The bullpen is often overlooked when a team is successful, yet quickly blamed when a team fails to secure tight wins. So when a talented reliever comes along, it’s wise to take notice and give him his due. Justin Gorman takes a close look at Seattle Mariners reliever Tony Zych and his nasty fastball-slider combo.
When writing my earlier piece about John Gant’s delivery, it started to become glaringly obvious that relief pitchers rarely get the attention they deserve. The Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees have taken huge steps to build deep, dominant bullpens, starting a revolution of roster-building strategy across baseball. Middle relievers and setup guys, long the misfits and castoffs of the league, are starting to achieve the recognition they deserve.
With 30 teams and 25-man rosters per team (750 active players) for the media to cover, plus extremely deep minor league systems, there historically hasn’t been much ink spent on trumpeting the value of a good middle reliever. So let’s be ahead of the curve and turn the Gant article into a series, one which hopes to highlight some of the relief pitchers you may not have heard of, but should.
Tony Zych (pronounced “Zick” like…… pick) was picked by the Chicago Cubs in the fourth round of the 2011 MLB Rule 4 Draft, after finishing his junior year at the University of Louisville. Over the course of the 2011-2014 seasons, Zych worked his way up from Low-A Boise to Double-A Tennessee, despite posting mediocre numbers at every level. The Cubs wanted to trade Zych after the 2014 season, eventually shipping him to the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later or cash considerations of $1. The Cubs never received a player.
Zych is a classic case of someone who needed a change of scenery to put it all together. Upon arriving at the Mariners’ Double-A affiliate in Jackson, TN at the beginning of the 2015 season, Zych appeared in 15 games – striking out 18 batters in 16 2/3 innings while notching a 2.16 ERA, 0.660 WHIP, and 5 saves. The Mariners promoted him to AAA Tacoma in May, and he continued to impress – 37 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings, a 3.41 ERA, and 1.358 WHIP. His unexpected performance across these two levels earned him a promotion to the show when the rosters expanded in September.
The Mariners got much more than they could have hoped for in Zych’s September call-up, as he hurled 18 1/3 innings over 13 appearances, striking out 24 (good for a stunning 11.8 K/9 rate) while only issuing three walks. He did that while only allowing 17 hits, and finished 2015 with a 2.45 ERA. Zych broke camp with the big league squad after spring training last month, and his strikeout rate has continued to burn hot so far in 2016, albeit in a much smaller sample size. He has thrown just six innings, but has struck out 10 – a sterling 15 K/9!
Time will tell if Zych’s production continues, but since being acquired by Seattle he’s shown a knack at all levels for striking out batters in huge numbers. He is a perfectly legitimate candidate to sustain a double-digit K/9 rate, boasting the tools to overpower hitters – Brooks Baseball describes his four-seam fastball as hovering in the 95-97-mph range, accompanied by a mid-80s slider. He also possesses an 88-mph changeup that he rarely uses, but who needs it when you’re packing this slider?
When you get into a bit more detail on Tony Zych’s repertoire (as our resident expert on experty things, Ian York, has done in the above chart) you realize that Zych’s pitches are absolutely filthy. Not only does his fastball clock in at an average of almost 95-mph, but his slider is actually around 82-mph – abnormally slow for that pitch and an enormous contrast to his sizzling four-seamer. Additionally, his slider’s slow big break more closely resembles a curveball, and this fastball employs a tremendous amount of horizontal break, resulting in the crossover effect you see in the top view, above. Basically, both of his main selections have a ton of late break, so his strikeout totals and K rates are not surprising – he’s fooling batters by having pitches with tremendous “stuff”.
Tony Zych has the upside to be a great addition to the Mariners’ bullpen – and they’ll enjoy a few years of cost-effective team control while watching the 25-year-old develop his nasty arsenal even further. As the only SoSH staff member to have predicted the Mariners to win the AL West, I’m thrilled to see Zych doing his part to prove me both wise and correct.
Justin Gorman has written about manager tirades, baseball contracts, an illegal delivery, and the case for expansion.
Follow Justin on Twitter @j1gorman.