Feb 18, 2013; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Esmil Rogers (32) during photo day at Florida Auto Exchange Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Slider the Key to Esmil's Evolution

The John Farrell saga at the end of the 2012 season was a long and arduous one. At first, most Blue Jays fans thought it nothing more than cute that the Red Sox front office was targeting Toronto’s skipper, but as rumors persisted, that jovial attitude turned to annoyance. The situation became more dire once details began to leak to the public, namely those suggesting that Boston was and always had been Farrell’s dream job. After weeks and weeks of speculation, it slowly became clear that Farrell would not be managing the Blue Jays in 2013, at which point the fan base turned its attention towards the possible return for the 50 year old. For Farrell’s betrayal, Blue Jays fans obviously wanted to wound the Red Sox organization as badly as possible. Names like Clay Buchholz, Rubby de la Rosa, and even Dustin Pedroia were bantered about on Twitter, but on October 21st, it was announced that Farrell (and a non-prospect) had been traded to Boston in exchange for… Mike Aviles.

It was an underwhelming name given what had been talked about, but in reality, getting any serviceable major league player for a lame-duck, seemingly average manager should be considered a win. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos had his hands tied, yet he managed to turn a piece of no consequence into an asset with marketable value. Two weeks later, Anthopoulos cashed that value out, flipping the recently acquired Aviles (plus Yan Gomes) to the Cleveland Indians for right handed pitcher Esmil Rogers.

When you look past the 5.95 ERA the 27 year old has compiled over parts of four seasons in the major leagues, Rogers is a very intriguing arm. It must be remembered that a vast majority of his career innings came in a Colorado Rockies uniform, and when you start neutralizing the environmental factors that were out of Rogers’ control, his numbers have a much nicer sheen. For his career, he’s accumulated 215 strikeouts in 237.2 innings, while registering a 4.21 FIP and 4.06 xFIP.

Cleveland obviously saw something in the Dominican Republic native, as they picked up the right hander for pennies on the dollar in early June. We may never know whether it was because he escaped Coors Field or because he was freed from one of the worst run organizations in Major League Baseball, but Rogers turned his season (and career) around in the American League. In 25.2 innings with Colorado before the trade, Rogers pitched to an 8.06 ERA with a 29/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 53 innings with Cleveland, Rogers compiled a 3.06 ERA with 54 strikeouts, walking just 12. He gained the trust of then-manager Manny Acta down the stretch, as he registered six holds in an Indians uniform, including five in September alone.

In a healthy Blue Jays bullpen, Rogers likely wouldn’t be heavily used in the final innings of a close game. However, the two men currently slated for those duties – Sergio Santos and Casey Janssen – are both coming off shoulder surgeries of varying degrees, and regardless of the praise being heaped on both during the spring, it will be a situation that needs to be closely monitored. If the rebirth in Cleveland is to be believed, Rogers could be one of the pitchers asked to step up in a time of need, and with that in mind, I decided to take a closer look at what exactly happens when Esmil Rogers takes the mound.

Using the PitchFX data on Fangraphs, it’s quickly surmised that Rogers is a power pitcher. His fastball has averaged 94.6 miles per hour over his career, and it was actually a notch higher in 2012 while serving exclusively in the bullpen. Not only does he have an extremely hard fastball, but he uses it often – 63% of the pitches he’s thrown in his major league career have been some variation of fastball – four seam, two seam, or cutter.

There are few things I love more than a big fastball, but the real treasure in Rogers’ arsenal is an evolving slider. I say evolving, because as a prospect Rogers was better known for his curveball and changeup. Neither pitch proved to be a major league caliber offering, and in their stead Rogers has thrown his slider at an increasing rate. In 2010, the slider accounted for just 22.9% of his total pitches thrown. In 2011 and 2012, that number increased to 29.1% and 33.7% respectively.

The slider has become a weapon, particularly with two strikes. In 2012, 129 plate appearances ended with a Rogers slider. Of those 129, 49 ended with a strikeout, and just one with a walk. Hitters didn’t have much luck even when they managed to put the ball in play, as Rogers had an excellent 51.3% groundball rate with the slider. The end result: hitters had a .197 wOBA and 28 wRC+ against the breaking ball. While seemingly impressive, data like this doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight on its own. To gain a better perspective on Rogers’ slider, I chose to compare the pitch to three other sliders. The first two are, in my opinion, the best on the roster – those belonging to Sergio Santos and Brandon Morrow. The third is that of former Blue Jay Henderson Alvarez, whose slider was a topic of frequent discussion and angst during his tumultuous 2012 season. All data is from Fangraphs.com.

Usage and characteristics of sliders, data from Fangraphs.com

The first thing that jumped out at me from this table is, wow, a healthy Sergio Santos has an absolutely dynamite slider. His numbers are from the 2011 season in which he played the full year, and from top to bottom, they are jaw dropping. The only thing he doesn’t do well with it is generate ground balls, but when you’re running up a swinging strike rate of 34%, it’s not particularly important. 100 plate appearances ended with a slider, and 73 of those came by way of the strikeout. Looking past Santos, however, you can see that Rogers’ slider compares favorably to that of Brandon Morrow. They have similar velocities, groundball rates, and swinging strikes percentages, but Rogers takes the edge in both control and movement which gives him the second highest pitch value of the four sliders listed. Unsurprisingly, Alvarez ranked last or second-to-last in each of the categories, which resulted in easily the worst pitch value of the quartet.

Using the table above I think it’s fair to say that Esmil Rogers has an above average slider, and when you combine that breaking ball with the aforementioned explosive fastball, you have a reliever potentially capable of handling late inning, high leverage situations. Whether or not manager John Gibbons trusts him in that role will greatly depend upon his ability to locate, as prior to his second half resurgence with the Indians, walks were always a problem for the right hander. Most of the roster spots and roles for the 2013 Blue Jays have been locked up for months, but the bullpen still has some fluidity to it, as a few pitchers are coming back from surgery while others are out of options. Rogers will get his first chance to impress the new skipper on Saturday afternoon, as he’s scheduled to throw an inning against the Detroit Tigers. Keep an eye on that slider.

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