Is Brandon Maurer a Starter or Reliever?
By Tim Richer
Two days ago, new GM A.J. Preller made yet another trade. This time he actually traded away an outfielder rather than trading for one, sending Seth Smith to the Mariners for Brandon Maurer.
On the surface, Maurer doesn’t look all that impressive. He’s posted a 5.58 ERA through his first 60 games in the majors, 21 of those games being starts. Even his FIP and xFIP of 4.29 and 4.16 respectively aren’t very pretty. So why would Preller deal away the Padres top hitter in 2014 for this struggling righty? If you look deeper you’ll see why.
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Maurer’s numbers look dreadful due to his struggles as a starter, but when he became a full-time reliever, he became a new man. As a starter in 2014, Maurer faced 151 batters who hit .314/.380/.500 leading to a 7.52 ERA. When coming out of the pen he faced 150 batters who hit .214/.242/.294 leading to a 2.17 ERA. Among the 208 starters who pitched at least 30 innings he had the 2nd highest ERA. Among the 209 relievers who pitched at least 30 innings he had the 37th lowest ERA. The difference was night and day.
So what changed to turn him from one the league’s worst starters to a dominant reliever? First of all he started throwing more strikes. He threw 5% more strikes out of the pen leading him to nearly double his strikeout rate slicing his walk rate from 3.90 to 1.21 per 9 innings. He also just about stopped throwing breaking balls all together. In 2013 he threw sliders 30.4% of the time and curveballs 11.9% according to Fangraphs. In 2014 he dropped the slider all together and threw the curve only 4.8% of the time.He traded in the slider for a cutter, which gave him an extra 3 MPHs on average.
With all that information it seems pretty clear that Maurer is best served in a bullpen role, yet Corey Brock of MLB.com says that “Preller wouldn’t commit to a role for Maurer; relief or starting.” While it may sounds crazy, his starting career may be salvageable. The reason the Padres may want him to start is the uncertainty they have with the back end of their rotation. Odrisamer Despaigne was inconsistent last year and will be competing with Brandon Morrow, Robbie Erlin and presumably Josh Johnson who all have injury concerns. Adding Maurer gives them at least another option to go if the others fail.
But just how can Maurer’s viability as a starter be saved? Fangraph’s Kiley McDaniel, who also worked has a professional scout, believes his delivery is what had held him back.
His better command of the strike zone suggests that something clicked, and that could be the delivery tweak that Maurer needed.
Also a return to the breaking ball. Maurer has now proven he command the strike zone with his fastball that tops out at 97 MPH and hitters will have to honor that even with 2 strikes making his breaking pitches that much more effective. Eno Sarris also of Fangraphs wrote back in October about Maurer’s curveball and how it had the highest spin rate in all of baseball. To explain the value of a high spin rate Sarris quoted a Business Week article on the Houston Astros and how Colin McHugh’s curveball’s spin rate was the a big part of the Astros targeting him and leading to his breakout campaign.
"The Astros’ analysts noticed that McHugh had a world-class curveball. Most curves spin at about 1,500 times per minute; McHugh’s spins 2,000 times. The more spin, the more the ball moves during the pitch—and the more likely batters are to miss it."
Maurer’s curve spins 2319 per minute far out spinning McHugh’s so there’s reason to believe his can be just as effective, if not more.
Despite all that, Maurer is fine just the way he his. The Padres have options for the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation, and Maurer can remain in the pen, a role that he seems to be more comfortable in. Maurer gives the Padres great flexibility, and I’m guessing it’s a big part of the reason why Preller refused to make a deal that didn’t include Maurer.