If anything defined this recent trade deadline season, it was the incredible value on quality relief pitching. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Will Smith each brought back the types of returns that are generally seen in trades of above average starting pitchers. Even Jeremy Jeffress, a solid but unspectacular reliever, helped bring back a nice return from the Rangers, largely due to his newly minted status as a Proven Closer ™.
A substantial portion of the Brewers’ return this deadline that now has their farm system among the best in baseball came from Smith and Jeffress. As surprising as that is, the best part is the Brewers did not trade their best reliever. Oh, and that reliever happens to be only 27 with three years of team control after this season.
Tyler Thornburg has had an outstanding season as a late-inning, high leverage reliever. So why wasn’t he traded? Likely because he isn’t left-handed (like Smith) or he hasn’t acquired a number of a highly overrated statistic (like Jeffress).
Amazingly, the Giants actually bought low on Smith, as his k rate is down from the last two seasons, and his home run rate is way up. Granted, it’s a small sample size, and it’s likely he’s been affected by his knee injury, but still. By any measure, Thornburg is outperforming both Smith and Jeffress.
I included strikeout rate because that seemed to really be the statistic that teams valued at this deadline. This can be illustrated by the returns for two other relievers, Chapman and Mark Melancon. The two players have similar WAR and FIP numbers in each of the last three seasons, with Chapman being a bit better, but not nearly enough to explain the huge difference in returns. The big difference between the two? Strikeout rate.
2014: 17.67 LOL
So, Thornburg’s elite strikeout rate (13th among all qualified relievers) will definitely carry value. And now that he’ll be racking up ALL TEH SAEVS, it can only help his trade value. We should fully expect Thornburg to continue to excel as the Brewers’ closer. Last night, he simply overpowered Padres hitters with his fastball/hammer curve combo, picking up a 1-2-3 save with two strikeouts. His changeup is so effective that he’s actually been better against lefties this season than righties.
He doesn’t fit the traditional closer mold of a power fastball-power slider combo, as his three-pitch repertoire stems from his days as a starting pitcher. However, he can locate all three pitches while amping up his velocity now that he’s a reliever. According to fangraphs, Thornburg has had the 16th best fastball and 16th best changeup among relievers–having both a plus fastball and a plus changeup is pretty rare for a reliever; you generally see one or the other.
What’s all this mean? The Brewers will likely have a valuable trade chip within the next year–more valuable than either Smith or Jeffress, barring a drastic change in the market. It would be prudent to shop Thornburg this off-season, but I’d argue the best bet is to wait until next year’s trade deadline when contenders are more desperate for an ace reliever to impact the playoff race. At this point next year, Thornburg will be a still young but Proven Closer ™ with two additional seasons of team control, which is the exactly what the Indians got in Andrew Miller for a king’s ransom.
And in the meantime, we get another year of watching him carve up hitters. Sounds good to me.