How Tampa Reliever Emilio Pagan Has Rays(ed) His Game

Photo: AP

On December 21, 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays acquired right-handed relief pitcher Emilio Pagan and the 38th overall pick in the 2019 draft from the Oakland Athletics, as well as minor league pitcher Rollie Lacy from the Texas Rangers, in exchange for left-handed starter Brock Burke and minor league pitchers Yoel Espinal and Kyle Bird, all three of which were sent to Texas (DRAYS BAY).

This trade has worked out incredibly well for Tampa so far, as Pagan has pitched exceptionally well out of their pen, even after opening the season in triple-A. Through 20 2/3 innings, Pagan has recorded a dazzling 0.44 ERA (the lowest mark among all qualified relievers) and 0.73 WHIP (7th lowest). He’s striking out 12.63 batters per nine innings and has maintained a low walk rate (2.18 BB/9). After a disappointing 2018 campaign with the Athletics (4.35 ERA and -0.1 fWAR), Emilio Pagan has already accrued 1.0 fWAR. Based on that measure, Pagan’s value/performance is comparable to that of Ryan Pressly (HOU) and Aroldis Chapman (NYY), two of the best relief pitchers in the majors.

Pagan’s biggest problem last year was that he conceded far too many home runs (1.89 HR/9, which was the 2nd highest rate in the MLB among qualified relievers). His command of the strike zone was lacking, and hitters pounced on the pitches he left over the plate.

Heatmaps via FanGraphs

This season, however, Pagan is one of just two relievers (minimum 20 IP) yet to give up a home run (the other one being San Diego Padres closer Kirby Yates). Pagan’s truly gone from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. In 2019, he’s been mixing up the location of his pitches more, and he’s done a better job of avoiding the heart of the plate. Emilio Pagan’s hard work and dedication this past offseason are paying big dividends for him on the mound…

This offseason, Pagan took a two-pronged approach to his training. On the mound, he focused on establishing more consistency in the strike zone, particularly with his offspeed pitches. He honed in on improving the location of his cutter and worked on his curveball in order to expand his arsenal… Off the mound, he committed to a new diet. Pagan loves soda, but he’s cut back on the carbonated beverages, especially late at night. He replaced soda with water and has learned to like the change. Pagan also stayed away from carbs for the first few weeks of the offseason and has dropped more than 10 pounds.

Jessica Camerato of MLB.com

Pagan’s velocity is up by a substantial margin this season. This can likely be attributed to a combination factors, including his aforementioned offseason diet, as well as a new delivery, which I will shortly illustrate below.

2018 Pitch Info Pitch Velocity

  • Fourseam fastball: 94.6
  • Slider: 85.7

2019

  • Fourseam fastball: 95.7 (+1.1)
  • Slider: 87.9 (+2.2)

While Pagan does also feature a curveball, he only throws it 5 percent of the time (according to FanGraphs). His two primary offerings are his fourseam fastball (52.8%) and slider (42.2%). In 2019, Pagan has decreased his fastball usage (-11.6%) in favor of his slider (+12.7).

Pie charts via Baseball Savant

This was the right decision for Pagan and the Rays, especially when one considers that eleven of the twelve home runs Pagan allowed in 2018 came off of his fourseam fastball (only one dinger off of the slider). Hitters had a .262 average against the fastball, compared to a measly .171 average against his slider. As I mentioned earlier, Pagan has also altered his delivery this season, which could be playing a role in his significantly increased levels of success.

Right off the bat, it’s clear in the first set of images that Pagan is holding the glove much lower down this season prior to delivering the pitch. He’s releasing the ball slightly further across his body in 2019 (2nd set). Pagan’s mechanics this year are much more fluid all across the board, as portrayed in the 3rd set of images (all pictures courtesy of Baseball Savant). His left leg is more outstretched and straight in 2019, and Pagan is holding the ball farther away from his body this season, which could partially explain Pagan’s uptick in velocity.

Emilio Pagan has always had a nasty slider, but it was the fastball that plagued him last year. This season, his fastball has become a plus pitch, largely in part to his increased velocity, command, and slider usage…

2018

  • SwStr% (per FanGraphs): 13.4
  • SLG: .573
  • OPS: .903

2019

  • SwStr%: 21.8 (+8.4)
  • SLG: .167 (-.406)
  • OPS: .402 (-.501)

Last year, Pagan struggled against left-handed hitters big time, but he has put an end to that trend in 2019…

vs LHH

2018

  • AVG: .296
  • OBP: .376
  • SLG: .654

2019

  • AVG: .100
  • OBP: .200
  • SLG: .100

His new delivery in which he is releasing the ball further away from his body could explain these improvements (might be tougher for left-handed hitters to pick up the baseball).

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Emilio Pagan has been sensational this season. He has raised his game tremendously and has turned himself into a dominant late inning force.

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