One month into the 2022 season is not enough time to say you really know what players will do or can be -- Shohei Ohtani is still hitting .226, for example -- but then again, Mike Trout is the best hitter in baseball again, so you know there’s some signal there.
All of which is the necessary caveat to bring us to the actual point, which is that if you were to look at the Statcast pitching leaderboards for 2022, you’d see two of the best closers of the last decade in Edwin Díaz and Kenley Jansen … and three names we swear we didn’t make up.
Who … are those guys? We’re doing this for ourselves as much as for you, though we’d argue that even the fans of the teams they play for may not know enough about them; each of Trevor Stephan, Taylor Clarke, and Jeffrey Springs were acquired from their previous teams in minor deals since the end of 2020.
All stats entering play on Tuesday, May 3.
RHP Trevor Stephan, Guardians
12 IP, 0.00 ERA, 10 K, 0 BB
Who? Stephan was a third-round pick out of the University of Arkansas by the Yankees in 2017; when the Yankees declined to add him to their 40-man roster after 2020, Cleveland chose him in the Rule 5 Draft. This was the same day the Yankees lost Garrett Whitlock to Boston in the same draft; it was not a good day in New York.
How? As a Rule 5 pick, Stephan was required to remain in the Majors for an entire season or be offered back to the Yankees, and remain he did, getting into 43 games with a 4.41 ERA, as an above-average strikeout rate was counterbalanced by issues both with walks and home run prevention. It was fine for a Rule 5 pick in his first year, in mostly low-leverage situations, but it didn’t predict stardom.
This year, though, Stephan has struck out a third of the batters he’s faced, without a single walk or home run allowed, which -- given his 2021 -- is probably more impressive than the whiffs are. How? It’s a little that his fastball is cutting an additional four inches than it was last year, and it’s a lot that he’s added two inches of drop on a splitter that he’s using four times as often (8% to 32%) as he did last year.
That splitter, which he’s thrown 45 times without allowing a hit yet, looks like this. Yes, that's Trout in there.
It's already playing like one of the best splitters in baseball. It might not end up that way, at the end of the season, but this looks like a tremendous plus pitch at this point.
RHP Taylor Clarke, Royals
10 IP, 0.90 ERA, 10 K, 0 BB
Who? Clarke was a third-round pick by Arizona in 2015, and spent parts of the last three seasons -- first as a starter, then a reliever -- as an up-and-down arm with the D-Backs, posting a 4.99 ERA in 78 games. Arizona chose not to tender him a contract after 2021, and within hours Kansas City had signed him to a one-year deal. Clearly, the Royals saw something they were interested in, and he's been one of their best relievers so far.
How? Well, he stopped throwing his rarely-featured curveball, a year after he stopped throwing his rarely-featured sinker, but there’s not otherwise any notable changes in velocity, usage or movement. There's not a clear new plus pitch, like Stephan has. That difficulty in finding something new makes us think at least a little that this success has a limited shelf life, although that doesn’t mean that nothing at all has changed.
That starts with his slider, which is now a pitch he throws in the strike zone. (Last year, 33% of those sliders were in the zone. This year, it's 55%.) Now, he's filling the zone with sliders, and he's throwing the four-seamer higher than before, and he's throwing the changeup lower, and suddenly there's three different eye levels a batter has to watch out for.
Bonus fun fact: Taylor Clarke’s wife is named … Taylor Clarke.
LHP Jeffrey Springs, Rays
9 2/3 IP, 0.93 ERA, 12 K, 3 BB
Who? Springs was taken in the 30th round by Texas back in 2015, and posted a 4.90 ERA for them in 2018-’19. He was then was traded to Boston, where he had a 7.08 ERA in 16 games in 2020, which led to the Red Sox designating him for assignment before sending him to the Rays in a three-team deal in February, 2021. His career ERA at that point: 5.42.
How? Springs pitched well in 2021 for the Rays before injuring his knee in August. If it looks like he’s been a new pitcher in Tampa Bay -- and he is, with a 35% strikeout rate after a mere 23% mark with Texas and Boston -- look no further than the green line here. That’s his changeup. It’s now being used about as often as his fastball.
“Take your best pitch and throw it more” is the most modern way of pitching, and because he’s throwing it almost entirely to righties, it’s allowed him to limit the platoon splits that lefty pitchers sometimes pile up. Another way of saying that is that only four lefty pitchers have allowed righty batters to find less success on changeups over the last two seasons. It's helping his other pitches play up as well, like his four-seamer and lesser-used slider.
Now: are these three going to be atop this leaderboard in five months? Almost certainly not, though we're very interested in Stephan's splitter. But for a month, at least, they've proven to be considerably more interesting than you'd have thought a few weeks ago. If you'd thought about them at all. Which you most likely did not.