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The Sudden Emergence of Brewers’ Michael Blazek

kylewl22
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Michael Blazek has been used to being overlooked throughout his professional baseball career. Blazek was an All-State selection in 2006 for the Arbor View HS (Nevada) Aggies (throwing to a 1.19 ERA, third lowest in school history), yet was selected all the way down in the 35th round, number 1,068 overall, by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007. Blazek made a slow and steady ascension through the Cardinals’ farm system, never posting eye-popping numbers or making rank as prospect within the Cardinals system.

In 2013, the then 24 year old experienced a breakout of sorts after being switched exclusively to relief, posting a 1.97 ERA in 45.2 innings (36 appearances) between AA and AAA while saving nine games. His strikeout rate of 10.2 per 9 innings was the highest it had been since a brief showing in rookie ball after being drafted, and while he did struggle with his control (5.1 BB/9), he gave up just a 1.182 WHIP and only one home run all season long. The Milwaukee Brewers apparently took notice, acquiring the right hander as a player-to-be-named-later in the deal that sent John Axford to St. Louis. Blazek made seven September appearances for Milwaukee that season, giving up three earned runs (one home run) in seven innings, walking three and striking out four. In recognition of his strong 2013 (and perhaps an indictment of a poor Milwaukee farm system), Baseball America ranked Michael Blazek as the Brewers #17 prospect following the season.

Blazek got off to a disappointing start as a reliever last season, posting a 7.59 ERA through his first 11 appearances for AAA Nashville. Things changed, however, once the Brewers organization made the decision to begin stretching Blazek out as a starter last May. With his solid three pitch mix of fastball, slider, curveball, it seemed like a natural move for the Brewers to switch Blazek back to the rotation (he had made 70 previous minor league starts). Michael would go on to make 17 starts for the Sounds last season posting a 3.62 ERA in 77 innings as a starter (versus a 5.68 ERA in 25.1 innings in relief) with 61 strikeouts and 29 walks. Despite his solid results in 2014, Blazek again failed to rank anywhere among the Brewers’ top 30 prospects prior to the 2015 season. He made the big league club out of Spring Training this year as the long man in the bullpen and entered the season with tempered expectations.

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Since the season started, however, Michael Blazek has been nothing short of a revelation out of the Brewers bullpen. His 1.69 ERA in 37.1 innings ranks 12th among National League relievers, and his four victories tie him for the most winning decisions on the team. When we looks past these dated and mostly inconsequential statistics, however, we can truly see how valuable Blazek has been. According to Baseball Prospectus, Blazek has worked to a Deserved Run Average (DRA, the new mixed model formula for pitcher performance estimation) of just 0.52 this season, the sixth lowest mark among all pitchers in baseball (minimum 20.0 IP) this season. Blazek’s DRA_PWARP (Pitcher Wins Above Replacement Player, based on a pitcher’s DRA) is 1.87 in 2015, ranking him as the second most valuable reliever in baseball behind Dellin Bentances of the Yankees.

So how has Blazek so quickly went from unheralded prospect to one of the top pitchers in baseball this season? It appears that since being moved to the Brewers, Blazek has greatly adjusted the way he attacks batters at the plate. In 2013, his final season in the Cardinals system, Blazek threw a vast majority of fastballs (64.6% according to Fangraphs) that averaged a blazing 94.8 MPH, mixing in both his curveball (18.3%) and slider (13.8%) at much lesser rates. He posted a 44.9% ground ball rate across all levels (per MLBFarm) while walking roughly 15% of the hitters he faced. His fastball stayed mostly on the outer half of the plate (against righties), and he threw the majority of his breaking pitches low and away.

Michael Blazek 2013 hard pitch (fourseam, sinker, cutter) heat map, per BrooksBaseball.net.

Michael Blazek 2013 offspeed (slider, curve, slow curve, and knuckler) heat map, courtesy of BrooksBaseball.Net.

While PitchF/X doesn’t have any data available for Blazek in 2014 (though it’s worth noting his ground ball rate increased to 48.4% in AAA last year), if we take a look at Blazek’s 2015 heat maps we notice a stark change in approach with his fastball. Blazek now buries more than 25% of his fastballs on three innermost and lowest zones (to righties), focusing his greatest attention to the lowest corner of the zone. Compare this to 2013, when less than 8% of his fastballs were were located in this area. All of the batted balls off Blazek’s fastballs located in this portion of the zone have gone for ground balls, with only one sneaking through for a hit. Though Blazek’s fastball velocity is down 2 MPH since 2013 (92.8 MPH average in 2015), he has been able to hold opponents to just a .200 batting average against his fastball (per BrooksBaseball.Net). Blazek’s fastball has been rated at 5.3 runs above average this season (wFB), eighth best among National League relievers.

Michael Blazek 2015 hard pitch (fastball, sinker, cutter) heat map, courtesy of BrooksBaseball.Net.

The other big difference in Blazek’s approach this season has been the greatly increased usage of his slider. While he threw less than 14% sliders in 2013, he has thrown the pitch 33.6% of the time this year. Blazek has done a stellar job of keeping the pitch low and away (to righties), where 26.6% of his sliders have ended up this season. He has induced ground balls on over 63% of balls in play off the pitch, and has induced whiffs on 16.5% of the 188 sliders he has thrown this season. Blazek is holding opponents to a .177 average against his slider, and his 3.3 wSL mark ranks 10th among NL relievers.

Michael Blazek 2015 slider heat map, per BrooksBaseball.Net.

The results in this change of approach have been undeniable for Michael Blazek. He has become a ground ball machine, inducing them at a 55.4% clip this season. Though some may point to his ultra-low BABIP of just .216 as the reason for his sucess, the fact that Blazek has induced soft contact 26.5% of the time (eighth best among NL relievers with a minimum 20 IP) and is giving up just a 16.8% line drive rate (24th best) don’t make that number seem altogether unreasonable. He has yet to give up a single home run this season, as well. Blazek’s impeccable command have led to an excellent 8.2% walk rate this season, his lowest at any level since 2010 in low-A. Combine that with his 21.8% strikeout rate this season, and that’s better than a 2.5:1 ratio, and his WHIP is below 1.00. He has thrown first pitch strikes to over 65% of batters, which have helped him draw swings at his breaking pitches later in counts.

Going forward, the 26 year old Blazek looks to have the makeup of someone who could be a successful starting pitcher in the big leagues. He has gone more than one inning in nine of his appearances this season, and all three of his offerings are currently rated as above average (his wCB of 1.0 actually ranks 27th among all pitchers in the NL). He has made 87 minor league starts, and with a rebuild looming for Milwaukee, there should be plenty of starts to go around for the Brewers’ newest crop of young pitchers. If Blazek can maintain the solid command he’s shown this season, with his mix of pitches he has the look of a mid-rotation starter in the big leagues.

Since coming to the Brewers in 2013, Michael Blazek has gone from unheralded prospect to one of the top relievers in baseball this season. He has reinvented himself as a ground-ball machine, has fastball that can touch 95 MPH and two above average breaking pitches, and has demonstrated much improved command in 2015. Whether he remains as a reliever or if he is moved into the rotation, Michael Blazek looks to have solidified a role for himself in Milwaukee for the forseeable future.

Next: Brewers Mourn Loss of Darryl Hamilton

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