Anatomy of a player: Brian Fuentes

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Brian Fuentes shows his quirky sidearm delivery. (Icon/SMI)

Brian Fuentes has been one of the least heralded good relievers in the game the past few seasons. Since 2005, he hasn’t posted an ERA above 3.50, which is really saying something for a pitcher throwing half his games in Coors Field. Fuentes hit the free agent market this year and the Angels snapped him up, signing him to a two-year, $17.5 million dollar contract with an option for a third year. He will be replacing Francisco Rodriguez, who broke the saves record last year and signed a three-year, $37 million dollar deal with the Mets. Will Fuentes be able to fill the enormous shoes left by Rodriguez, or have the Angels overpaid for a 33-year-old middle reliever?

Background

Fuentes was drafted by the Mariners in the 25th round in 1995. The Mariners used him as a starter for the first few years of his career with rather mediocre results. Fuentes had the arm to strike out more than a batter an inning, but he was walking too many and giving up more than his share of hard-hit balls. In 2001, Fuentes moved to the bullpen and the results quickly improved. He got a cup of coffee with the Mariners and then went to the Rockies in the Jeff Cirillo trade in the offseason.

Fuentes spent the next couple of seasons up and down with the Rockies, mostly as a LOOGY. Then, in 2005, the light went on and at 29 Fuentes made the All-Star team and threw more than 74 innings out of the bullpen. The Rockies tried him as their closer rather than a LOOGY and he responded with some decent statics against right-handed batters. Fuentes was a pretty reliable closer the next few years, but lost his job to Manny Corpas in 2007 and did get a little lucky, posting better ERAs than FIPs in 2006 and 2007. When Corpas failed to deliver at the beginning of the year, Fuentes went back into the closer’s role and pitched brilliantly for the Rockies. Fuentes’ ERA of 2.73 was dwarfed by his 2.26 FIP. The walk problem that plagued him early in his career was now completely under control and he raised his strikeout rate to more than 12 per game. So what did Fuentes change and what can the Angels expect in the next few years?

Fuentes’ stuff

Brian Fuentes is a three pitch pitcher: sinker, slider and change-up. Here is his movement chart from 2008.

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The first thing that jumps out at me when looking at this is the huge horizontal movement Fuentes is getting with his sinker. He generates more than 12 inches of horizontal movement in to a left-handed batter. That is one of the highest values in the game and not surprising, looking at his delivery. The real surprise is that Fuentes throws his sinker at 92.5 mph on average. That is slightly above league average but way above league average for a sidearmer. It always pays to be doing something that few other pitchers do because that means that hitters see that infrequently.

Fuentes’ slider is slurvy, with more than four inches of horizontal movement in the other direction and very little vertical movement. This is common from pitchers with a low arm angle and when you hear a pitcher described as a sinker/slider pitcher, this is what it means. Fuentes’ change-up is also a rather unusual pitch. Not only does he throw his change-up nearly 20 mph slower than his fastball, but it moves in to right-handed batters compared to his sinker. That last part is important because, like almost all left-handed pitchers, Fuentes doesn’t use his change-up to lefties. So, to a right-handed batter, the ball is actually moving toward him if he sees sinker and instead gets a change-up. The reason this pitch moves less horizontally than his sinker is because Fuentes is releasing that pitch from a slightly higher arm angle.

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You can see that Fuentes’ change-up is being released higher and closer to his body than his sinker is. When you add all that up, you have a pitch that just isn’t as effective as that of most left-handed pitchers. It appears that Fuentes or someone on the Rockies realized this, however, because last year Fuentes had a large shift in how often he used his pitches. While the speed and movement of his three pitches were relatively unchanged (his sinker speed did increase slightly), the way he used his pitches changed drastically.

Against right-handed batters
          2007    2008
Sinker     70      77
Slider      1       9
Change     29      14

Against left-handed batters
          2007    2008
Sinker     66      54
Slider     33      46
Change      1       0

* all values in percent

Fuentes greatly reduced the number of change-ups he threw to right-handed batters and replaced them with more sinkers and some sliders. Normally I would say that this is a bad thing because the slider is moving toward a right-handed batter and the pitcher is much more likely to make a mistake with that pitch. Here, though, I think this absolutely was the right move for Fuentes, because his change-up isn’t as good as some other lefties’ and his slider is rather slurvy so it will stay low in the zone even if it gets too much of the plate. This also give right-handed batters something else to think about instead of assuming they’re facing a two-pitch pitcher.

Against left-handed batters, Fuentes reduced the number of sinkers he threw in favor of more sliders. Again, this is likely a good move because his sinker has such inward movement to left-handed batters. Throwing more sliders, especially in fastball counts, is going to force the hitter to protect the outer part of the plate instead of just looking inside for the sinker. In 2007, Fuentes overwhelmingly threw a sinker to start the at-bat against left-handed batters, but last year he mixed in enough sliders to keep the hitter off balance. Even though Fuentes throws only two pitches to left-handed batters, both are plus pitches, so there is no reason to mess around with a change-up here.

Outlook

This signing looks like a steal to me. While Fuentes will probably not benefit as much as other pitchers would from moving from Coors to Angels Stadium because of his sinker and his large strikeout rates, Fuentes looks like a good bet to be one of the top relievers again. Keep an eye on how many sliders he throws to right-handed batters; if he continues to throw that pitch, he should continue to be solid against righties.

While it would be foolish to think that Fuentes will rack up as many saves as K-Rod did last year, I would expect him to be among the league leaders and a very solid investment for the Angels. Age will catch up with him eventually, but I don’t see it happening in the next few years for which the Angels are on the hook.

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