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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Brad Boxberger

Boxberger looked rejuvenated in high-leverage relief for the Marlins in 2020. Will this continue into 2021?

National League Division Series Game 3: Atlanta Braves v. Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Starghill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

If there is anything the last few weeks has told us, it is that the heavy lifting of the Yankees’ offseason is complete. After signing DJ LeMahieu and Corey Kluber and acquiring Jameson Taillon via trade, the rest of their business has consisted of veteran signings on minor league to low-cost deals and corresponding roster moves to make space.

That is not to say the Bombers still do not have holes on their roster. They have not adequately filled the vacancies created by Tommy Kahnle and Adam Ottavino’s departures, though there are plenty of relievers still available on the market. Yesterday I profiled Jeremy Jeffress, a reliever whose surface level stats may entice teams, but whose underlying metrics are cause for concern. Today I’d like to look at Brad Boxberger, a player who is in a similar boat as Jeffress, yet showed more encouraging signs in 2020 that project improved performance going forward.

The 32-year-old Boxberger is entering his tenth year in the league. He had his best years in Tampa, with whom he pitched to a 3.33 ERA and 31.9 percent strikeout rate. The righty then bounced around between the Diamondbacks and Royals before landing in Miami in 2020. In 18 innings last season, Boxberger carried a 3.00 ERA, 4.86 FIP, 4.73 xFIP, and 22.8 percent strikeout rate.

Like Jeffress, Boxberger’s ERA masks the slightly more concerning FIP and xFIP numbers, however unlike his counterpart, he showed improvement in the areas where Jeffress showed regression. Boxberger’s average fastball velocity of 92.5 mph was his best mark in three years. He also added over 200 RPMs on the fastball relative to his career average, giving it improved riding life — the four-seamer gained roughly three inches of rise relative to its average movement throughout his career.

Boxberger also managed to cut his walk rate from 13.8 percent between 2018 and 2019 to 10.1 percent in 2020. Additionally, he posted personal bests in groundball rate (51 percent) and lowest average launch angle (10.3 degrees).

The most impressive improvement for Boxberger was the development of his slider. Boxberger throws three pitches: the four-seamer, a changeup, and a slider, and it’s the slider that has traditionally given him the most trouble, producing an expected wOBA of .434. In 2020, it appears he modified his slider mechanics, as he saw a roughly 200 RPM jump in spin rate. He is throwing it harder than ever and has tweaked the spin axis such that it more closely resembles a cutter. The changes paid dividends, as Boxberger is able to generate significantly more horizontal break with the pitch.

2017:

2020:

There are still a handful of reasons to be concerned about Boxberger. His hard hit rate and average exit velocity ticked up from 2019. His strikeout rate across the last two seasons is down about 10 percentage points from 2017-18. The biggest cause for worry is that he lost significant vertical movement on the changeup, causing it to go from his best pitch to his worst pitch. Perhaps moving to an analytically-inclined organization such as the Yankees can help him rediscover the proper biomechanics to recover the break on his change.

It has been somewhat puzzling that the Yankees have not been more active players in the free agent reliever market. Their bullpen is at its most depleted state in years, and we have seen plenty of impact relievers go for affordable one-year deals. Maybe they feel confident in the young arms in their system, but should they decide to reinforce that group, Brad Boxberger would be a viable option.

UPDATE:

The thought was nice while it lasted! Assuming Boxberger makes the team, he’ll be spending 2021 in Milwaukee.