Baseball is a weird sport. There are times when players who look like they have no business succeeding at the highest level become extremely productive major leaguers. Tommy Layne is an example of this. Coming into the season, one of the things I was worried about with this roster was the lack of a strong left-handed relief pitcher. After being able rely on Andrew Miller for the previous two seasons, it was frightening to put your faith into guys like Layne, Robbie Ross and Craig Breslow. I was a bit hard on Layne in particular. My viewpoint was that he could be a solid piece of quad-A depth, but the bullpen would be in trouble if they were counting on him for any sort of high-leverage role. Well, to say the least, he’s been proving me wrong this year and really for his entire career, and it’s time I give him a little bit of credit.
While he has never pitched a full season’s worth of games, Layne has now thrown about a season’s worth of innings over his career. In other words, we’re no longer talking about a completely useless sample size. Although the 30-year-old lacks anything resembling overpowering stuff, he’s made the most of what he has. Over the 62-1/3 innings in his career, Layne has a 2.17 ERA (177 ERA+) with a 2.80 FIP and a 2.6 K/BB ratio. This season has been particularly impressive as he’s boasting his best peripherals since 2012 with San Diego. He’s pitching to a 2.50 ERA (159 ERA+) in 2015 with a 2.68 FIP. On top of all that, he’s striking out more than a quarter of the batters he is facing this season. How does he do it?
It’s worth mentioning that Layne has seen his velocity tick up a bit as 2015 has gone on. He started the year sitting in the high-80s with his fastball, but now finds himself throwing 91-92 in his last couple outings. Those numbers certainly aren’t going to blow anyone away, but they’re much easier to work with than velocities in the 80s.
What Layne really excels at, however, is command. Now, it’s always important to remember that this does not mean the same as control. While Layne’s control isn’t poor enough to unhinge him, it’s also nothing to write home about. He’s walked nearly ten percent of his opponents over his career and is currently sporting a 12.2 percent walk-rate in 2015.
Command, on the other hand, is a pitcher putting the ball where he wants to put it. If you aren’t going to blow hitters out of the water with plus-plus stuff, relievers need to rely on command to succeed. In his career, he’s made a living by avoiding the meat of bats, with all of his pitches coming down in the zone, typically to the outer half of the plate.
Throughout his career, he’s been particularly adept against left-handed hitters. I’ll get into the specifics on this more in a minute, but first just take a look at his zone profile against same-handed hitters. He’s lived almost exclusively down and away.
What that command has allowed Layne to do is give up weak contact at a high rate. While he’s picked up the strikeouts this season, his stuff doesn’t necessarily make that a big part of his game. Instead, he needs to rely a bit more on balls in play, but it has worked well for him. He’s consistently allowed a lower-than-average batting average on balls in play, with a career mark of .275. In addition to limiting hits, he’s been one of the premier relievers in terms of keeping the ball in the yard. Over this 60-1/3 innings over four different seasons, Layne has given up just one home run in his career. A big reason for this is his ability to keep the ball on the ground. His career rate is over 50 percent, and this season it’s even better. Baseball Prospectus has it at 58 percent while Fangraphs’ says it’s at 56.8 percent. Either way, it’s elite.
Besides the command, and in turn, allowing weak contact, the area in which Layne most excels is pitching with the platoon advantage. Throughout his career, he’s been much better suited as a lefty-specialist, and it hasn’t been much different this season. In 40 plate appearances against left-handed hitters in 2015, Layne has allowed an impressive .135/.175/.135 line with 11 strikeouts and just two walks. In 156 such plate appearances over his career, the opponents are hitting just .159/.245/.196 with 42 strikeouts and 11 walks.
The fact that he’s been able to stay so effective this season has been a huge development for the Red Sox. While Pawtucket’s bullpen has some talent that can help at the major-league level, it almost exclusively comes from the right side. If they got to a point where they needed to dip into their minor-league pool to find left-handed relief help, they likely would have had to call upon one of their minor-league starters. Specifically, it would’ve been Eduardo Rodriguez, Brian Johnson and/or Henry Owens. With Layne holding down the job more than admirably, that trio has been able to continue their development in the rotation, an area where the Red Sox aren’t exactly set.
Even with all the success he’s had, I’m still not convinced Layne can stay this good. With that being said, he’s changing my mind more and more every time he’s out there. He’s proven that he can make it work even without impressive stuff. At the least, he’s earned a permanent spot on the roster. It’s been a major development for a team that lacked a great left-handed reliever, and has allowed the trio of pitching prospects in Pawtucket to continue their development as starters. While he’s not among the most valuable players on the roster, Layne has and will continue to play an important role on this team.