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Have The Jays A Secret Weapon?

Sam Gaviglio is a strong candidate to be moved to the bullpen in 2019.  Might he be better in that role that people expect?

They Jays will enter 2019 with an <ahem> “interesting” bullpen.

Ken Giles (and his zero blown saves in 2018) should close, with Ryan Tepera and David Phelps setting up.  But then it gets a bit murky.

Will the Jays try to hold onto Elvis Luciano for a full year, at the cost of a bullpen spot?  Will Clayton Richard be converted to a bullpen arm?  Will the Jays use the bullpen to ease the transition of Sean Reid-Foley or Thomas Pannone to the rotation (as the White Sox did with Chris Sale)?  And who will step up to be the Jays’ “Miller Lite” – a dependable, multi-inning, mid-leverage reliever?

It might be Sam Gaviglio.

Start with the usual caveats.  It is very difficult to predict success when a starter is converted to relief.  And Sammy G has a grand total of 8.1 innings pitched in relief – can you say small sample size?

But that said, there are reasons for optimism.  First, consider Gaviglio’s fastball.  The rule of thumb is that a pitcher can add 2-3 mph to their fastball pitching in relief, as they do not need to hold anything back. This obviously benefits some pitchers more than others.

Gaviglio’s fastball is not very good, averaging just 88 mph.  But have a look at this velo chart (with thanks to Fangraphs):

See how Sammy is consistently below 90 mph – except for a stretch at the end of 2017 and at the beginning of 2018, where he averaged over 90 and touched 93 miles per hour?  Those were his relief appearances.  And the increased velocity helped – over his 8.1 relief innings, Gaviglio has held opponents to a .188/.278/.344 line, with a K/9 of 11.88, almost double his rate as a starter.  Definitive?  No.  But interesting?  Definitely.

A second potential indicator of a bullpen candidate  is a pitcher’s “times through the order” splits.  Most pitchers do better against batters the first time they face them, getting progressively worse as the batters see them additional times. But the magnitude of this effect varies from pitcher to pitcher.  A pitcher with good stats the first time through the order, but a significant decline in performance the second and third time through, is often a good bullpen candidate.

Which brings us to Gaviglio.

The first time though the order, Gaviglio does very well, with an average slugging percentage against in the low .300s.  But there is a massive jump the second time batters face him.  In fact, hitters slug .593 against his sinker (which he throws ~50% of the time) the second time through.  For context, Mookie Betts led the majors with a .640 slugging percentage in 2018.  A .593 is not good.

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The bottom line

In Sammy G, the Jays have a pitcher with good control and three solid breaking pitches, but whose success has been limited by a relatively weak fastball.  However, he has shown a meaningful increase in fastball velo out of the bullpen, and he has always had better success the first time though the order.  If (big if, I know) he could replicate that success on a consistent basis, he could be a powerful weapon for the Jays.  And not only in 2019 – Gaviglio is under team control through 2023 and is not even arb-eligible until 2021.

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