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Caleb Ferguson: More than just another lefty

The Yankees swung another deal with the Dodgers for another left-handed reliever in his late-20s. This one may be even better.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees swung a seemingly minor deal yesterday, sending pitchers Matt Gage (we hardly knew ye) and Christian Zazueta to the Los Angeles Dodgers for left-handed pitcher Caleb Ferguson. Andrew wrote up the details shortly after the trade was announced — and I’m here to tell you that Ferguson is better than you may realize.

Ferguson was drafted in the now-extinct 38th round of the 2014 draft, taken by the Dodgers with the 1,149th pick. It may interest you to know that he is far and away the best player taken with that selection, and will go down in history as such barring some unmitigated disaster. As of this writing, Ferguson’s 1.2 bWAR and 2.1 fWAR are both more than every other player selected with that pick combined. How about that?

Outside of a 2021 season lost to Tommy John surgery, Ferguson has been a fixture in the Dodgers bullpen from June of 2018 forward. And he has been a solid reliever overall, producing a 3.43 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 3.68 xFIP, and 4.08 DRA in 207.1 innings pitched across five seasons. Somewhat remarkably, his 2023 production is strikingly close to those career averages: a 3.43 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 3.68 xFIP, and 3.97 DRA. Relievers are notoriously fickle, so there’s something soothing about seeing those lines side-by-side.

Digging a bit deeper, Ferguson was above average in several key indicators last year (as he has been every year). His 25.9-percent strikeout rate was 3.2 percentage points above average, and his 17.4-percent strikeout minus walk rate was 3.3 percentage points higher. And, while he is not quite as prominent a worm burner as some of his teammates, his 49.1 percent ground-ball rate was just under seven points above average. None of these rates jump out as elite, yet when taken altogether a solid, well-rounded pitcher emerges. You can visualize this here:

Baseball Savant

One thing that does jump out, though, is Ferguson’s elite ability to miss the fat part of the bat. The MLB average barrel rate is generally around seven percent, and he cut that by four percentage points — far better than the vast majority of pitchers. It wasn’t just a one-year fluke, either, as he posted a similarly stout 3.5-percent barrel rate in 2022. Ferguson has been incredibly difficult to square-up since returning from TJS, perhaps owing to a focus on finding the safest spot in the zone for each batter.

This is almost certainly why the Yankees targeted Ferguson. He is joining a bullpen that also features Clay Holmes, Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Loáisiga, Ron Marinaccio, Ian Hamilton, and fellow ex-Dodger Victor González, all of whom offer slight variations of the same skillset. It’s a bullpen that has been constructed with a clear emphasis on batted-ball quality.

Ferguson, it should be noted, does not have much of a platoon split. Only .019 points of wOBA separated his performance against righties and lefties last year, which is actually a tick above the .015 figure for his career. This will allow the Yankees to slot him in most any situation, which is always good.

In researching Ferguson, I am particularly intrigued by his fastball. Ferguson has thrown his four-seamer about two-thirds of the time since returning from surgery. His velocity, active spin rate, and movement have been relatively consistent, as has his location and release of the offering. Nevertheless, the pitch went from +6 runs and a .279 xwOBA in 2022 to -3 and .315, respectively, in 2023. Despite this, he was still 22nd among qualified relievers in fWAR.

Considering his rock-solid overall performance in 2023 and previous success with the pitch, it makes me wonder if Matt Blake & Co. could coax that high-end fastball production back out for 2024. And if that were to happen, how much better could Ferguson be?