If you were inclined last spring to target an elite closer in your fantasy drafts, the 2016 season served as a cautionary tale as to why that might not be an advisable strategy the next time around. Several popular targets, most notably Wade Davis and Craig Kimbrel, didn’t quite deliver on their promise, while largely undrafted relievers like Seung Hwan Oh, Alex Colome, Sam Dyson and Edwin Diaz became reliable saves sources.
Brandon Maurer could be added to that list as well, though he won’t likely have the same appeal as the aforementioned closers. That’s because Maurer finished with a 4.52 ERA and 1.26 WHIP that would not only scare off ratio-conscious owners, but also signal his vulnerability to losing the closer’s role. After all, the Padres can also call upon lefties Ryan Buchter and Brad Hand, who had impressive 2016 seasons, or Carter Capps, once he completes his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Yet it was Maurer whom manager Andy Green entrusted with the role once the Padres traded Fernando Rodney to the Marlins on June 30. Once ensconced as the closer, Maurer saved 13 games in 15 chances with a more respectable 3.09 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. During that three-month span, he got whiffs at an 11 percent rate and threw strikes at a 67 percent rate, but Maurer induced grounders on just 38 percent of hit balls. Meat Loaf might have been impressed with Maurer doing well in two out of those three indicators, but fantasy owners probably want to be assured that Maurer won’t get clobbered when opponents do make contact.
Maurer allowed just a .080 Iso during his time as the Padres’ closer, but as is the case anytime we are citing a half-season’s worth of stats for a reliever, some skepticism is warranted. Not only did Maurer allow flyballs at a 44.0 percent rate from July 1 forward, but he allowed hard contact on those flies at a 40.9 percent rate and an average distance of 284.2 feet (per FanGraphs’ Interactive Spray Chart Tool).
For all of the hard contact Maurer allowed, he didn’t allow many truly deep drives. The longest flyball hit off Maurer over the final three months was a 368-foot double clubbed by Chris Johnson at Marlins Park. The only ball that traveled farther off the 26-year-old righty was a 382-foot line drive by Jimmy Paredes, which was the only home run Maurer allowed during that stretch.
It probably helped that Maurer allowed only 20.4 percent of the flyballs hit off him over those three months to be pulled. That’s well below this past season’s median pulled fly rate (minimum 10 innings pitched) of 23.3 percent, though substantially higher than the 12.9 percent rate he established during the previous season-and-a-half.
Being able to avoid pulled flies can help a flyball-leaning pitcher like Maurer to avoid an excess of extra-base hits, but doing a better job of avoiding hard contact would help him even more to limit the damage from his flyball tendencies. The graph below, from the Interactive Spray Chart Tool, shows that Maurer was far more successful in 2015 in preventing deep flies. Not only did he hold opponents to a 255.1-foot average distance on flyballs, but he allowed just a 26.7 percent hard-hit rate on flies. That was the 16th-lowest mark among all pitchers (minimum 12 innings pitched), and it came on the heels of a 25.3 percent hard-hit rate on flyballs in 2014.
So prior to 2016, Maurer had been successful in preventing opponents from hitting flyballs hard and pulling them. That ability was key in limiting hitters to a .117 Iso and 6.4 percent HR/FB over 2014 and 2015 combined. (The major league averages were .143 and 10.4 percent, respectively.) Even if Maurer doesn’t reduce his hard-hit rate on flyballs in 2017, he could be a successful closer, just like he was for the latter half of 2016. If he does allow less hard contact, he could be the next-best thing to an elite reliever who excels at inducing grounders.
One key to Maurer’s ability to avoid extra-base hits could be his slider velocity. No qualifying reliever lost more velocity on his slider than Maurer did in 2016, as his average velocity fell from 88.2 to 85.1 mph. As the table shows, when Maurer’s slider velocity has been higher, he has more success in preventing extra-base hits.
|Season||Velocity (mph)||Iso Allowed|
It’s not clear why Maurer’s slider velocity fell so precipitously, though given that the velocities of his other offerings were stable, it could have been a conscious decision to take something off of the pitch to create more contrast. He may or may not dial it back up, and even if he does, it may not result in fewer extra-base hits.
What we do know is that Maurer has a chance to be the sort of reliever who is good at managing the quantity and quality of contact and who can pitch with above-average control. That skill set should be enough to keep Buchter and Hand in setup roles, and it may even be enough to withstand a challenge from Capps, assuming he would be ready to take on the closer’s role at some point in 2017. It shouldn’t cost more than a late-round pick or a small bid to acquire Maurer on draft day, and as far as fliers go, Maurer has considerable upside and a solid opportunity to get saves.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.