Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Austin Maddox.
The Question: Is Maddox really a legitimate major-league contributor?
We’ve talked a lot about the Red Sox bullpen in recent weeks because, well, I love bullpens and there’s nothing else to talk about. One of the themes that has arisen, both this year and over the last few years, is that Boston’s relief corps is a bit crowded with fine but unspectacular righties. Different people might have different opinions on some of these guys, but I think each of the following at least has the potential to be a solid middle reliever, though not the likeliest upside to be a legitimate, long-term late-inning arm: Matt Barnes, Joe Kelly (you could particularly argue that last point for both of these guys), Heath Hembree, Chandler Shepherd, Brandon Workman, Ben Taylor, Kyle Martin, Jake Cosart and Austin Maddox. All of these players project to play in either the majors or Triple-A to start the year, and they will all be fighting for a couple of spots in the bullpen. Today, we’re going to talk about Maddox, because it’s his turn in the alphabet.
Maddox, if you’ll recall, ended up being a fairly important part of Boston’s bullpen down the stretch and in the postseason last year after starting 2017 in Portland and not really being part of the plans in the spring. It wasn’t a huge sample, but Maddox ended up making 13 appearances and tossing 17 1⁄3 innings in the majors, finishing that run with a 0.52 ERA, 14 strikeouts and just two walks. He was particularly impressive in his third and longest stint in the majors in September when he tossed 13 2⁄3 innings while allowing just one run with 12 strikeouts and two walks. It was at this point he really jumped onto the radar and eventually made the postseason roster. Of course, we all know that relievers are volatile enough on a year-to-year basis, and it’s really hard to know how much of that was real and how much of it was small-sample size noise.
There are a few things about Maddox that really stood out to me in his short run in the majors last season. For one thing, his control was impressive and better than I had seen any time I got a chance to see him pitch in Portland. Sure enough, the low walk totals didn’t quite match what he did in the high minors. Over the last two seasons, most of which were spent in Double- and Triple-A, Maddox posted walk rates of 3.3 per nine innings in 2016 and 4.7 per nine in 2017. That’s a far cry from the one per nine rate he posted in the majors this year. That being said, he did show strong control in the lower minors, as he had consistently posted BB/9’s around or below two before reaching Double-A. The plate discipline numbers show a pitcher who didn’t hit the zone much — just 46 percent of the time, per Baseball Prospectus — though one who showed off deception by inducing swings on 56 percent of his pitches including 37 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. For context, league averages for these rates were roughly 48, 46 and 30 percent, respectively. Some of that is certainly due to Maddox pitching well, which was evident by the good ol’ fashioned eye test. Some of it, however, should be expected to regress after hitters make some adjustments and watch some tape on the right-handed pitcher.
That doesn’t mean it’s all bad news for Maddox, though. As his walk rate rises as we expect it to, there’s a chance he could also see an increase in strikeouts. While the 26-year-old (he’ll turn 27 in May) showed off great control, his strikeout rate wasn’t all that impressive with just over seven K’s per nine innings. This came after posting rates above eight in the high minors. Of course, there is no guarantee he will get to the same heights he reached in the minors, and whether or not he does has a lot to do with his repertoire. Generally, Maddox is a fastball/changeup pitcher as he used one of those two offerings 95 percent of the time in the majors. That is not a repertoire you generally see from the bullpen, as modern-day relievers typically rely on a big fastball and a power breaking ball, or at least a big cutter. Some recent examples of fastball/changeup relievers include Fernando Rodney, Brad Boxberger, Tyler Clippard, Trevor Rosenthal and late-career Francisco Rodriguez. Success is possible, but much more difficult.
Maddox does have another pitch in his repertoire, though, even if he didn’t use it much. The other five percent of the time when he wasn’t using his fastball or changeup, he was throwing his slider. Now, the scouting reports aren’t super high on his slider, and the pitch didn’t stand out to my non-scout eyes when I saw him in Portland. That being said, it did seem pretty impressive when he decided to throw it in the majors. It was the pitch that stood out to me in most of his outings (again, on the rare occasion he threw it). The numbers were also impressive one the pitch, but they are also essentially meaningless since he only threw it 16 times according to Brooks Baseball.
Ultimately, I think Maddox fits right in with the rest of that group as a guy who could be one of the last arms in a good bullpen, but probably not much more. While he was outstanding in 2017, it’s hard to expect that control to continue. Furthermore, even if he starts using that slider a bit more to offset some of the natural deficiencies that come from a fastball/changeup arsenal, his strikeout potential just isn’t that high. Maddox can be solid across the board, and given what he did last year could have an inside track on making the Opening Day roster depending on the health of other relievers, but the ceiling isn’t huge here. Hopefully, expectations aren’t too high after his September run last year and we can appreciate a solid if unspectacular performance.