With a roster currently in transition, the Blue Jays could find themselves with a quality reliever in David Paulino
A couple of weeks ago, a regular reader of Jays from the Couch asked me if I’d be interested in writing a post on David Paulino and his future role with the Blue Jays. While I’m interested in writing about any Blue Jay, I wanted to be sure that there was something meaningful for me to say about him. Paulino has been highly-regarded by prospect evaluators in the past, but hasn’t amassed many data points (innings pitched) in recent seasons, thanks to injury and suspension. Since I’m a numbers guy, a lack of data can make it tricky for me to saying anything of real substance. However, as I started digging, I found that there was a lot to like about Paulino, particularly in a relief role.
First, some back story. Paulino started out in the Tigers system, spending the 2011-13 seasons playing rookie-ball. He started 12 games and appeared out of the bullpen on three occasions, posting a 1.62 ERA and 2.85 FIP. He was then traded to the Astros as a player-to-be-named-later, before missing the 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. In 2015, he pitched across Short Season-A, Low-A and High-A for the Astros, producing a 2.81 ERA over 12 starts and one relief appearance.
2016 was more of the same, as Paulino produced a 2.00 ERA over 20 appearances, mainly at Double-A and Triple-A (in addition to a three-start rehab stint at the Rookie-level). Of these 20 appearances, 15 were starts and five came in relief, though each of the appearances was at least three innings long. He was rewarded with a September call-up where he produced one rocky, three-inning start and two clean relief appearances.
2017 was poised to be a big year for Paulino, but things went awry. He began his season with three starts at Triple-A in May, posting a 4.50 ERA and 6.58 FIP. Then, he was promoted to the big leagues again, making six straight starts for the Astros in late May and June. He struck out plenty (26.6% K rate) and limited his walks (5.5% BB rate), but gave up a lot of long balls (2.48 HR/9). The overall results weren’t pretty—Paulino posted a 6.52 ERA and 5.12 FIP. On top of the struggles, he got hit with an 80-game PED ban that ended his season.
He started 2018 back at Triple-A, where he made four starts. Once again, he was striking guys out (31.1%) and limiting his walks (6.8%), but getting burned by homers (1.50 HR/9), resulting in a subpar ERA (5.50) and FIP (4.19). A shoulder injury knocked him out for a few weeks and he made his last appearances in the Astros system during rehab in rookie-ball.
At the end of July 2018, he was traded to the Blue Jays, making his first appearances for the team (in any capacity) at the MLB level as a September call-up (all out of the ‘pen). Prior to his first appearance as a Jay, the previous time Paulino looked particularly solid was arguably in his two relief appearances for the Astros in 2016 (as a September call-up). That September magic returned, as Paulino produced a 1.35 ERA in seven relief appearances for the Jays.
When thinking about the future role of a pitcher like Paulino, the first question worth asking is whether or not he has a shot at being a useful, big-league starter. Honestly, it’s hard to say either way right now and the numbers don’t really clarify things at all. He hasn’t really had a good start since his Triple-A days in 2016, which is a while ago. On the other hand, he’ll be 25 at the start of the 2019 season, so he’s not quite old enough to be written off as a starter yet.
A much more straightforward question is whether or not there are signs that he can be a quality big-league reliever. The answer to this question is most definitely yes. The only caveat is that these signs are based on a pretty small sample of data. That said, the positive observations from these few data points jibe well with the long-held view that Paulino could make a decent reliever if he wasn’t able to stick as major-league starter.
First, let’s look at the past. Paulino’s experience as a traditional, one-inning reliever is pretty limited and has come entirely at the MLB level. He made one such appearance for the Astros in 2016 (with his other Astros relief appearance being a solid three-inning bit of mop-up duty after a starter got hit hard) and seven for the Blue Jays in 2018. Like I said, not a big sample size here. Nevertheless, fundamentally excellent results in a small sample are still worth highlighting, particularly when they’re all you have to work with.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on his seven appearances (6.2 innings) as a Blue Jay reliever, during which he faced 28 batters. Of those, he struck out six (21.4% K rate) and walked two (7.1% BB rate), producing a 14.3% K-BB% that was slightly better than the average reliever last season.
