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The unlikely success of Richard Bleier

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The freshly DFA’d southpaw doesn’t seem to be the most interesting of players, but there’s a fascinating backstory behind Bleier’s big league career.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to lie, this article isn’t going to be full of fiery and head-turning takes or thought-provoking and revealing analysis. Instead, I want to write about a recently designated for assignment reliever who is mediocre at best and vomit-inducing at worst. One who sports a fastball that barely touches 90 mph, rarely strikes batters out, and spent nine years in the minor leagues as a sixth-round pick, with four teams, before making the majors. This pitcher probably won’t make an impact next season—hell, he may never again even reach the big leagues—and there’s a good chance you don’t remember his time with the Yankees last season, even though you’re a big enough Yankees fan to be reading my work at Pinstripe Alley.

That may have been the worst lede in the history of ledes, and you’ve probably clicked out of my article by now, but if you’re still here, I implore you to keep reading. Out of the many exciting and interesting players to write about, I chose to spend 800 words on Richard Bleier for, in my opinion, good reason.

If you can’t recall Bleier, he’s one of the many nondescript relievers who came out of nowhere and carried the Yankees back into the pennant race in the second half of last season. The southpaw threw 23 innings with the Yankees and allowed just five earned runs, good for a 1.96 ERA. Quietly, Bleier was death on lefties and effective enough on righties to be one of the Yankees more productive relievers to close out the 2016 season. ‘Quietly’ is the key word here, though, as he managed excellent run prevention while doing the bare minimum elsewhere: Bleier struck out just 5.09 batters per nine and did it with some of the most mediocre stuff in the league.

When pitching alongside the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances, it’s easy to get lost—especially when you have pair a largely unspectacular 90 mph sinker with a changeup and slider, neither of which induce many whiffs. That has to be the second most incredible part of Bleier’s story, his ability to somehow be a…’dominant’ major league pitcher for 23 innings while lacking spectacularly mediocre stuff. The most noteworthy thing about Bleier, though, is his road to the big leagues.

A sixth rounder back in 2008, Bleier has been fighting an uphill battle to climb the proverbial minor league ladder. It took him until 2013 to reach Triple-A, and he bounced between there and Double-A for the better part of the next four seasons before finally getting his shot in the big leagues.

Bleier wasn’t kept in minor league purgatory because of his inability to prevent runs, but instead because he seemingly lacked the stuff to succeed in the big leagues. The best indicator of success for pitchers is strikeouts, and, well, that’s Bleier’s biggest weakness. The last time Bleier’s K/9 exceeded four was in 2014 at Double-A—since then, his best rate was 3.88. Last year, the lowest K/9 among qualified players was Martin Perez at 4.67, and he had a 4.39 ERA to go with it. With that in mind, it wasn’t exactly shocking that no team believed Bleier could handle big league batters, and it makes the fact that he shut down the vast majority of them in his first look even more impressive.

If you’re wondering, then, how Bleier managed to sustain a 5.09 K/9 and 1.96 ERA at the big-league level last season, you aren’t alone. The most obvious answer is Bleier’s role—he relieved for the Yankees, instead of his usual starting role that he handled in the minors. Then again, Bleier most recently spent a season relieving in 2014 in Double-A, and he only had a 4.57 K/9 with a 3.93 ERA.

Bleier, the textbook definition of a ‘pitchability’ and ‘finesse’ arm, managed to survive, and even thrive, by giving batters nothing good to hit while still maintaining an anemic walk rate. He did this with exceptional control, living on the black with all his pitches, which lead to a top-20 swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone.

Given the fact that Bleier is now DFA’d and is likely to either be banished to Triple-A and released by the Yankees, this article doesn’t quite have a tangible point but to recognize the remarkable, but slow, ascension to the big leagues. A hell of a lot of weird things can happen in baseball, and Bleier’s a prime example of that. He may never get back to the big leagues, and Bleier will almost certainly never be as successful as he was as a 29-year-old rookie, but, given everything the underdog has gone through to reach this point, you never know.