around three full miles per hour softer than where he was at as recently as 2016 and 2017. Dave Roberts offered the expedited ramp-up prior to the 2020 season as reasoning for Báez’s literally slow start to last season, but since Báez’s velocity never increased as the season went on, it’s hard to chalk its descent entirely up to rust. More likely is that, on the wrong side of 30, Báez will have to continue on without quite the same zip as his former self.

While his fastball velocity has declined, its effectiveness, in terms of creating recorded outs, mostly hasn’t — at least through 2020. Batted ball data against Báez’s fastball remained around his career averages, give or take a couple of percentage points for some normal variance. Though Báez’s 3.31 xERA and 3.18 ERA were only slightly worse than his career 3.03 ERA, he got there in a far less sustainable fashion than past seasons.

The biggest red flag within Báez’s statistical portfolio is his steeply declined strikeout-to-walk percentage of 8.6 percent, around half of his career average of 17.1 percent. His career low in this department came from a frightening combination of a career low K% and the second-worst BB% in his career. Further, his weakened abilities to strike batters out and prevent free bases led to the lowest strand rate of his career, about thirteen percentage points worse than his career marks. Somehow, despite poor true outcome rates, Báez lucked into a 3.18 ERA that radically outperformed his 4.43 FIP and his 5.73 xFIP.

Those sharply reduced strikeout rates stem from Báez’s elapsed ability to blow hitters away with his fastball. While, as aforementioned, they didn’t hit him much harder than in past seasons, opposing batters whiffed at just 20.3 percent of his fastballs compared to the 34.1 percent whiff rate they posted in just the season before.

The slider and in particular the changeup are still plus-pitches, but as their velocity has started to wane, so too have their spin rates, average movement and whiff rates. In general, everything Báez throws is softer and looser than the versions of those same offerings from prior seasons.

In 2021, it’s hard to imagine Báez replicating the batted ball fortune of his 2020, lest he find a way to rejuvenate his fastball. Based on his newly poor K-BB%, Steamer predicts Báez to bust, pitching himself into a 5.15 ERA in line with a 5.33 FIP and 5.56 xFIP.

Most recently, Báez was the key player in Dave Roberts’ biggest playoff blunder. In the bottom of the sixth inning of Game Four of the World Series, Roberts ran out Báez to replace Blake Treinen, who’d just allowed back-to-back hits. With runners on first and second, facing the left-handed Brandon Lowe, Báez threw three consecutive changeups, one for a ball, then a swing-and miss, and then a foul, as the announcers discussed Báez’s success against lefties, particularly as a result of a reliance upon his changeup. After missing with a fastball, Báez returned with another fastball, lower than intended and over the plate, which Lowe punched over the left-centerfield fence.

In the next inning, against Kevin Kiermaier, Báez backed himself into a 2-1 hole, then left a changeup right down the middle, surrendering a homer, and the Dodgers’ lead right along with it.

In an outing microcosmic of Báez’s probable big-league future, he was unable to beat batters with his fastball, which either got hit or compromised the efficacy of his put-away pitches. At 95 mph, Báez’s mislocated fastball simply isn’t sharp enough anymore to beat a pesky hitter like Lowe or Kiermaier.

If the Yankees were to catch Báez clipping 97 mph in an offseason workout, they’d be absolutely justified in signing him to a contract in order to refortify their formerly superior bullpen. However, if he’s shown no evidence of regaining the juice he’s lost, the Yankees shouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, or anything more than a minor league deal, which he’s likely to do better than elsewhere.