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Brad Ziegler retires after 11 MLB seasons

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Converting to a “submarine” delivery in his mid-20s allowed Ziegler to thrive against the best players in the world for more than a decade.

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

On Wednesday, his 39th birthday, former Marlins right-hander Brad Ziegler announced his retirement from baseball.

The note posted to Ziegler’s Twitter account reflects on the adversity he faced early on. A 20th-round draft pick of the Phillies in 2003, he was released after just six innings of game action. The journey to his eventual major league debut in 2008 involved a stint in the independent leagues, surviving a skull fracture and completely reinventing his delivery to compensate for a lack of fastball velocity.

@BradZiegler/Twitter

Ziegler led the league in relief appearances this past season, so he could surely secure a contract for 2019 if interested. This paragraph explains why he has decided to hang up his cleats:

The daily grind has taken its toll on my body. There were really tough times in the past two seasons when I wondered if I could physically continue doing what it would take to stay on the field, and even if I could continue to perform at the level I always had. However, I took great pride in taking the ball as often as I could—82 games pitched this year! And I can thank the Dbacks for giving me another chance to pitch in exciting, meaningful games down the stretch and to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to be pushed out of the game because I couldn’t compete anymore—I’m walking away knowing I still can. Every time I stepped on the field, I gave it absolutely everything I had. Now it’s time for me to turn the page and embrace what’s next.

At times, Ziegler was unpopular among Marlins fans. Previous ownership gave him a two-year, $16 million deal and (irresponsibly) advertised him as a key component to the “super bullpen” that would make Miami a postseason contender. He endured significant slumps early in the 2017 and 2018 seasons while battling through injury. At least they got Tommy Eveld out of it!

However, don’t let your perception of Ziegler get distorted by his most vulnerable moments: he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of MLB ground ball specialists.

Not only did he go out on top...

...Few other relievers have ever matched his combination of durability and run prevention.

In the goodbye letter, Ziegler takes pride in topping 100 career saves (a milestone he reached with the Marlins), but that severely downplays his production. Of the 13 other relievers with 700-plus innings and an earned run average at least 40 percent better than league average (140 ERA+), all except Mark Eichhorn were put in position to finish games on a regular basis. This guy was elite, regardless of which inning(s) he was assigned to work.

Ziegler maintained an unusual disparity between his earned run average (2.75) and Fielder Independent Pitching (3.50). Especially out of the bullpen, we’re accustomed to seeing pitchers rely on strikeouts to escape jams, but he was below average in that regard (16.3 K% from 2008-2018 compared to MLB-wide 19.8 K%).

Instead, Ziegler found consistent success by inducing weak contact, moving his pitches in such a way that they couldn’t be squared up or elevated. During each of his major league seasons, according to Quality of Pitch calculations, he ranked in the 100th percentile in terms of late break. Opponents simply couldn’t get their bats underneath it.

Since 2008, here are the most valuable fastballs among qualified MLB relievers:

  1. Kenley Jansen, 136.8 runs above average
  2. Aroldis Chapman, 89.0
  3. Craig Kimbrel, 87.6
  4. Brad Ziegler, 82.0

Baseball, to me, is so entertaining in part because of its diversity of cultures, skills, styles and strategies. We’ve gradually lost some of that as MLB front offices try to optimize their rosters to be as efficient as possible. For more than a decade, Ziegler was a refreshing change of pace.