The Cardinals’ Sam Tuivailala is a player that I have not been a huge fan of throughout his career. However, we could see him as a dark horse candidate for the closer role in 2018.
While I haven’t been the biggest fan of the Cardinals’ Sam Tuivailala, I absolutely believe the hard-throwing right-hander has turned the corner. With that said, I believe that he is a player that nobody is talking about when considering the closer role. Most fans are concerned with this position (myself included) and yet I don’t see a whole lot of chatter regarding the Cardinals’ Sam Tuivailala.
Improved Four-Seam Fastball
Tuivailala has always had an incredible fastball. It’s the pitch that he came to the big leagues with and it’s always had great life and speed to it. However, throughout his big league career, it has not been an effective pitch for him. Yes, he can throw it in the upper 90s, but his command of the pitch simply hasn’t been there.
To top it off, his secondary options failed to keep hitters off balance. All of this changed in 2017. In 37 appearances, Tuivailala amassed an ERA of 2.55; his lowest ERA as a major leaguer after being with the team for parts of the last four seasons.
According to Brooks Baseball, Tuivailala’s fastball was more effective as a result of the horizontal movement decreasing. This means that Tuivailala was able to get a better command of the pitch in the strike zone.
In fact, Tuivailala’s BB/9 was at it’s lowest of his major league career at 2.34. While his fastball usage in comparison to 2016 nearly doubled, he actually raised his whiff rate by 2.37 percentage points. So, he was getting far more swing and misses with his fastball last season. This is incredibly important if he is to be used as a closer.
The most important thing for Tuivailala’s fastball was a decrease in reliance. When you combine his 2015/16 seasons as a full season, you see he relied on his four-seam fastball about 63% of the time. When you look at his 37 appearances in 2017 you see a big change.
Instead of doing the same thing he’s been doing all along, he changed things up. In 2017, he used his four-seamer about 47% of the time. He decreased his reliance by nearly 20%. This paid huge dividends for his results and we’ll discuss that further as we go on.
As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals’ Sam Tuivailala also improved his secondary offerings as well. The most improved of those secondary offerings was his slider. In 2015 and 2016 his weighted values for his slider net about -.3. In 2017 the weighted value of his slider rose to 5.5.
This pitch can hardly be considered a slider as it really does not have much break to it. It really is more considered to be a cutter as opposed a slider. You can see below an example of that here in a strikeout of Andrew McCutchen in 2016.
I will admit that I am not sure what gave Tuivailala the bump in effectiveness in 2017 with his slider. If I had to garner a guess, it is that he started to command the pitch lower in the zone as he managed to grab a 64.7% groundball rate on the pitch.
If you have a look at the two graphs below from Brooks Baseball. You see that is the only explanation that can be had. The first graph shows us the slider’s positioning in 2015/2016 versus the positioning of the pitch in 2017. He is spotting the pitch down in the zone far more often than he has ever in his career. This is likely leading to the increased groundball rate.
Curveball used more
In addition to the better slider/cutter. Tuivailala started to use his curveball with more regularity. While this pitch wasn’t an effective pitch in terms of pitch value, it kept hitters off of his fastball as he used the pitch more often. He went from using the pitch 41 times in 2015/2016 to 118 times in 2017. So, it became something he trusted a lot more.
Moving forward, he’s going to have to try to and get more movement out of the pitch. The Pitcher List mentions that this pitch had just a 37.8% zone rate which means that it was out of the strike zone 72.2% of the time.
Since his movement isn’t so great, I would love to see him use it a little differently. In the clip below you see him use it against the Braves early in the season. It looks a whole lot like a traditional slider but it is a curve. It could even be considered a slurve.
In this pitch, he has 7 inches of horizontal movement and just -2.38 inches of vertical movement. I think that this is a much more effective way to use this pitch. In a fastball count, this could easily fool a hitter.
In comparison, this is his normal curve. This shows a more classic 12-6 action, which isn’t a problem per se. He just doesn’t have the reverse vertical movement on the pitch to start it much higher, which would make it hard for him to throw it for a called strike without hanging it. Regardless, it does keep hitters off of the fastball, so it does serve a purpose.
Game Changing Sinker
The most important pitch for Tuivailala in 2017, was the newest addition to his arsenal. The sinker was a pitch that he hadn’t thrown at any other point in his major league career. Much like his four-seam fastball, it is a pitch that is thrown in the mid-90s.
While this is pitch was used the least of all of his pitches, it was highly effective. Hitters were only able to hit .167 against the new pitch in 2017. While the numbers aren’t quite as great as his slider’s .081 average against, it was still very effective for a new pitch.
It’s going to be interesting to see how he develops this pitch moving forward and to see if he uses it more next year. Hitters typically do well against his fastball (.315 average against), so having a pitch that looks exactly the same with a sharp break at the end will be effective for him moving forward. Here’s a look at the sinker from Pitcher List.
Tuivailala has caught a lot of criticism in the past, but he came a long way last year. I think it’s time to start considering him to be used in higher leverage spots. I know everyone wants Greg Holland, but I am starting to become convinced that they don’t need him. The signing of Bud Norris yesterday doesn’t excite me, but it adds to a bullpen that is starting to become very deep.