Matt Harrison has joined the Rangers’ bullpen and provided the team with two left-handed relievers for the first time this season. 23-year-old Zach Phillips and 24-year-old Ben Snyder provide the organization with left-handed relief depth that could be tapped this year if the need arises in the major league bullpen.
After producing stellar numbers in his first go at relieving in 2009, Phillips has been even better this year pitching in AA and AAA (see table below). Phillips combines a fastball, curveball, and change-up to produce groundballs and strikeouts. Phillips’ best pitch is his change-up, which helps explain why he has been almost as effective against right-handed batters as against lefties (see bottom of table). In his two worst statistical seasons (2006 and 2008), Phillips walked more than four batters per nine innings. He has exhibited very good control in his other four seasons (2.7 BB/9).
Like Phillips, Snyder converted to the bullpen in 2009 after spending his first few years in the minors as a starting pitcher. Though Snyder hasn’t been as impressive as Phillips thus far in 2010, the Rangers’ 2009 Rule 5 draft pick and spring training trade acquisition has been solid pitching out of the Frisco bullpen (see table below). Snyder’s best secondary pitch is his slider, which helps explain why he has been so good against left-handed hitters (10.1 K/9, 2.0 BB/9). Snyder is working on his change-up, though he is still struggling against right-handed hitters (4.63 FIP vs. right-handed hitters compared to a 2.40 FIP vs. left-handed hitters in 2010).
There are two types of left-handed relievers -- those whom you don’t think about as being left-handed and those whose value derives primarily from being left-handed. The former class includes the likes of Matt Thornton, Billy Wagner, George Sherrill, Arthur Rhodes, Mike Gonzalez, Jeremy Affeldt, Darren Oliver, and Jose Mijares. Left-handed relievers who can be called upon 50-80 times per year to pitch an inning or more per appearance can be worth 1-2 wins above replacement per season. High quality left-handed relievers typically feature a low- to mid-90s fastball and a plus slider. Exceptions to this rule (Darren Oliver, JP Howell, Hideki Okajima circa 2007 and 2008) typically have a third pitch to complement their upper-80s fastballs and breaking balls. Oliver’s cutter, Howell’s change-up, and Okajima’s split-finger make their fastballs far more effective and provide them with pitches that are effective against right-handed hitters.
Relievers whose value derives primarily from their ability to pitch against left-handed hitters include the likes of Pedro Feliciano, Trever Miller, Scott Eyre, Eric O’Flaherty, Mitch Stetter, Joe Beimel, and Randy Choate. LOOGY’s combine a mid- to upper-80s fastball and an above-average to plus slider. Because they pitch relatively few innings, even the best LOOGY’s in baseball typically produce no more than 0.5 wins above what would be expected of a replacement level reliever. The value of an effective LOOGY derives mostly from allowing a coach to reduce his use of his most effective relievers. Among the Rangers current relief corps, for instance, only Neftali Feliz (3.40) and Frank Francisco (3.55) sport career FIPs vs left-handed hitters that are below 4.00. Faced with a high-leverage situation in the middle innings that require pitching against one or more tough left-handed hitters, the team would benefit from having an effective LOOGY instead of having to call upon one of its late-inning relievers.
Based on his stuff and performance, Snyder’s ceiling appears to be that of a major league LOOGY along the lines of Mitch Stetter or Trever Miller. Snyder’s opportunity to pitch in the major league bullpen will likely depend upon the team having starters and other relievers who can soak up enough innings to accommodate a reliever who will likely pitch 40 innings per year.
Zach Phillips’ fastball/curveball/change-up is reminiscent of JP Howell and Hideki Okajima, both of whom have produced multiple 1.0-plus WAR seasons. Continued improvement with his fastball and maintained control could allow Phillips to graduate to “big-league reliever.”
David’s take is very fair, but I think it’s a mistake to classify Phillips as a particular type of left-handed reliever. Phillips does not exhibit the L-R splits that indicate a LOOGY-like ceiling, and while his fastball doesn’t light up the radar gun, it sits comfortably in the 89-91 MPH range and is frequently commanded with a starter’s precision.
His change up is arguably his best offering, and it certainly generates its share of swings and misses. At times this season, though, Phillips would go entire outings without throwing it, opting instead to attack right-handed batters with his curveball. It is unclear whether this was Phillips’ choice or it was a developmental hurdle he was asked to jump. That said, he was promoted to AAA Oklahoma City shortly after I took note of it.
I still feel like Phillips has the pitches to succeed as a #4 or #5 starter, but velocity concerns prompted the Rangers to move him to the bullpen where his fastball has crept up to its current level. His arsenal should preclude him from ever being a LOOGY, but that is certainly a reasonable floor for his potential. I feel he is a very solid middle-relief candidate capable of long relief, with the potential to fill a late-inning/setup role.
(Snyder disclaimer: My perspective is slightly warped since I’ve only seen his home games where, as of this writing, he’d given up a whopping 28 of his 34 hits allowed. There’s no doubt that my perspective would be different if the reverse were true.)
Despite his success against both left- and right-handed hitters, Snyder does not profile as well as Phillips because he lacks a polished change-up and has below-average fastball velocity. On the other hand, Snyder has more room for improvement than Phillips.
Snyder’s velocity definitely fits into the “soft-tossing lefty” niche – frequently between 84-86 MPH, tickling 90 MPH every once in a while. As David said, his slider is the key to his success, and from what I’ve seen, he commands it better than his fastball.
Snyder has not been afraid to attack right-handed batters with back-foot sliders. When he sequences it well, it is a fantastic complement to his developing change-up.
Snyder’s stuff nearly earned him a LOOGY role this season, and with a little more polish, it won’t be hard to imagine him earning a bigger role than that. With improved command of his change-up, Snyder projects comfortably into a middle- to short-relief role.