Relief pitchers are a special kind of fun.
Time and again, a good one will emerge seemingly from nowhere and just be unhittable. Yes, you could look back to their minor league records and make conclusions you saw this coming way after the fact, but how many pitchers struggle in that transition to the bigs? Most?
Such is the case with Nick Sandlin. We’ve seen him for 4.1 innings. He’s thrown 56 pitches. And yet, I am immediately enamored of this rookie, and feel like he’s going to be a demon to hitters for years to come.
First of all, that release point. I’m a sucker for a sidearmer, and the way Sandlin coils down low to the ground before snapping out wide with his arm and whipping the ball into the catcher’s mitt, it’s just what I love.
This is hell for hitters after they’ve been going after over-the-top and three-quarter releases all afternoon.
Of all Cleveland pitchers we’ve seen this year, Sandlin’s release point is both the lowest by a wide margin — 4.06 feet off the ground, the next closest is Phil Maton at 5.36 feet — and the furthest off the rubber at 3.5 feet right of center. It’s no Tyler Rogers, whose release point is an absurd submariner 1.67 feet off the ground, but since he crouches so low in his wind-up Sandlin has the 12th lowest release in baseball and the fifth furthest-out release.
It looks like he’s throwing the ball from left field. Just messing with the eye level keeps the batter off-balance for a second, and by then the at-bat is over.
Then there’s the stuff. Sandlin just makes his pitches whirl. His slider has the eighth highest spin rate in baseball. That results in 16.4 inches of break, 48% better than league average. So while his sinker isn’t anything super-elite spin-rate wise — 56th best in baseball, good but not great — combining its 29.7 inches of drop (34% better than average) and 16.3 inches of horizontal break (7% better than average) along with the slider means that basically, there are two home plates worth of space a hitter has to cover when the pitch looks like it's down the middle at first glance.
You know, like this:
On top of just the movement of the pitches that he throws, the way the slider almost rises, and the funkiness of the release, is that the two pitches’ spins hide inside each other. Major league hitters are great at their job, and I’m sure they can probably pick up whether it's a sinker or slider if given a few chances. Considering they have about a tenth of a second to recognize it then adjust their swing to compensate, that’s going to lead to a lot of wrong choices, weak grounders, and easy outs for a great defensive infield.
Sandlin isn’t quite overpowering in his velocity. He can tickle 95 on the sinker which helps his margin of error, but he’s the type of slight oddity that can help elevate a bullpen from good to absolutely great. On a day when Clase or Karinchak or Shaw aren’t good to go, having this sidewinder come out of the pen and twist a lineup around for an inning is a huge relief.
For a guy who’s not even in the Baseball Prospectus Annual, it would be quite something for him to start forging a place for himself in what’s looking to be a top relief corps in the game. With his complementary repertoire and his uniqueness among his teammates, that seems like it has a pretty good chance of happening.