What the Padres Have, and Might Have, in Brandon Maurer

Trades don’t get much cleaner than the deal recently between the Mariners and the Padres. Seattle needed a left-handed semi-regular outfielder, and had relievers to spare. San Diego needed a reliever, and had left-handed semi-regular outfielders to spare. So the two clubs agreed to swap outfielder Seth Smith and right-hander Brandon Maurer, and they’re both easy, simple fits. Smith joins Justin Ruggiano in a right-field platoon. Maurer adds another big arm to a team that needed a big arm more than it needed an occasional pinch hitter.

Just by talent, Maurer is the more intriguing of the two players. With the Mariners, he frustrated as a starting pitcher, then flourished when bumped to relief. All of his stuff played up, and if the Padres keep Maurer in the bullpen, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a big help right away. Out of the Mariner bullpen in 2014, Maurer finished with 38 strikeouts and five walks — and two were intentional. Of the 209 relievers who threw at least 30 innings, Maurer wound up with the second-lowest unintentional walk rate, and he struck out a quarter of the batters he faced.

A useful statistic is strikeout rate minus walk rate. It holds greater significance than the more familiar strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last year’s bullpen leader in the statistic was Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman. Maurer ranked 25th, placing him in the top 12 percent. He was tied with another recent Padres bullpen acquisition, Shawn Kelley. Maurer ranked ahead of names like Minnesota’s Glen Perkins and Washington’s Tyler Clippard. It’s established that Maurer can be good in relief. He’s a guy with future closer potential.

As a reliever-for-outfielder swap, the trade’s fair. Where it gets really interesting is if the Padres decide to try Maurer as a starter again. In Seattle, he’d had the door all but closed on the possibility. But the Padres say they don’t yet know how Maurer is going to be used. He’ll probably end up a reliever, but he’s just 24 years old and in a new organization. Though the Mariners grew frustrated by Maurer’s lack of progress out of the rotation, he shares a lot in common with a member of the current Padres staff, who was sold cheaply by the A’s.

The Padres picked up Tyson Ross in November 2012, giving up Andy Parrino and Andrew Werner. Parrino is a player of no consequence, and Werner hasn’t pitched in the majors since. Though Ross was inconsistent with the A’s, the Padres have turned him into a reliable front-of-the-rotation starter. Maurer might fit a similar profile.

Ross and Maurer are right-handed. Ross is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds; Maurer is 6-5, 220. They have powerful fastballs that can get into the mid-90s and have shown powerful sliders, but early on they struggled to find a consistent weapon against lefties. As a starter with Oakland, Ross threw a fastball averaging 92 mph and a slider at 86. He occasionally dabbled with a changeup at 86. As a starter with Seattle, Maurer threw a fastball averaging 92 mph and a slider at 86. He dabbled with a changeup at 85, and a curveball at 74.

The repertoires aren’t identical, but they’re close: Both are profiled as fastball/slider righties with very similar slider velocity and movement. Each had another one or two pitches, but they weren’t consistent, leading to struggles against left-handed hitters. The rule of thumb is that sliders aren’t effective against opposite-handed hitters. With the A’s, against lefties, Ross walked about as many as he struck out. With the Mariners, against lefties, and only as a starter, Maurer had 35 strikeouts and 22 walks. He had even worse numbers, briefly, as a starter in Triple-A. It hasn’t been all about struggles against lefties, but that’s been a big part of the problem.

Ross has worked to eliminate the problem once with San Diego. No longer does he struggle to put away lefties, and it didn’t require that he pick up or improve a new pitch. Rather, the Padres just told him to trust his slider against lefties and to use it differently. Ross has thrown more sliders since arriving from Oakland, and, here’s where he put his secondary stuff against left-handed hitters, while with the A’s (courtesy of Baseball Savant):

Here’s where he’s put his secondary stuff against left-handed hitters, while with the Padres:

There’s a very dramatic shift, inside and down. Instead of using secondary stuff over the plate or away, Ross has come in on lefties, and positive results have followed. With Oakland, against lefties, Ross threw 34 percent of his offspeed pitches somewhere in the low-inside quadrant. With the Padres, that rate has skyrocketed to 56 percent. The key wasn’t that Ross develop a better changeup. He’s thrown fewer changeups. The key was getting that slider to drop down and in. When he was with the A’s, Ross got lefties to whiff with a quarter of their swings at his pitches out of the zone. Since he’s joined the Padres, that rate has jumped beyond 40 percent.

Here’s where Maurer has put his secondary stuff against left-handed hitters, while with the Mariners:

Maurer has very seldom come inside. With Oakland, Ross threw 34 percent of his secondary pitches to lefties in the low-inside quadrant. Maurer’s come in at 28 percent. Ross with the Padres has doubled that. Word is, the Padres have wanted Maurer for at least a calendar year. That spans multiple front offices. That means they liked Maurer before his successful transition to the bullpen. The Padres have liked Maurer as a starting candidate, and it would be very interesting to see if he could follow the Ross path to success. Instead of worrying about a changeup or the curveball, Maurer could, conceivably, lean on his slider, and just throw it more often toward the back foot.

It’s never that easy. And, every pitcher is different. For example, Ross and Maurer have different throwing motions:

Ross has been upright at release. Maurer drops down, so while they’re officially the same height, Ross releases his pitches from a more extreme angle. There’s no telling what that might do for him, with regard to deception. There’s no telling how much or how little Maurer might be able to accomplish from his own spot. Maybe the Padres will tweak Maurer’s delivery. Maybe they’ll leave things as they are, and try the Ross approach.

In terms of pure stuff, Maurer is a pretty good comp for the version of Ross. The Padres turned that guy into a quality starter, in large part because they adjusted the way he uses his slider. Maurer has a similar slider, so maybe that’s the key, actually, to his throwing 180 innings a year. Maybe the problem hasn’t been Maurer’s repertoire; maybe the problem has been how he’s used it.

Given that Maurer was all but finished as a starter in Seattle, there’s no guarantee he can start with San Diego. He might simply not be up for it, or he might simply not be able to achieve a sufficient level of consistency. If Maurer can’t start, he can relieve, and he can relieve well, in a prominent role. But if Maurer can start? The A’s didn’t think Ross could start. Ross is, today, a big reason why the Padres think they could field a 2015 playoff team. The Padres no longer had much of a use for Smith. They can use Maurer.