It was mostly a lost year for Anthony Bender, and the nature of his season-ending injury will impact him for much of 2023, too. Even so, he gave us something to be intrigued about.
- April 8: opened regular season as Marlins closer
- May 4: lost closer’s job, moved to setup role
- May 25: placed on 15-day injured list (back stiffness)
- July 14: sent on minor league rehab assignment
- July 24: transferred to 60-day injured list
- August 2: activated from injured list
- August 14: placed on 15-day injured list (right elbow strain)
- August 20: transferred to 60-day injured list
- August 30: underwent Tommy John surgery
During the preseason, Marlins teammates could not hide their excitement for Anthony Bender. He showed up to Jupiter with boosted fastball velocity and an improved changeup. Coming off a shaky second half to his rookie season, the hope was that these adjustments would re-establish him as a trusty, high-leverage reliever.
Just like in 2021, Bender made it through the Grapefruit League without surrendering a run. When Dylan Floro—Miami’s incumbent closer—fell behind schedule due to a shoulder issue, that made it a fairly easy call for Don Mattingly to ride with Bender as his ninth-inning guy.
Mattingly would regret that immediately. On Opening Day, Bender came in to preserve a 5-4 lead against his childhood team, the Giants. Leading off the bottom of the ninth, Thairo Estrada tied up the contest by blasting a hanging slider over the left-center field fence. The Giants won the game the next inning.
Bender continued to struggle from there. From the start of the 2022 season through May 18, he suffered three losses (which doesn’t even include the Opening Day blown save). He allowed baserunners in all but two of his appearances despite mostly being limited to single-inning assignments. During that span, the right-hander was on the short list of MLB’s least valuable pitchers in terms of win probability added; among all Marlins players, only Elieser Hernandez and Avisaíl García had a more negative impact.
Bender’s command was imprecise and his changeup wasn’t making a noticeable difference against left-handed batters. With Floro ready to contribute again, I felt Bender should be sent to the minors in a corresponding move to decompress. As it turns out, Bender was battling an injury of his own: the Marlins placed him on the IL with back stiffness.
The rehab process was far more deliberate than originally projected. Although Bender resumed throwing within a few weeks, his absence from the active roster ultimately lasted more than two months (62 team games).
In the midst of his sixth August outing, Bender blew out his elbow while throwing a nasty slider. It looked problematic in the moment, and after taking a few days to explore all of his options, he underwent Tommy John surgery on August 30.
On the bright side, during that brief second act of his age-27 campaign, Bender showed promise. He didn’t allow any hits to those opponents. There were measurable changes to his slider. The pitch’s average spin rate had spiked more than 200 revolutions per minute from where it had been in April/May, back to where it was last year before Major League Baseball started checking pitchers for sticky substances. August 2022 included eight of the top 11 slider velocities of Bender’s MLB career.
As alluded to in the introduction, I’m intrigued.
Will Anthony Bender Be Back?
For some teams, it would be difficult to justify a 40-man roster spot for a reliever who is due to miss at least half of the upcoming season, never had much prospect hype, performed inconsistently in the majors prior to getting hurt and was acquired cheaply in the first place. In the Marlins’ case, however, this should be an easy call.
Which of Miami’s able-bodied relievers are definitively better than Bender? After trading away Anthony Bass, the answer is none.
Don’t count on the untouchable version of Bender from early 2021 ever coming back, but there is still enough upside to merit patience from the Marlins front office.