If you’ve watched every outing of Emilio Pagán’s this season, you’re probably in a constant state of indigestion at this point. Time and time again he’s been trusted with high leverage after Tyler Duffey ceded such opportunities early in the season. Time and time again he’s flirted with disaster.
Pagán’s struggles are no secret: Every time he takes the mound the opponent gets one free base runner at the very least. Pagán’s free passes have spiraled out of control in his last 6 outings in particular, in which he’s issued nine walks in 5 2/3 innings. To this point, he’s gotten the job done, although this stretch includes two saves recorded on full counts with bases loaded in one-run games, while another involved runners on 2nd and 3rd. After watching such outings, it’s fair to wonder when Pagán’s luck is going to run out.
Emilio Pagán was always something of a reclamation project for the Twins after being acquired on Opening Day. After shining in Tampa Bay’s bullpen, he posted ERAs north of 4.50 in 2020 and 2021 in San Diego and quickly fell out of favor with the Padres.
In San Diego, Pagán’s strikeouts dropped considerably from a 36% rate to a rate of about 26% during his two years with the Padres. More notably, Pagán started getting absolutely crushed. All of his quality of contact measurements such as hard-hit rate, barrels etc. cratered. Home runs became his Achilles Heel, although his walk rates still remained respectable at 10.3% in 2020 and just 6.8% in 2021. So where does Pagán’s near 25% walk rate come from in 2022?
Before any trade talk even started, Pagán noted that he had planned to start throwing a splitter he learned from former all-star closer Kirby Yates this season. Long just a fastball/cutter pitcher, it sounded like a great idea as his lack of variety in his repertoire likely led to his loud contact issues. His early returns are good as the pitch has a 40% whiff rate and he has yet to allow a hit on it. It’s worth wondering however whether this new pitch has thrown him off his game a bit.
This could be a case where the new splitter is directly accounting for more balls in Pagán’s appearances. The pitch is rarely actually in the strike zone, and all it takes is a scouting report and the ability to recognize it’s not a fastball or cutter, and hitters can sit back and watch it go by. It’s also worth noting that individual pitches can actually affect a pitcher’s overall repertoire. Chris Paddack is famous for losing a tremendous amount of ride on his fastball in San Diego after adding his curveball. Whether it’s psychological or physical, adding a pitch isn’t always just a plug-and-play situation.
At any rate, Pagán appears to be making significant strides in the direction of becoming a valuable reliever again… except the disastrous walk rate.
His whiffs are fantastic, his quality of contact has been much improved, and he now possesses a pitch mix that should conceivably be able to get hitters out on both sides of the plate. The question is whether he can once again figure out how to throw strikes. If not, all of his improvements become a moot point, as sooner or later his free passes will start crossing home plate.
For a pitcher with a 7% career walk rate, it may be worth betting on Pagán’s recent issues being a blip on the radar rather than a crippling problem developed at the age of 31 after six seasons in the MLB. That being said, it’s a problem that needs to be fixed ASAP, and likely shouldn’t be done in the 9th inning with games on the line. The streak of “effectiveness” we’ve recently seen keeps looking more and more like good luck, and carrying these issues into the remaining four and a half months of the season simply will not end well.
Emilio Pagán is doing a lot right, but it’s what he’s doing wrong that’s drawing the most attention. Can he get his walks under control or will his improvements from the last two years be wasted by too many free passes?
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