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One Big Question: Does John Schreiber’s stuff play in the majors?

The reliever comes in at a funky angle, but can his pitches miss bats?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at John Schreiber.

The Question: Can John Schreiber miss bats in the majors like he did in the minors?

Last season for the Red Sox was marked, at least in part, by the seemingly never-ending stream of fringy pitchers making their way onto the roster via waiver claims and nearly cost-free trades. That shouldn’t be quite as frequent this season as the 40-man roster isn’t as open to churn, but there will still be some, and there still has been some. Part of that has been John Schreiber, who was a fairly recent waiver claim. The Red Sox picked him up after the Tigers designated him for assignment in the middle of February. Prior to that, he had been in the Detroit organization for five years after being drafted in the 15th round back in 2016.

In terms of what his role will be for the Red Sox, don’t expect a whole lot. One of the reasons they presumably made this move is because the righty has options remaining, which of course means he can be sent down to the Alternate Site to start the season. That is mainly his role, to serve as readied emergency depth rather than someone to factor into the Opening Day plans. In fact, it’s not even clear how long he’ll be able to make it on the 40-man, as he will likely be among those on the chopping block when spots are needed, such as when Franchy Cordero needs to be reinstated from the COVID list.

With all of that being said, there is still reason for your interest to be even mildly piqued, and there is reason beyond “he is a warm body” that the Red Sox made the waiver claim. He may not be expected to be a superstar, but there are reasons to think he could, just maybe, contribute in some way, shape, or form.

MLB: SEP 22 White Sox at Tigers Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Much of that goes back to his performance in the minors, where he quickly shot through up the ladder after being drafted as a pure reliever. Following a solid showing in short-season ball after being drafted, he made his full-season debut in 2017 and dominated the competition in 2017 to the tune of a 0.54 ERA and a 1.37 FIP over 50 13 innings. That put him on a fast track, to the point that he was called up for a September stint in 2019, and again made a handful of appearances in the 2020 season.

Schreiber’s performance in the majors, however, has not really matched what he showed in the minors. “Well no kidding Matt. Hitters are better in the majors.” Okay. I realize this, but in particular it is striking to me that his strikeout rate has fallen precipitously, not only from his time in the minors, but even from 2019 to 2020 in the majors. Through his time on the farm, the sidearmer kept his strikeout rate somewhere around the 30 percent range (and sometimes much higher), and in 2019 it sat at 32 percent. Last year, however, it was only 20 percent, which at this point in the league is well below average, particularly for a pure reliever.

Now, it of course has to be mentioned that Schreiber only threw 15 23 innings last season. Surely that is not a representative sample. At the same time, this was an open question even just based on the scouting report and ignoring his numbers in the minors. If you looked at only the stat sheet, seeing strikeout rates up in the 40 percent range at times, you’d think he was your prototypical high velocity/nasty slider reliever. That’s not Schreiber at all.

Instead, the 27-year-old has gotten whiffs largely due to deception. The righty comes in at a low angle, which always tends to throw off hitters. There’s a reason the Rays, who find elite relievers on a yearly basis, look to target those types. It’s that deception, along with good command, that allowed him to get all of those strikeouts despite a fastball that generally sits in the 89-91 range.

The thing about deception, though, is that it can disappear fairly quickly. Part of the reason this type of pitcher can succeed so much in the minors is that the minor leagues are always churning, with the pitcher going to different leagues and hitters filtering in and out of whatever league he happens to be in at the time. The result is he’s constantly facing batters for the first time who haven’t seen his arm angle. That’s not the case in the majors, where not only are the players more stagnant, but they also have much better video and scouting, to say nothing of the talent. All of this can lead to deception being lost, and at that point someone like Schreiber is just left as a righty who throws in the low 90s at best.

On the other hand, there are pitchers who get by without flashy stuff, and Schreiber could very well be that. For me, the way to gauge that is going to be what happens with his curveball. In comparing his 2019 to 2019, when his strikeout rate fell by 12 percentage points, it sticks out like a sore thumb that (per Baseball Savant) the whiff rate against his curveball fell from 46 percent to 17 percent. Again, sample size issues are abound, but that is a dramatic drop. Furthermore, also according to Baseball Savant, the vertical movement on his curveball diminished by five inches, from 7.3 to 2.3. A slow fastball can get by with a funky delivery and a loopy curveball. Take away the loopy curveball, and it becomes a dicier situation.

As we said at the top. Schreiber is not expected to be a major part of the plans for the Red Sox this year, and he was largely brought in to serve as depth. There’s a decent chance he’s not long for the 40-man roster as it is. Still, good bullpens need surprises to pop up, and his minor-league track record provides at least a little intrigue. The issue he’ll need to overcome is familiarity eventually surpassing the deception in his delivery. A good first step would be to get that curveball back on its 2019 level.