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Richard Bleier’s Biggest Weapon Has Become His Biggest Liability

The soft-tossing southpaw baffled hitters with his sinker in 2021, but 2022 has been baffling for different reasons.

Miami Marlins relief pitcher Richard Bleier (35) reacts before being relieved against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning at Nationals Park. Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

In his first full season with the Miami Marlins in 2021, Richard Bleier was up to usual tricks, inducing lots of weak ground balls and a 2.95 ERA. In all but one of Bleier’s 7 big league seasons (2019), the Miami Beach native has finished the season with an ERA below 3.00.

Bleier’s 2021 saw him finish with career bests in game pitched (68), WHIP (0.98), BB/9 (0.9), SO/9 (6.8), and SO/W (7.33). The Marlins were sold on him being able to sustain success through his mid-30s, inking the veteran lefty to a two-year, $6 million extension with a club option for 2024.

Last season, Bleier leaned heavily on his sinker. Throwing the pitch 61.6-percent of the time, opponents hit .283 with a 14.2-percent whiff rate. Those numbers don’t impress on the surface, but a look beneath the hood of Bleier’s signature offering says otherwise.

Fish Stripes original GIF

Run value, defined by Baseball Prospectus as “the number of runs expected to score from a particular event, based on historical data,” tells us that Bleier’s sinker was very valuable. Anything above zero indicates that the results favored the batters, while anything below zero signifies success for the pitcher.

In 2021, Bleier’s sinker registered a minus-12 run value. Among the 195 MLB pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances ending on the pitch, that placed him in a three-way tie for 7th with San Francisco’s Alex Wood and José Álvarez.

The average launch angle on batted balls against his sinker was, coincidentally, minus-12 degrees. Bleier was getting 32 percent more vertical drop compared to the average sinker, according to Statcast. The pitch’s characteristics and his ability to locate it near the bottom of the strike zone led to harmless choppers to the infielders.

But as the calendar flipped to a new year, Bleier’s sinker is no longer having its desired effect.

In his 16 innings pitched entering Friday, Bleier’s sinker has a run value of plus-6. He’s plummeted from a tie for 7th-best run value to ranking 9th-worst in 2022 (150th out of 158 pitchers with a minimum of 25 plate appearances ending on sinkers). The 35-year-old’s sinker is turning the common man into Mike Trout with a .409 opponent’s batting average and .659 opponent’s slugging percentage. Its 62.5-percent hard-hit rate is the worst mark of Bleier’s career.

Why have the tables turned on Bleier? Can the Marlins trust him to rediscover the magic he had with his sinker a year ago?

Fish Stripes original GIF

For one, the southpaw is attacking hitters differently in 2022. There’s been a reduction in his sinker usage, from 61.6-percent to 45.1-percent. Most of those missing sinkers have become cutters (usage up from 23.5-percent to 33.1-percent).

The sinker used to be Bleier’s go-to pitch against both left-handed and right-handed hitters. This season, he is only using it 31% of the time when he has the platoon advantage.

Richard Bleier’s pitch usage changes from 2021 to 2022
Richard Bleier’s pitch usage changes from 2021 to 2022
Baseball Savant

The shape of Bleier’s sinker—the inches of drop (30.6-to-31.0) and horizontal break (15.2-to-15.3)—is essentially unchanged.

As Baseball Savant illustrates, the main issue could be that Bleier is not locating his sinker low enough on a consistent basis. Whether that is a byproduct of poor command or a preference of new Marlins catcher Jacob Stallings to focus on going inside to lefties/outside to righties, it isn’t working.

Bleier’s sinker locations, 2021
Bleier’s sinker locations, 2021
Bleier’s sinker locations, 2022
Bleier’s sinker locations, 2022

For the foreseeable future, Richard Bleier will continue to get opportunities to re-establish himself. The Marlins are frankly thin on healthy, reliable ‘pen arms beyond Tanner Scott, Anthony Bass and Steven Okert.

Look to Bleier as an x-factor in whether or not the Marlins’ performance in close games is going to regress to the mean and keep their hopes of contending alive.