The Jays From the Couch 2019 Blue Jays Top Prospects list continues with #19- David Paulino
David Paulino was acquired by the Blue Jays, along with Hector Perez, in exchange for Roberto Osuna in late July 2018. He is among a large group of pitching prospects acquired over the last year or so to help shore up the team’s pitching depth in the majors and upper-minors.
Paulino is a high-pedigree prospect whose struggles in recent years—a combination of underperformance, injury and a PED suspension—are what made him available in a trade. Nevertheless, it’s important to note just how high his pedigree was, fairly recently—Baseball America rated him the MLB’s 91st-best prospect in 2016 and moved him up to #51 ahead of the 2017 season.
His falling stock is evident in the evaluations of Eric Longenhagen. Back in 2017, Longenhagen had Paulino just outside his Top 100, projecting him to become league-average starter (50 FV). Following his trade to the Blue Jays, Longenhagen assigned Paulino a grade of 35+, highlighting him as a prospect who might benefit from a change of scenery and a move to the bullpen.
Fortunately for Paulino and the Blue Jays, he got both of those in Toronto, flourishing in a small sample of September appearances as a Blue Jay reliever. The quality of these appearances point to a potential future as a late-inning relief pitcher.
On the one hand, Paulino was solid in the ways he’s always been solid. He ran strikeout (21.4%) and walk rates (7.1%) that were strong enough for him to produce an above-average K-BB% (14.3%).
Moreover, his curveball, a pitch Longenhagen called “ridiculous”, was as effective as ever—53 relievers threw at least 25 curveballs in September. Paulino’s 3051 rpm was the third-highest spin rate of the bunch, manifesting in a huge vertical break—among 104 relievers who pitched at least five innings in September and used their curveball at least 10% of the time, Paulino produced the tenth-largest vertical break (-9.8 CU-Z).
On the other hand, there were signs of progress in certain areas. His changeup, a pitch he threw about a quarter of the time, showed a lot more arm-side movement than it had in his first taste of the majors (-5.2 CH-X in 2016)—his -9.4 CH-X ranked 15th among 70 right-handed relief pitchers who pitched five-plus innings last September and threw their changeup at least 10% of the time.
This improved changeup was likely a factor in his much improved performance against left-handed hitters last season. Over his MLB appearances in 2016 and 2017, lefties produced a .356 wOBA against him, much higher-than-average. In 2018, he limited them to a .247 wOBA (the average right-handed reliever conceded a .329 wOBA against lefties in September).
He was also able produce a lot weaker contact than he had in his previous MLB appearances. In 2016, over one three-inning start and two relief appearances, he limited batters to a solid .305 xwOBA on batted balls. In 2017, over six starts, he struggled immensely, allowing a .451 xwOBA on batted balls. However, over seven one-inning appearances in September 2018, Paulino limited batters to an astonishing .212 xwOBA on batted balls, the eighth-best mark among relievers in September (min. 20 batted balls).
All told, Paulino produced a .201 xwOBA overall, ranking 17th among 336 relievers who faced at least 20 batters in September. Clearly, he performed very well for the Blue Jays in a relief role, something Longenhagen seemed to suggest might happen.
The quality he showed as a reliever is a big reason he finds himself 19th on our Top Prospect list. It would obviously be unwise to assume that he can definitely replicate his seven great September innings over multiple full seasons for the Jays. However, he has long been projected to have a floor as a useful MLB reliever and he has now shown legitimate evidence of that. Steamer seems on-board with Paulino’s quality as a reliever, projecting him to produce a slightly better-than-average FIP in 2019 (3.95) in a pure relief role.
It remains to be seen what the Blue Jays have in mind, in terms of Paulino’s role going forward. With the depth of starting pitching at Double- and Triple-A, it would certainly be reasonable for the Blue Jays to put him into their MLB bullpen for Opening Day and never look back.
However, here’s one reason why Paulino might yet have a future as a big league starting pitcher: his success in 2018 didn’t seem to come from gaining extra ticks on his fastball in a relief role. In general, we expect a pitcher to throw his fastball a couple of miles per hour faster in a relief role than in a starter’s role, since they don’t need to conserve energy and can just let loose over one inning. For example, over his MLB career, the average velocity of Joe Biagini‘s four-seamer was 92.7 mph when he started games and 94.8 mph when he pitched in relief.
That wasn’t really the case for Paulino. In 2017, pitching exclusively as a starter, the average velocity on his four-seamer was 92.7 mph, just like Biagini. In 2018, pitching exclusively as a reliever, the average velocity on his four-seamer wasn’t much different (93.1 mph).
The main takeaway from this observation is that, potentially, the success he had as a reliever in 2018 might not have been the result of a starter experiencing some good old-fashioned velo gains out of the bullpen. Instead, it might have been the result of a better curveball and changeup, two improvements that could theoretically be carried over into a starter’s job. It remains to be seen exactly how Paulino will impact the Blue Jays in the coming years. However, regardless of whether he slots into the rotation or into the bullpen, it seems likely that his impact will be positive and meaningful.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.