A.J. Preller Buys in Bulkon August 31, 2020 at 2:41 pm

A.J. Preller Buys in Bulk

Catcher valuation, like Maria, is a difficult problem to solve. The San Diego Padres took a stab at it on Sunday night, trading for Seattle backstop Austin Nola in a seven-player swap. Jake Mailhot took a look at the calculus behind that decision, which completely revamped San Diego’s catching depth chart while also sending a big-name prospect to Seattle, which Eric Longenhagen covered.

But that wasn’t the entirety of the deal — not by a long-shot. A.J. Preller tacked on a swap of relievers in much the same way you or I might grab a pint of ice cream at the grocery store — “Well, since I’m already here, I might as well get this.” Relievers Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla are headed to San Diego as part of the Nola deal as well.

You’ve probably heard Austin Adams’ name before. It might even be the right Austin Adams — there’s another righty reliever by the same name in the Twins organization. You might not know just how excellent he is though. In a short 32-inning stint in the big leagues last year, he blew the competition away, striking out 40% of his opponents. He also walked 12%, which isn’t great, and had surgery to repair a torn ACL last September, so it’s not like he’s peak Craig Kimbrel without the name recognition. But he’s seriously great.

Adams sports the classic origin story for a good reliever: the Nationals traded him away for pitching help. In 2019 (!), they sent Adams to the Mariners for minor leaguer Nick Wells. Roughly a week later, the Mariners called him up, and after a debut featuring all three true outcomes — three strikeouts, a walk, and a home run in five batters — he rounded into being their best bullpen weapon.

He does it with deception. More specifically, he does it with all the sliders you can imagine, and then with a few more sliders after that. He threw a slider 63.6% of the time last year, the third-highest rate in the majors among pitchers with at least 30 innings of work. The name directly ahead of him on the list, Chaz Roe, is what you probably picture when you think all sliders: the ball describing a sort of liquid arc away from the hitter before finishing six inches off the plate away to righties. Adams isn’t quite that:

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His slider isn’t a slow breaker, but rather occupies a space somewhere in the middle of the slider/cutter continuum. He throws it exceptionally hard, 89 mph on average, and over 90 mph 30% of the time. He commands it well; he threw 46% of his sliders for strikes last year, comfortably above average. He can also snap off a bigger break when the situation calls for it:

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Between the plus velocity and the ability to spot the pitch, he got either a called strike or a whiff on 38.9% of his sliders, a top-20 rate in baseball. And because he throws it so danged much and it’s so danged good, that puts him in the top five for overall called plus swinging strike rate in 2019, an Alex Fast creation I’m borrowing here:

That major league emergence in 2019 was no fluke. We gave the slider a 70 grade before the 2019 season while profiling Adams as a high-leverage reliever with command issues, and he’s struck out at least 30% of his opponents in every year since 2014. The walk rates haven’t always been pretty — his fastball command is dicey — but when you strike out that many, walks are less damaging. In fact, take a look at the lowest projected 2020 ERA’s in baseball, according to our preseason Depth Charts estimates:

Adams sticks out on that list; he’s certainly the riskiest arm of all of them from a track record standpoint. Not only that, he’s recovering from a torn ACL, which could completely alter his outlook. That raises the issue of getting back into game readiness; he’s been throwing at Seattle’s complex in Peoria, Arizona, but isn’t game-ready yet.

If he’s back to his former self, though, he’s what many fans think Trevor Rosenthal will be for the Padres: a lights-out reliever who can come in and expect to escape difficult jams with strikeout after strikeout. When purists bemoan the reliever-ification of baseball and the endless parade of K’s that sap the late innings of their drama, they’re talking about Adams. If he’s right, he’s one of the best two relievers in the Padres bullpen, depending on what you think of Drew Pomeranz.

But wait! There’s more! San Diego also acquired Dan Altavilla in the Nola swap. I’ll be honest with you — this one’s less exciting. Altavilla has consistently been on the fringes of the Mariners’ major league roster — he’s pitched for them in each of the last five seasons but only for 106 innings total, with a mixture of injury and performance issues earning him frequent trips to the minors.

In theory, Altavilla is an Austin Adams starter kit. He throws an upper-90s fastball and a slider in roughly equal proportion. He’s revamped the slider this year to look more like a cutter, 90 mph with a tiny bit of ride and very little horizontal break to speak of. It’s been an effective pitch this year, but it suffers from one major shortcoming: it doesn’t have enough wiggle to entice batters into swinging at sliders he throws for balls. That puts him in a strange situation: he’s a slider-dominant pitcher with a low chase rate.

Think of it in comparison to Adams: when Adams throws a slider in a two-strike count, he pretty much ends things. 38.4% of his two-strike sliders resulted in either a swinging or called strike, while 32% resulted in a ball. Strikes are more valuable in a two-strike count than balls are costly, so that’s a pretty clear win. Altavilla, on the other hand, has gotten a strikeout on only 21.4% of his two-strike pitches, while throwing a ball 45.2% of the time.

Take a look at one of his two strikeouts on sliders outside the strike zone, and you can see why:

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It’s not that the slider doesn’t play. It’s a solid pitch, and batters are frequently fooled by it. The relative lack of movement, however, makes it less of an attack pitch. Throw a slider when batters are defensive, and you have a decent chance of making them look foolish if you have enough break. Altavilla simply doesn’t have that break at the moment. It’s hard to bounce his slider and get a strike, because it’s almost fastball-ish in its shape, which is how a pitcher who throws half sliders ends up with an out-of-zone swing rate of only 22.4% (league average is 30%).

That caveat aside, the building blocks for a nice reliever are certainly there. He’s thrown a slider with more depth before, and the new pitch is still useful, even if not in every situation. If he can start trading velocity for break selectively on two-strike counts, that would be a boost to his value, and San Diego already has one of my favorite two-slider pitchers in Dinelson Lamet.

Most likely, Altavilla is just filler. He can eat a few innings in the bullpen that would otherwise fall to Luis Perdomo or Pierce Johnson, acting as a marginal improvement there. He has a chance of being something more than that, however, and Adams might be great already.

What did the Padres pay for these two bullpen upgrades? Who knows! It all depends on how you value Aaron Nola, and to a lesser extent Luis Torrens, Taylor Trammell, and Andres Munoz. Still, you have to admire Preller’s sense of scale, if nothing else. If you’re trading with the Mariners, why not get Austin Adams? He’s the kind of pitcher who makes more sense on a playoff team, anyway.

Whether this trade works out for the Padres or not will largely come down to Nola. He’s a fascinating valuation puzzle: an old but controllable catcher who might be excellent but also has no track record. If he’s the real deal and Trammell is more name recognition than talent, the Padres could come out way ahead. The reverse could also be true if Nola turns into a pumpkin at midnight.

But whatever you think of that main swap, I love what they did on the side. Adams and Altavilla — Adams, at least — could turn a bullpen made shaky by Kirby Yates’ injury into a solid group. For a Padres team that looks likely to make its first playoff appearance since 2006, that’s a wonderful upgrade.

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