The Yankees have made a bit of a habit of adding unheralded players into the bullpen and turning them into stars (à la Clay Holmes and Michael King). Ron Marinaccio might just become part of that tradition. He has quietly been producing excellent relief appearances for the Yankees, and though others are clearly ahead of him on the pecking order, he has gotten some key outs. And apart from two outings early in April where he let up five earned runs, he has yet to give up another earned run.
Although Marinaccio seems to have appeared out of nowhere, Andrés wrote earlier this year to show how the former 19th-round pick might be able to turn into the next great Yankee reliever. Based upon all of the traditional counting stats, he seems well on his way to turning into a reliable bullpen piece. In 13 games and 16 innings pitched, the 26-year-old has a paltry 2.81 ERA. Over that same period, he has totaled 19 strikeouts to only 8 walks and 7 hits, resulting in a fairly good 0.94 WHIP.
Overall, Marinaccio has been excellent this year, but it begs the question of whether his actual performance has lived up to those numbers. Further, if his performance has lived up to those numbers, should he start to enter the circle of trust as a high-leverage reliever?
At the outset, it's easy to say that Marinaccio has actually outplayed his counting statistics. His xBA sits at a minuscule .148 with an xSLG of .232 and an xwOBA of .258. In addition, hitters are not making consistently hard contact against him, with an average exit velocity of only 85.8 mph.
As a helpful comparison, Gerrit Cole of ye olde $300 million contract has an average exit velocity of 88.1 mph this year. Now to be fair, Cole’s exit velocity sits close to league average, but he has numerous other advantages. This just indicates how well Marinaccio has done in limited action to limit hard contact. It makes sense, then, that his xERA sits at 2.40, well below his actual ERA at 2.81. Marinaccio has more than lived up to his numbers this year.
So Marinaccio has pitched well, but the question is why? Understanding why he has performed so well will inform whether he could do well in high-leverage situations. His results come down to the fact that he has been able to hit the zone consistently with three good-to-great pitches. He relies on a solid three pitch mix that features a four-seamer, changeup, and slider.
As a reliever, a three-pitch mix is more than adequate to keep hitters guessing. Both the four-seamer and changeup feature greater than average vertical (drop) and horizontal (break) movement. Marinaccio’s slider features below-average vertical movement, but above-average horizontal movement. This mix of pitches features a good amount of movement, which makes it more difficult for hitters to square up the ball.
Each of the pitches feature solid expected value as well. The worst pitch of the lot would be the four-seamer, which still features an xBA of only .210 with a fairly low xSLG at .322. Both the slider and changeup have much lower expected numbers with expected batting averages of .151 and .087 and expected slugging percentage at .171 and 181 respectively. Those numbers are awesome, and show that Marinaccio’s performance is no fluke. However, one point of concern for him is that hitters have been able to square up the four-seamer, with a hard-hit percentage at 43.8 percent. If anything, relying more heavily upon his changeup and slider would help maximize his strengths.
Up until this point in the season, the Yankees have mostly utilized Marinaccio in low-leverage situations. By doing so, the Yankees may have done themselves and him a mild disservice (even acknowledging the plethora of quality arms available). It’s evident that all the indicators back up the excellent performance he has had this season.
As a result, Marinaccio could do well with a greater challenge. Given the type of movement that his pitches feature, he is able to get strikeouts at a fairly high rate while limiting hard contact. That is what you want from a top-shelf reliever. The Yankees should start to use him in progressively higher leverage situations. This allows the Bombers to lower the amount of stress on their other high-leverage arms while potentially allowing them to mix and match for better matchups. More trustworthy options in late inning situations are never a bad thing. Marinaccio can be one of those trustworthy arms.