Where Paulino really excelled was in suppressing good contact. On the 20 batted balls that he gave up, batters could only muster a .212 xwOBA. That is very, very good. Among the 240 relievers who gave up 10+ batted balls in September 2018, Paulino’s .212 xwOBA put him in the 98th percentile.
The only quality batted balls that Paulino gave up were three Flare/Burners, each of which went for a single. No Solid Contact and, more importantly, no Barrels (each of these are Statcast batted ball designations). He was also a touch unlucky, with three of the six base hits he gave up coming on poorly-hit batted balls.
As a Blue Jay reliever, Paulino showed no signs of the homer problem that plagued him as a starter with the Astros in 2017 and 2018. As mentioned, he gave up zero Barrels in 2018. The lone homer he gave up was a Yankee Stadium classic, labelled a poorly-hit ball by Statcast. Here’s some additional context: of the 5,585 homers hit in 2018, only 55 had a slower exit velocity than the one that Paulino surrendered (92.8 mph) and only 81 had a shorter projected distance (344 ft).
It also doesn’t appear that this success came against a bunch of other September call-ups, either. He struck out vets like Carlos Gomez, Yonder Alonso, Yan Gomes and Melky Cabrera and promising rookie Willy Adames. He also generated poorly-hit batted balls from guys like C.J. Cron, Yuli Gurriel, Gary Sanchez, Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion and Marwin Gonzalez, among others. Of the 28 batters Paulino faced in 2018, 19 finished the season with a wRC+ of 100 or better. As a group, the batters he faced produced a 105 wRC+ last season.
Overall, he produced a 1.35 ERA (85th percentile among relievers with 5+ IP in September) and a 4.21 FIP (40th percentile). The below-average FIP is probably a bit harsh, given that the one homer he conceded was so…un-homer-like. His .201 xwOBA (95th percentile) adds further credence to the idea that he pitched a lot better than his FIP suggests. [Just to be clear, this xwOBA includes all plate appearances. The earlier xwOBA I mentioned focused only on batted balls.]
Now, let’s look forward. Or, to be more exact, let’s look at some very smart people and their computers (Steamer) while they look forward. First off, they’ve pencilled in Paulino to make 55 one-inning appearances in relief for the Jays. Steamer projections seems to be confident in Paulino’s ability to pick up strikeouts and limit walks, projecting him to produce 9.66 strikeouts per nine innings (67th percentile among relievers projected to crack 35 innings in 2019) against only 2.95 BB/9 (82nd percentile). They also see him giving up homers at something closer to an average rate (1.28 HR/9, 40th percentile).
Overall, Steamer projects Paulino to produce a 3.95 FIP (57th percentile). That’s a very promising projection. Steamer basically views Paulino as an MLB-average reliever, even after accounting for the fact that he has pitched a grand total of 42.2 big-league innings, almost all of them as a starter. Importantly, this projection is Steamer’s baseline opinion of him—given his career 0.84 HR/9 as a reliever and his extreme effectiveness at limiting dangerous contact in 2018, there’s a reasonable chance that he beats his projected HR/9 and, as a result, his projected FIP.
The evidence suggests that David Paulino can be an effective reliever for the Blue Jays right away. However, given the value of a starting pitcher, my guess is that the Jays will give him some kind of opportunity to show what he can do as a starter.
Exactly what kind of opportunity remains to be seen. If they try stretching him out in Spring Training and find that his performance looks a lot like it did in recent years for the Astros, he may start the 2019 regular season in the Blue Jays bullpen, his career as a starter in the rear-view mirror. If he shows promise in ST in a long role, maybe he wins one of the open spots in the rotation. Or, he could end up used as multi-inning reliever of some kind.
After examining his performance as a reliever last season, I feel pretty confident saying that David Paulino should develop into a useful pitcher for the Blue Jays in the near future. There are obviously no guarantees, and it’s hard to predict the exact manner in which Paulino will be useful to the Blue Jays, but he does seem like a guy who can help the Jays in 2019 and beyond.
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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.