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Appreciating Brad Ziegler’s Red Sox contributions

While the bullpen as a whole has been heart-wrenchingly disappointing lately, Brad Ziegler has been a steadily great presence.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

The Red Sox bullpen is a mess right now; there is certainly no other way to sugarcoat the situation. Unless the starter is able to finish off a game himself or the lineup scores enough to make a comeback unreasonable, it’s hard to feel comfortable about the team winning a game. They should be able to turn it around, simply because it’s hard to believe one unit can be so bad. At the same time, it’s perfectly reasonable to be this worried about the group.

The good news is we can be mostly confident in Craig Kimbrel, as he’s still a great pitcher. On the other hand, his control has been an issue and some doubt does creep into the back of the mind when he takes the hill. With that being said, he’s definitely more trustworthy than he’s not. After that, it seems to be a mishmash of worrisome arms. I mean, we’re at a point where John Farrell wants Clay Buchholz to be the eighth inning guy despite striking out just five batters per nine innings as a reliever. The thing is, the Red Sox do have at least one other comforting presence, and he’s not getting the credit he deserves from the fans nor the team.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, I’m talking about Brad Ziegler. Although the Red Sox didn’t make a true deadline trade to boost their bullpen other than getting Fernando Abad (which, ya know), the Ziegler trade was one of the most savvy from any team in the league and came a couple weeks before August 1. While closers like Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller cost multiple top prospects, the Diamondbacks closer cost two low-level prospects. Sure it’s possible (likely?) that Arizona traded for the wrong Basabe brother, but let’s give the DBacks the benefit of the doubt they so clearly have not earned.

Since coming to Boston, Ziegler hasn’t just been trustworthy, he’s been straight-up good. In that time, starting on July 10, the righty has appeared in 20 games spanning 19 innings. So, yes, the sample size isn’t nearly large enough to build sweeping judgements around. On the other hand, relievers naturally deal in small samples, and managers have to make judgements based on them. Take the sudden trust in Buchholz, for example, despite the former starter being one of the worst pitchers in baseball for most of the season.

Anyway, Ziegler has been amazing in those 19 innings. He’s allowed just four runs, giving him an impressive 1.89 ERA. The peripherals mostly back that up, too, as he’s pitched to a 2.85 FIP while allowing batters to hit .239/.316/.310 off his sidearm delivery.

The most incredible part of all this is the fact that he’s striking out just about ten batters per nine innings since the trade. That is entirely un-Ziegler-like, as the 36 year old had only struck out at least seven per nine just once in a season prior to 2016. Even before the deal, he was striking out just 6.3 per nine.

There’s a few things going on that are helping the aging strike out batters at an unprecedented rate (for him). The first is simply the aforementioned sample size. We’re still at a point where a couple of big strikeout games can have a large effect, and his amazing three-K performance with the bases loaded against Arizona immediately comes to mind. Of course, just six of the nineteen appearances haven’t featured a strikeout, including just two of eleven in August.

Another explanation that’s hard to prove but reasonable to believe is that his shift to the American League is helping here. Ziegler has a famously unusual delivery, and these batters aren’t used to it. Of course, the Diamondbacks should be more used to it than anyone, and they were dominated by their former teammate.

If you want to look for more tangible reasons, there are two that immediately jumped off the page for me. The first is simply that he’s throwing harder than he was with Arizona. Since the deal, his sinker has jumped a full mile per hour. That sounds more exciting than it actually is, though, because we’re still talking about an 85 mph pitch.

No, the more interesting explanation in this writer’s opinion is that he’s changed up his pitch usage a bit since coming to Boston. After changing uniforms, Ziegler has stopped relying so heavily on his sinker and has instead leaned a bit more on his changeup and his slider. The results are undeniable. Nearly half of the swings against the changeup are whiffs, while over 40 percent of the swings against the slider are counted as one. The sinker, meanwhile, sits just over 15 percent.

The reason Ziegler has been able to put up such impressive numbers isn’t just the strikeouts, either. Throughout his career his bread and butter has been inducing ground balls, and that hasn’t gone away despite the change of repertoire. According to Baseball Prospectus’ batted ball classification system, he’s inducing grounders 69 percent of the time, which is an elite late and marginally better than his rate in Arizona. While the sinker is the main reason, changeups and sliders can induce plenty of grounders in their own right. Additionally, he’s just incredible at keeping the ball down in the zone.

That’s four pitches since coming to the Red Sox that have ended up above the middle of the zone. My official analysis is: That’s bananas.

Now, I’ll fully admit that I was ready to rage about Ziegler’s lack of usage in close games lately, but it’s since come out that he’s battling a pretty serious flu and had to leave the park on Wednesday. So, on that front, the team is off the hook. On the other hand, they still seem to be thinking of Buchholz as the guy who needs to step up as their number two, and John Farrell might even still think of Matt Barnes like that.

If Ziegler is used as an early-inning fireman, fine. It seems like it’s more of him getting lost in the shuffle. Even among the fans, he’s seemingly lumped in with the pile of unreliable arms. Maybe I’m reading to much into it. Either way, Ziegler has been incredible since coming to the Red Sox and deserves any amount of praise you’d like to give him.