Former waiver wire pickup ranks among toughest pitchers to barrel up
By Matt Kelly
Baseball fans everywhere have likely seen the highlight by now: With the bases loaded Sunday at Yankee Stadium, Aaron Judge laid into a fastball from A's pitcher Andrew Triggs and sent it deep to the right-field bleachers.
A closer look at the Oakland right-hander, however, reveals that his middle-middle fastball to Judge was an aberration. Nearly nine weeks into this season, Triggs has been one of the toughest pitchers in baseball to square up.
Statcast™ is helping us quantify the relationship between pitchers and hitters better than ever before, and it shows that hitters are having a tough time connecting with Triggs. One of the easiest ways to quantify this is by looking at barrels, or balls hit with the right combination of exit velocity and launch angle that yield the most favorable outcomes for batters. Triggs has allowed only seven of them out of the 175 balls his opponents have put in play, for a 4 percent rate that ranks among the 10 lowest out of 98 qualified big league starters.
But we can look beyond barrels to show how often Triggs is getting the right outcomes. He's gotten hitters to whiff on 26 percent of their swings, among the 20 highest rates in baseball. When those hitters connect, they're doing so with what Statcast™ classifies as "poor contact" (balls hit under, topped, or otherwise weakly hit) 69.1 percent of the time -- putting him just behind some of 2017's breakout aces like Michael Fulmer, Ervin Santana and Dallas Keuchel. Put those outcomes together, and Triggs' Statcast-estimated .233 batting average against suggests his 2.64 ERA is more than just a hot start.
That's great news for the A's, who are paying near the league minimum salary for a potential top-line starter. Triggs is a former 19th-round Draft choice of the Royals whom the Orioles put on waivers in 2016. The A's claimed him shortly before the start of that season, during which he threw mostly as a long reliever until compiling a 2.78 ERA over a five-start stretch in August. Then he won Oakland's fifth spot in the rotation coming out of Spring Training and hasn't looked back since.
"He's very serious out there," says A's catcher Stephen Vogt. "We mess around and call him 'The Mayor' or 'The Governor,' because it always seems like he's in charge.
"… He can joke around with the best of them, but when it's his turn to pitch he's very matter of fact and has the mindset of 'Let's go get it done.'"
Triggs is getting it done to this point, and it all starts with his delivery. Keeping his back upright, Triggs lifts his left leg and tucks the ball into his hip. Then he strides out toward the right-handed batter's box and whips the ball around from a side-winding arm slot.
"The angle the baseball is coming from is very different," said A's pitching coach Curt Young, "but it's really the quality of his stuff that makes him so effective."
Triggs releases the ball low and his arsenal -- a cavalcade of two-seamers, sinkers, curves and sliders all delivered from roughly the same release point -- dives even lower. Young says Triggs is at his best when he's varying those two breaking balls, starting both his curve and slider at the same point before they tumble with different angles and directions.
"The location is what's forcing all those mishits," Young said. "He's as good with his slider middle-away right now as I've ever seen him."
While a sidearm delivery can go a long way toward messing up a hitter's rhythm, the danger in the delivery lies in letting pitches flatten out or hang at the batter's belt. History would say that Triggs' arm slot could also make him susceptible to lefties, but southpaws have hit just .157 and slugged .225 against him this season. Triggs cited repetition and a full winter of preparation as the biggest reasons why he's been so consistent at keeping his pitches at the hitter's knees and below.
"In the spring I was able to get about 20 innings of work, where in the past, I would've gotten anywhere from maybe five to eight," Triggs said. "Every season I'm almost always better in the second half than the first, and I think that's just a function of getting your reps in and being more repeatable in your delivery."
Triggs hardly ever issues a walk and pitches to a ton of contact, and while batters rarely square him up, his defense hasn't always capitalized. Eleven of the 28 runs Triggs has allowed this year have gone unearned, and he's allowed the most baseunners via field errors on batted balls with hit probabilities of 30 percent or less. It was a dropped fly ball that helped load the bases for Judge's grand slam Sunday -- making all four runs that scored on the homer unearned -- but Triggs took full responsibility for Judge's blast.
"You don't think about that; it doesn't cross your mind," Triggs said of the error. "You only think about the number of outs you need to get, and I've got to make better pitches in those situations."
Early luck aside, Triggs has shown both the tools and the demeanor on the mound that have the A's excited about their diamond in the rough. After persevering through five years in the Minors, Tommy John surgery and the waiver wire, we know he has the willpower to succeed.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.