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Nick Wittgren: Valuable trade chip?

Will the Marlins cash in on the righty’s strong 2018 campaign?

MLB: New York Mets at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Stats updated entering 5/26/18

Major League Baseball has doubled down on The Age of the Reliever so far in 2018. Dominant bullpen arms are a necessity for true contenders, and accumulating several insures them against the inevitable injuries of a long season.

Meanwhile, such specialists make for awkward fits on rebuilding teams. If the Marlins, for example, were to lose five more games in 2018 because the pen blew a lead, is it a huge deal? The preferable draft position resulting from those losses might actually outweigh the extra pride a team and fan base feels from grinding to close the gap with their NL East rivals.

There’s some recent precedent for bullpen trades that have been significant in a rebuild. The Yankees are already reaping the benefits of their 2016 Aroldis Chapman-Gleyber Torres blockbuster with the Cubs. Also, the A’s continue to outperform preseason projections with help from the package they received from the Nationals in exchange for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson last summer. In the right seller’s environment, relievers can bring back solid prospects with big upside.

So what does this have to do with the Marlins? By earned run average, their bullpen is the worst in the majors (5.65 ERA). Even if you want to blame a chunk of the struggles on newly released Junichi Tazawa, this Marlins ‘pen hasn’t been great.

Thankfully, there are a couple of bright spots, including Nick Wittgren. His Friday night misadventures notwithstanding, the 6-2 righty has been phenomenal in 2018, posting a 2.30 ERA and a 2.66 FIP so far this season. He’s also the owner of a 9.77 K/9. FanGraphs estimates his overall impact at 0.3 fWAR, on pace for a full win above replacement level over an entire season.

Miami Marlins v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

On the other hand, Wittgren owns a problematic 5.17 BB/9 rate, but walks did not plague him in previous MLB experience. Most likely, that’s just a small sample size fluke.

Dig deeper and Wittgren is generating a different batted balls profile than ever before (with the exception of a couple of short stints back in the lower minor leagues). Specifically, he’s getting opponents to hit the ball on the ground more often:

Balls in Play Against Nick Wittgren, 2016-2018

Season Innings Pitched Line Drive % Fly Ball % Ground Ball %
Season Innings Pitched Line Drive % Fly Ball % Ground Ball %
2016 51.2 20.6% 40.0% 39.4%
2017 42.1 23.8% 42.9% 33.3%
2018 15.2 17.1% 36.6% 46.3%
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs

How is Wittgren doing this? Increasing his changeup usage to 15.0%—the highest in his professional career and nearly twice the rate he used the pitch in 2017—could be helping. He has deemphasized the curveball to make that possible, dropping usage from 18.6% in 2017 to 14.7% in 2018.

To gauge the effectiveness of each pitch type, let’s consider how FanGraphs rates them through the years:

Nick Wittgren Pitch Values, 2016-2018

Year Innings Pitched Fastball (wFB) Curveball (wCB) Changeup (wCH)
Year Innings Pitched Fastball (wFB) Curveball (wCB) Changeup (wCH)
2016 51.2 2.3 -0.9 3.2
2017 42.1 2.7 -2.1 -3.1
2018 15.2 4.2 -1.4 -0.5
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

These pitch values are relatively to league average, so positive is good and negative is...not so good.

Wittgren’s fastball sticks out as his best pitch, as is the case for most relievers. However, his changeup and curveball have both improved compared to last season, although they remain slightly below average so far.

Earlier in the month, Don Mattingly spoke about how important Wittgren has been to the Marlins ‘pen thus far:

In addition to taking responsibility for his own baserunners, Wittgren has also stranded 6 of his 7 inherited runners in 2018. That would be the best rate of his career.

How does this impressive season-opening hot streak impact Wittgren’s trade value? It’s a difficult question to answer. While the soon-to-be 27-year-old doesn’t have a track record of being this good, he’s been serviceable in his big league career to date. The adjustments mentioned above are simply unlocking a higher level of performance.

Another factor that should make Wittgren desirable is his contract status. He will remain under team control until 2023, earning close to the league’s minimum salary until gaining arbitration eligibility for the first time in 2020. The Marlins quietly kept him stashed with Triple-A New Orleans in early April to ensure he falls shy of the “super two” service time cut-off.

The truth of the matter is that Wittgren’s value is very contingent on what happens between now and July 31. If he reverts back to being just another middle reliever (like in 2017), his market value might be just a “lottery ticket” prospect or two.

However, it’s important to reiterate that it’s The Age of the Reliever, where postseason clubs are never satisfied with their bullpen depth. If Wittgren builds up a dominant half season of work heading into the deadline, then the Marlins could push for more exciting assets. Any prospect with everyday player potential could be a huge shot in the arm for their middle-of-the-road farm system.

Wittgren is passing the eye test to back up these encouraging results. He has benefited marginally from a .268 BABIP (typical league average is within a few points of .300), so regression could be coming in that department, but maintaining his career-best strikeout rate would make that less of a concern.

Meanwhile, the Marlins must make their own evaluation of Wittgren. If the July trade offers don’t properly reflect his value as somebody who has taken a significant leap forward, there’s no pressure to make a move in 2018.

Wittgren has demonstrated intangible value, too—he’s an 80-grade individual and ideal ambassador to the South Florida community. Consider his role in the Mother’s Day pregame ceremony (h/t Matthew DeFranks):

Wittgren’s mother Lisa has beat cancer twice—first cervical, then breast—and he also lost his grandmother to lung cancer after she beat breast cancer. So donning the pink and spending time with Mayra Lima, a breast cancer survivor and the Marlins’ honorary bat girl Sunday, was meaningful to the 26 year old.

Wittgren spent time pregame with Lima, catching her ceremonial first pitch and helping present a $10,000 check to the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Comprehensive Center.

“It’s kind of a big deal,” Wittgren said.

Awesome, awesome stuff, on and off the mound.