Red Sox reliever Brad Ziegler is an enigmatic success

Jul 10, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Brad Ziegler (29) throws a pitch during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 10, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Brad Ziegler (29) throws a pitch during the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

In an era where Major League bullpens are stocked with power arms, Brad Ziegler proves that there exist multiple methods to skin a cat.

Since assuming the role of closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015, Brad Ziegler has converted 48 out of 52 save opportunities. While I say this partially in jest, there is an element of truth to it: Brad Ziegler’s fastball is not timed with a radar gun but rather with a sundial.

Of course, this comment may be interpreted as an insult, or it can be viewed as an extraordinary commendation, as Ziegler attains the equivalent results with his 84 mph fastball as the typical flame throwing closer generates with a fastball approaching triple digits.

How does Ziegler attain such results at the big league level with stuff that would leave most scouts in stitches? A solution to this question requires an in-depth examination at, precisely, what Ziegler does; however, of greater importance, is what he does not do.

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First, 99 times out of 100, if one is cognizant of a pitcher’s Strikeout Rate and Walk Rate, one can predict a pitcher’s level of success with remarkable facility and accuracy. Ziegler is a member of that one percent, as in 2016, his Strikeout Rate sits at 17.3%, well below the league average of 21.0%. Aware that Ziegler is a very successful Major League hurler, the presentation of the aforementioned information would lead one to conclude that he must issue very few Bases on Balls; however, said conclusion would be erroneous, as Ziegler’s Walk Rate sits at 8.9%, well above the league average of 8.2%.

The wheels begin to turn in an attempt to discern how a pitcher can succeed, as a closer nonetheless, with less than a 2:1 K/BB ratio. The next reasonable conclusion would be that he must limit the opposition to a ridiculously low Batting Average, a logical assumption but an erroneous one, nevertheless.

Ziegler yields a Batting Average Against of .275, well above the league average of .257. It appears that he allows more hits and bases on balls than the average pitcher, and his WHIP of 1.42 is above the league average value of 1.33.

The pitcher whom I have depicted thus far allows an above-average amount of hits and walks, while rarely striking opposing batters out; is this some kind of joke?

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I mentioned that Ziegler’s success is related to what he does not do versus what he does do. No outcome in baseball is more damaging to a pitcher than the Home Run. On the season, Ziegler has allowed only one, and his home run rate is one-fifth that of the league average; in other words, an average pitcher allows five times as many Home Runs per Plate Appearance as Ziegler does.

In 2016, Ziegler has allowed 0.6% of all plate appearances to culminate in a HR, while the average pitcher allows 3.0% of all plate appearances to culminate in a HR. Ziegler’s uncanny ability to keep the ball within the ballpark confines is the most significant reason for his success.

There are two other substantial reasons for his success that should not be minimized. Although he does allow a significant number of base runners, the vast majority of those base runners only reach first base via bases on balls or singles. Not only does Ziegler allow an infinitesimal quantity of HRs, he similarly allows a sparse amount of extra-base hits. It is much more difficult to score a run, when the opposing pitcher does not allow one to move multiple bases at a time. As proof of my claim, Ziegler has an Opponent’s Isolated Power value of 0.087, nearly half that of the league average value of 0.163. Further proof of my claim is that only 5.4% of Ziegler’s opponents’ plate appearances end in an extra base hit, while the league average is 8.0%.

Ziegler certainly allows his fair share of base runners; however, by limiting extra-base hits, the opponent’s probability of scoring is significantly reduced. A concise summary of Ziegler’s statistics, along with the league average values is provided below:

2016ZieglerLeague Average

Lastly, the third and final significant reason why Ziegler can succeed despite pedestrian peripherals is his ability to induce the double play. In 2016, Ziegler has induced 10 double plays in 51 opportunities, resulting in roughly a 20% DP Rate; the league average is 11%.

As noted in the chart below, comparing Ziegler’s 2016 statistics to the aggregate statistics of Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, reveal Ziegler is the far superior pitcher and should serve as a major upgrade at the set-up position. Two of the more striking comparisons are the HR and Double play rate. Uehara and Tazawa have combined to yield 13 HR in 66 IP, while Ziegler has allowed 1 HR in 39.1 IP. Also of conspicuous note, Ziegler has a far greater proclivity for inducing the double play. Uehara and Tazawa have combined to yield one Double Play in 42 opportunities, while Ziegler has induced 10 Double Plays in 51 opportunities.

2016Uehara, Tazawa  (Combined)Ziegler

Late-inning relievers are notorious for experiencing performance issues in non-save situations, particularly tie games. This trend is pervasive throughout baseball, past and present; for whatever reason, late-inning relievers rarely perform as well in non-save situations relative to their performances in save situations.

As indicated in the chart below, Ziegler appears to be immune to this syndrome, able to pitch well regardless of the pressure, or lack thereof, attached to the game situation in which he enters. This is great news for the Red Sox, as such an ability is woefully bereft from Uehara and Tazawa, as their aggregate FIP exhibits enormous variance based upon the situation in which they are immersed, as indicated by the chart below.

2016 FIPUehara, Tazawa (Combined)Ziegler
Save Situation2.943.24
Non-Save Situation4.822.43
Tie Game7.032.62

Ziegler could be an enormous contributor to a championship run as the Red Sox head into the break 11 games over the .500 mark, and winners of 6 of their last seven games.