The Toronto Blue Jays may have found the best role for Thomas Pannone as the multi inning reliever
Almost two years after joining the Blue Jays, Thomas Pannone made the team’s opening day roster and does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. While the expectation was that Pannone could develop into a solid #4/5 starter, it’s in a relief role that he has flourished at this early stage in his big league career.
He has had opportunities to start, starting six games in 2018 and one in 2019. Unfortunately, he has generally struggled, posting a 5.55 FIP and a 5.17 ERA. In fairness, his xwOBA (.317) is better-than-average, so he may have been a little unlucky in his short time starting in the bigs.
On the other hand, his performance as a reliever has been nothing less than extraordinary, though his small sample in this role (17.1 IP and 65 batters faced) must be noted. He has struck out 21 of those batters and walked only two of them. He has given up zero home runs and only one barrel.
While his sample size as a reliever is small, research suggests that after 70 batters faced, a pitcher’s strikeout rate is an accurate reflection of their performance over that stretch. Pannone has struck out 32.3% (!) of the batters he’s faced in relief so far.
Pannone’s 1.38 FIP ranks 7th among 327 relievers who have pitched at least ten innings of relief since August 1st, 2018, thanks to that strong strikeout rate (89th percentile), a very strong walk rate (3.1%, 97th percentile) and a spotless home run rate (0.0 HR/9, 100th percentile). His strong xFIP (3.21, 85th percentile) suggests that even if the fly balls he’s given up had gone for homers at a league-average rate, he’d still have performed very well in relief.
Pannone’s .219 xwOBA ranks 11th among this group of relievers, thanks to those strong strikeout and walk rates, as well as his excellent contact-suppression—his xwOBA on batted balls is .287, putting him in the 92nd percentile. Unsurprisingly, his hard-hit rate as a reliever (17.4%) is 8th-best among this group.
As one would expect, Pannone has been able to add velocity when coming out of the bullpen. His four-seamer has averaged 90.2 mph in his time as a big-league reliever vs. 88.5 mph over his seven starts as a Blue Jay. Similarly, his changeup (84.6 mph vs. 82.4 mph) and curveball (73.6 mph vs. 70.8 mph) have each been a couple miles per hour faster when he pitched out of the ‘pen.
He’s also been able to miss bats a lot more regularly in relief. As a starter, he got batters to swing and miss on 10.1% of the pitches he threw and 22.3% of all of the swings they took. As a reliever, batters whiffed on 13.4% of the pitches he threw and 28.6% of the swings they’ve taken.
As a starter, Pannone was actually pretty good against lefties (2.77 FIP), struggling mightily against righties (6.25 FIP), implying that he might be better used as a LOOGY. So far, he’s been quite effective against righties when used in relief (1.33 FIP), while remaining rock-solid against lefties (1.43 FIP). He’s produced 30%-plus strikeout rates and sub-3.5% walk rates against batters from both sides of the plate. As such, a role as a more versatile one- or multi-inning reliever seems very plausible.
It is definitely way too early to write Pannone’s name in the bullpen’s of the early-2020s. For one thing, he might still be given a chance to start games. Moreover, as I mentioned at the start of this post, his exemplary resume as a reliever is still quite short. Nevertheless, it’s a resume worth highlighting and he’s a pitcher worth keeping an eye on.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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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.