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Early Season Watch List Guys: Good Opportunities on Bad Teams — Pitchers Edition

Chicago Cubs righty Scott Effross is the best relief pitcher you have never heard of.
Chicago Cubs righty Scott Effross is the best relief pitcher you have never heard of. Courtesy nbcsports.com.

In my “Hitters Edition” I profiled a handful of batters with a low cost and the potential for much profit simply because they play on bad teams. Of that Group Sheldon Neuse, Chad Pinder, and Brad Miller have fared the best. And while I still have hope that the good process stats will win out in the end, it doesn’t look as good for Andy Ibanez, Cristian Pache and Cooper Hummel.

Now it’s time to look at some lesser-known pitchers simply because they play for bad teams. And even more than the hitters, I feel confident that there is much in these arms moving forward. At least one of these arms is currently a closer and I expect at least 3 more of them to wind up getting saves for their respective teams by season’s end. Yes, this is a Scott Effross post.

Let’s dive in!

Texas Rangers lefty Brock Burke has quietly been having one of the best seasons in baseball by a relief pitcher. He’s the classic case of starter-turned-reliever whose stuff plays up in shorter stints. He made his major league debut in 2019, making 6 starts and throwing 26.2 IP with a 7.42 ERA/6.55 FIP. Not great. But throwing exclusively as a reliever in 2022 Burke’s velocity has improved and so have the results. His fastball gained 3 MPH on average, his slider gained 4 MPH on average, and his curveball gained 2 MPH on average. So far in 2022 his 1.29 ERA is among the best in the league, as is his 28.4% K-BB%. He has faced between 4 and 10 batters in every outing this season and racks up multiple strikeouts in the process. With just a handful of holds and wins Burke isn’t exactly mixed league relevant, yet. But he’s an arm to keep an eye on for the possibility that he moves into a more prominent role later this summer.

The Oakland A’s have a pair of relievers in AJ Puk and Dany Jimenez that have proven to be capable late-innings arms, and somewhat out of nowhere. The former top-100 prospect Puk was expected to be stretched out as a starter throughout this season so as to maximize his real life value. But in an effort to keep him healthy that hasn’t quite happened. And it’s working! Puk has been excellent this season either helping the A’s escape jams or setting up for Jimenez.

While the strikeouts haven’t totally been there (just 24.2 K%) Puk has limited walks better than ever and he has yet to allow a home run. Two things have fueled Puk’s breakout: health, which has often eluded him, and greater reliance on a slider that is quite good. He has all but ditched his curveball and swapped out some fastballs for sliders, increasing the pitch’s usage from 29.6% in 2021 to 41.8% in 2022. Like Burke, Puk is facing between 4 and 8 batters per outing. He’s given up just 1 earned run all season but it’s the low total of 3 walks allowed that excites me. I’m not sure saves are on the horizon, yet. But He is showcasing the skills long expected of him and he’s certainly someone to keep an eye on. 


Jimenez is likely already on your radar due to the fact that he has taken over the closer role vacated by Lou Trivino after sweet Lou hit the IL in April. Though it wouldn’t completely surprise me to see Trivino take back what was his to begin with, if for no reason other than to artificially increase perceived trade value, Jimenez is still the guy to roster. Jimenez is doing everything you want a closer to do. He misses bats, avoids the long ball, and doesn’t walk the world. He is 7-for-7 in saves with only 1 earned run allowed on the year. Most recently he was called on for a 5 out save versus Minnesota. He retired all 5 batters and is clearly Mark Kotsay’s most trusted arm at this point in the season. And if you haven’t seen it yet, check out his nasty breaking ball:

Jonathan Schoop strikes out swinging. Courtesy baseballsavant.mlb.com

Two arms are worth monitoring out in the desert. Arizona Diamondbacks setup duo Joe Mantiply and Kyle Nelson have come on very strong in the early part of the season which is notable because the two relievers ahead of them in the pecking order, Ian Kennedy and Mark Melancon, aren’t likely to finish the season with the team. 

Nelson, a lefty, features a mid-80s slider that he throws almost 70% of the time and a low-90s fastball. So far he’s struck out 30% of batters faced while walking less than 4%. His 15.7% Swinging-strike rate suggests that strikeouts are for real and he has yet to allow a home run.

Mantiply is a 31-year old journeyman who has finally found a home in the Diamondbacks bullpen. Although last year he pitched 39.2 innings with a solid 3.40 ERA/2.94 FIP, Mantiply wasn’t a big strikeout guy and wasn’t featured in the late innings. This season, however, Mantiply has not only struck out a higher percentage of batters (23.2% in 2022 vs. 21.5% in 2021) he’s walking significantly fewer (1.8% in 2022 vs. 9.6% in 2021). Additionally he’s throwing more changeups leading to a much higher ground ball rate. Overall Mantiply’s improvements have led to a 0.57 ERA/1.63 FIP early on and has become one of the more trusted back-end arms. 

I expect one, or both, of Kennedy and Melancon to be dealt at some point this summer. And while I’d expect the right Mantiply to be one of the first in line for saves at that point, both he and Nelson are good arms to watch as the year progresses.

Last on the list is my favorite of the bunch. Chicago Cubs righty Scott Effross is the best relief pitcher you have never heard of. Effross made a big mechanical change in 2019, going from a more typical arm slot to a sidearm delivery, and he hasn’t been the same since. Here are some of Effross’ accomplishments since then: Among MLB relievers with at least 30 IP since 2021 his 30.3% K-BB% is 5th best, a shade behind Craig Kimbrel and better than Edwin Diaz. Only one other reliever (Josh Tomlin) has walked a smaller percentage of batters, and only one reliever (Josh Hader) has a lower FIP in that time. All this with a sustainable .306 BABIP and home run rate of 0.59. Do you get the idea? Effross is quite good and has become one of the most featured arms on Pitching Ninja’s feed:

I can go on. But I don’t feel that I need to. Effross is unique and that is leading to elite production. He is already the best Cubs reliever and is becoming one of David Ross’ go-to arms late in games. Should the Cubs fall out of contention and start trading veterans such as David Robertson and Mychal Givens I expect Effross to get save opportunities later this year. 

Is there someone I forgot? Hit me up on Twitter @JoeyThomasD and let me know! Or leave a comment below.

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