Feel-good storylines are hard to find on a club that had a 67-95 record. One of the few on the 2021 Miami Marlins was the meteoric rise of reliever Anthony Bender.
Early in his professional career, the right-hander labored through the Royals and Brewers’ farm systems, where he posted a 3.30 ERA over 239 2⁄3 innings but averaged less than a strikeout per inning (7.4).
With no minor league season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bender found himself pitching in independent baseball for the Milwaukee Milkmen. Frankly, there wasn’t much about his production that hinted at a career turnaround.
But as soon as Bender reported to Marlins camp the following spring, it was apparent that he possessed special stuff. The rookie would go on to post a 2.79 ERA and 10.4 K/9 in 60 games.
Not only did he prevent runs 50-percent better than the league average in 2021, but Bender did so while pitching in an average leverage index (aLI) of 1.33. Debuting on May 5, he started his career with 21 2⁄3 brilliant innings before allowing his first earned run on June 29.
With his scoreless 7th inning, RHP Anthony Bender has now pitched 20.1 innings without allowing an earned run to begin his career. That is good for the sixth longest streak to start a career in MLB history. pic.twitter.com/O2oCygk7G7— Marlins Communications (@MarlinsComms) June 26, 2021
Bender’s hard sinker and seldom-thrown four-seamer (1.2-percent) placed him in the 93rd percentile of average fastball velocity among MLB qualifiers. Those high-90s weapons generated a minus-3 run value in his first stint in The Show.
It was his slider, though, that proved to be his most reliable weapon, limiting hitters to a .162 BAA and 43.6-percent K-rate. Among 112 pitchers to have at least 100 plate appearances end on a slider, Bender sat inside the top 15 in xSLG (.245), and 18th in Whiff% (45.2).
Anthony Bender, 97mph Sinker (called strike) and 85mph Slider (swinging K), Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 3, 2021
Why you might swing at a pitch in the other batter's box. pic.twitter.com/nIUSfd1X4x
Can we trust Anthony Bender to sustain this? Reliever volatility is as real as the sky is blue.
What is certain with the team is the absence of incumbent closer Dylan Floro, whose build-up for the 2022 season has been slowed by arm soreness. He is seemingly a couple weeks away from rejoining the active roster.
Bender’s peripherals actually look better than Floro’s. The 2021 season saw him post a 3.72 ERA in 9 2⁄3 innings worth of 9th-inning ball.
As he did the previous spring, Bender completed the Grapefruit League with a perfect 0.00 ERA, striking out 6 over 5 2⁄3 innings, even flashing a seldom-used changeup at times. His performance against left-handed batters could benefit from his willingness to throw it.
Here are some Anthony Bender changeups from spring training games. He has thrown more of them this spring than he did during the entire 2021 season.— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) April 3, 2022
Trying to become a 3-pitch guy instead of just fastball/slider... pic.twitter.com/9LzMcFmpQE
With that extra element in his repertoire, it would be unsurprising to see Bender get a few early-season save chances.