Some subtle changes have helped Coonrod harness his command issues
When the offseason began for the Phillies, they had a major task ahead of them. Topping the list was making sure that J.T. Realmuto returned to the team, but running a close, neck and neck second was revamping the bullpen. To say they were historically bad might still be putting it gently, but the entire unit needed an overhaul. Of course we know that that isn’t completely possible using big money free agents, but rather an astute mixture of trades, internal evaluation and waiver wire pickups. The team spent a little money on one reliever (Archie Bradley), traded for a high octane, yet potentially volatile arm (Jose Alvarado) and did some wise evaluations on which players from last year’s unit might help over a longer look (Connor Brogdon, Hector Neris, Jojo Romero). But still, there had to be depth in order to make sure that the team had plenty of quality arms available to cover the increase in innings from 2020 to now. So Dave Dombrowski went scouring other teams and seems to have found a potential gem from San Francisco.
Sam Coonrod was not known as what you’d call a “good” reliever last year. In fact, it’s doubtful many would know him as a reliever at all, focusing instead on his views of the Black Lives Matter movement and his decision to stand during the national anthem rather than kneeling with his teammates. Many fans of the team were displeased with his acquisition for this reason, perfectly justified in having that belief. Others wanted to know a simple answer to a simple question: could he make the team’s bullpen better? Going off of his surface stats in 2020, the resounding answer would be a no. That’s what happens when you run out a 9.82 ERA, allowing 16 runs over 14 2⁄3 innings in a shortened season. Still, the Phillies took the plunge, assessing that working with Caleb Cotham and his philosophy to pitching and pitch design would help a pitcher like Coonrod would pay off.
So far, it has.
It’s early still and the chances of his imploding are still better than average, but it’s safe to say that Coonrod is currently the best reliever the team has. Neris might give him a run for his money, but with how he has performed this season, Coonrod has been the most consistent one of the group. So how has he changed? What has led to his shaving over eight runs (!) off of his ERA from last year to this? We can look at his Statcast data to guess at a few changes.
There is a lot of red here, indicating that he’s really improved at what we want relievers to do, which is limit hard contact late in games. He’s made some changes to his repertoire, particularly with what he is throwing and how often he has been throwing it.
He’s stopped using many of his secondary offerings in favor of throwing his sinker more than 60% of the time. The only other pitch that has seen an uptick (though only small) is the slider. Everything else as seen a sharp drop in usage. So, since Coonrod has stopped using them, let’s focus on those two pitches to see what’s changed. Let’s start by looking at his most used pitch: the sinker.
The pitch itself seems to have been tightened up a bit by Coonrod. When looking at the movement of the pitch, he’s altered the path so that there is less vertical movement (19 in. in 2020 vs. 17.7 in in 2021) than what he has last year. It’s not showing as a sinker, but is still moving like one. He’s imparting more spin on the pitch this year (2,185 RPMs) as opposed to last year (2,075 RPMs), meaning it’s got a little more something to it. But other than that, there isn’t much of a difference between the pitch last year and the pitch this year. So does this answer our question as to what he’s been more effective? Well, let’s move on to the slider.
This is where the biggest changes are happening with Coonrod. Sometimes, a slight tweak to a pitch – a different grip, more pressure on a finger – can lead to drastically different results in how the pitch moves. Something that Coonrod and Cotham had figured out is how to make his slider better. Take a look at this chart in his slider movement when he throws it.
Not only is he throwing it harder, he’s also decreased how much it moves, helping disguise it as it approaches the plate. It’s doubtful that pitchers are fooled into thinking the pitch is something it is not, but they still are fooled enough that they are still going after it more often. In fact, the slider is the pitch that Coonrod has gotten hitters to chase more often this year than last.
But ah, what’s that magenta line that is spiking hardcore? Why, it’s the one that has been his most improved offering across the board, the almighty four-seam fastball.
Coonrod’s four-seamer has been his most improved pitch by a mile. The other two we just spoke of have been improved this year, but nothing like what the four-seamer has been. It’s almost a pick your poison of data.
- Is it being thrown harder? Not really, but hitters are just really struggling with it this year.
- Are they hitting more? No, with a .300 BAA it in 2020 vs. .056 BAA in 2021
- Is he throwing it in the zone more? Well, 50.6% of them in 2020 were in the zone as opposed to 61.7% of them this year.
You’d think with a pitch that has been this effective, Coonrod would be using it more, but alas, he seems to be throwing it much, much less, cutting its usage almost in half from this year to last. He’s also been using it in key spots. Since it a tick above the sinker in velocity, he’s saving it for when he needs to strikeout, using as his putaway pitch 57.1% of the time.
What does all of this tell us?
For one thing, there isn’t a whole lot here that suggests his success is not sustainable. He’s throwing as hard as he ever has, he’s changed something in his stuff to counteract the struggles he had last year and he’s continued using this mix to find success. If there is any downside here, it’s that when it comes to the getting two strikes on a hitter, he doesn’t want to fall into a pattern of using the four-seamer as his only putaway pitch, but this also falls into the “If it ain’t broke…” category. Coonrod has been a revelation so far in this young season. His success is a welcome change to what the team has had in their bullpen last year.