Moves made by teams at the end of Spring Training are often minor tweaks meant to add a little more depth or flexibility. Usually the players are picked-up on waivers or are out of options and acquired for cash considerations or a low-level prospect so the club is able to receive some kind of value instead of losing the player for nothing. Typically these moves come with little fanfare as the players involved tend to be fringe major league players or castoffs from other teams and likely will add minimal value to the acquiring team.
Meet Nick Vincent, if you haven’t already, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later on March 30. The 29-year-old was out of options after eight years with the organization and deemed expendable by the team that drafted him. Given the low acquisition cost and timing of the move, it resembled a decision to add depth more so than a decision to add an impact arm to the bullpen. That was the likely intent, but it appears that the return on investment has been greater than anticipated.
Vincent is coming off an up-and-down year where he was effective enough in 23 major league innings, posting a 2.53 FIP that backed-up a 2.35 ERA. However his walk rate ballooned to 3.91 per nine innings, more than double his 2014 rate, and he’d throw two-thirds of his 2015 innings in Triple-A. Prior to 2015, the right-hander actually had a solid two-year stretch in the majors, posting a combined 2.1 fWAR in just over 100 innings pitched.
No longer are we able to use the phrase “it’s only April,” but we are still dealing with very small sample sizes when discussing statistics. Including Monday night against Oakland, Vincent has 11 appearances and 10 and 1/3 innings to his credit so far this year. In that time he’s posted a 1.74 ERA and 3.07 FIP. The two runs he has allowed have come via solo home runs.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the right-hander’s performance is an 11.32 strikeouts per nine innings rate while not having walked a single batter. He’s also managed a 100 percent strand rate while opponents have posted a measly .400 OPS against him.
At first glance, it’s not all that easy to tell if Vincent is doing anything drastically different to achieve these results. He is throwing his fastball a little bit more than earlier in his career and it’s registering a couple hairs faster than he has thrown it in previous years, but the difference isn’t meaningful. The cutter, his bread-and-butter pitch, has been thrown more than one mile per hour harder than his career average, and that could be a help to the reliever.
The use of his repertoire, and likely to some extent working with veteran catcher Chris Iannetta, has lead to some excellent results beyond simply an earned run average. Vincent has managed to increase both the number of opponent’s swings on pitches outside of the strike zone and number of whiffs compared to last year’s efforts. Again, it’s still early, but the 29-year-old boasts a 59.1 percent ground ball rate and a 31.8 percent soft contact rate. Both marks are well above his career highs.
The right-hander has allowed a hard contact rate a couple ticks higher than his career average at 27.3 percent, however, and his .100 BABIP against is unsustainable. This means that over the course of the next couple months we should expect to see a few more of those hard hit balls fall in for hits.
Some credit for the low BABIP can be parlayed to a much improved Mariners defense compared to last year, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Vincent has benefitted some by virtue of having good luck. Two of the four hits Vincent has allowed going for home runs also deflates that number since technically they don’t count as balls hit in play.
Thus far Vincent has found himself in a few high leverage situations but has primarily been used in more of a middle relief role. With Joaquin Benoit already on the disabled list and news on Monday that Tony Zych will join him on the DL with rotator cuff tendonitis, the M’s will need some help in bridging the gap to closer Steve Cishek. This may be a perfect opportunity to ask a little more of Vincent and see how he responds to the challenge.
For his career Vincent has a recognizable platoon split, yielding a .748 OPS against left-handers and a .471 OPS against right-handers. This suggests the right-hander is better used as a situational reliever than a true eighth inning guy. Both the home runs Vincent has given up this year have been to left-handed hitters.
The right-hander holds a career 2.64 FIP when entering games with runners on base, which is only slightly higher than his career 2.49 FIP when entering games with the bases loaded. This also suggests he could be utilized better as a situational arm than a traditional set-up man.
Veteran Joel Peralta has done a good enough job getting the ball to Cishek that there is no need to force Vincent into a more prominent role in the bullpen at this time. After all, if it isn’t broken, why fix it?
General manager Jerry Dipoto has been credited with having a strong suit of building bullpens, and it’s possible that he’s found a diamond in the rough here. Though the 2016 season won’t mature for a while, there are signs that Vincent’s April wasn’t simply a fluke. Let’s see how the next month or two play out as the right-hander begins to re-establish a track record.