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Reinventing Yourself With Craig Breslow

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Craig Breslow dropped his arm angle…and did his best to make his offerings match those of Zach Britton and Andrew Miller.

Every team has one, right? The lefty specialist, I mean. The guy who comes on, faces one batter for an instant platoon advantage, and in the blink of an eye is back on the bench. The guy you can miss between commercials if you channel-surf. The guy whose day-to-day performance is defined by a handful of pitches.

The LOOGY (left-handed one out guy) is not a position from which stars are born. One can certainly carve out a nice career in this role, but teams do not exactly shell out millions for a pitcher with this label. Even that name lacks intimidation; “lefty specialist” just sounds like the medical definition for the disease known as the LOOGY.

That the lefty specialist is forever prevalent in usage, forever limited in length of appearances, and forever unappreciated is what makes the case of Craig Breslow so intriguing. Though the term “specialization” summarizes Breslow’s 11-year career on a Major League mound, as a person, this Ivy League lefty is far from one-dimensional.

Image titleDenny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Craig Breslow is smart. Take note, however, that his intellect is more than baseball IQ or whatever “crafty lefty” implies. Breslow scored a 1420 on his SAT, majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, recorded a 34 on the MCAT (while playing pro baseball no less), and deferred acceptance into New York University Medical School. Sporting News named Breslow its “smartest athlete in sports” in 2010.

Perhaps, though, this is to be expected. After all, Breslow is a Yale alumnus, the first Bulldog in the Big Leagues since Ron Darling retired in 1995. When he and former Boston Red Sox backstop Ryan Lavarnway paired up on the mound and behind the plate, they became the first all-Yale battery since 1883 (Jack Jones and Al Hubbard for the Philadelphia Athletics). It is safe to say that players of his intellectual capacity are rare birds in the modern incarnation of Major League Baseball.

Breslow took his talents and his Ivy League-leading ERA from New Haven to Milwaukee in the 26th round of the 2002 draft. Carving out a career as a reliever, Breslow reached the Majors in 2005 with the San Diego Padres, served as a key cog in the Red Sox’s World Series run in 2013 (1.81 ERA and 3.60 FIP in 59.2 IP), and overall has done a good job at neutralizing the bats of left-handed hitters over more than a decade of work (.250/.311/.382).

Now after 13 years, eight organizations, one independent league team, two trades, three releases, and three claims off waivers, the 38-year-old Breslow finds himself in 2017 with the Minnesota Twins. This is the same Craig Breslow with genius-level intellect who pitched with Minnesota in 2008-09. This is a different Craig Breslow, however, than we have ever seen take the mound.

Since Breslow’s best season in Boston back in 2013, the lefty has pitched to a 4.93 ERA and 5.16 FIP. Though he only lost a tick on his fastball (90.5 MPH in 2013 to 89.6 MPH last year), he altered his arsenal to feature his sinker less often and his four-seam fastball and changeup more frequently. But clearly, the results were not there. After two minor league contracts and two releases in 2016, Breslow went back to the drawing board and channeled his inner scientist.

BrooksBaseball.net

Breslow tinkered. He did not aim to change his role, as he floated at the end of 2015. Rather, as Deadspin covered in mid-March, he worked on an entirely new delivery with a lower arm angle. He purchased a $3,000 camera to track the spin rate on his pitches. Though he did not “hit the books” as is traditionally understood, he did study up on Zach Britton’s sinker and Andrew Miller’s slider — two of the best pitches in the game, lefties or otherwise — using PITCHf/x data.

If the lower arm angle revival sounds familiar, that would be because another left-handed, late-30s, reliever-turned-starter totally turned his career around by toying with release point. At this point, it would be a little extreme to expect Rich Hill-level performance from Breslow in 2017. Similarly, do not expect to see a carbon copy of Britton’s sinker or Miller’s slider — or for that matter their pitch sequencing. Britton throws his sinker over 90% of the time, Miller throws his slider over 60%, and Hill is about 50-50 with his fastball and curve. Simple math will tell you that Breslow cannot mimic all of them faithfully.

Image title

Jim Cooke/Deadspin/GMG

The story here, however, is not that Breslow will be a surprise shutdown arm this coming season. In seven spring innings, Breslow has allowed one run and batters have only managed to hit .160 off him. (Spring stats do not include his pitching with Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic.) With seven walks to five strikeouts, clearly the jury is still out on the effectiveness of his new delivery.

Nevertheless, Breslow will get his shot. The Twins added him to the 40-man roster last week, and he will likely begin the season as a low-leverage reliever or lefty specialist in the Minnesota bullpen. And so begins a new chapter in the Craig Breslow saga.

Breslow’s intelligence is extraordinary to be sure, but perhaps the most unbelievable part of his reinvention this winter is that the data he used is readily available to players and fans alike. Breslow is not the first to make use of baseball’s changing technological landscape over the past decade, but he will by no means be the last. After all, you don’t need an Ivy League degree to work a camera and browse through leaderboards.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

SQuiz
Which left-handed pitcher led all of baseball in xFIP in 2016 (minimum 60 IP)?
Created 3/29/17
  1. Andrew Miller
  2. Zach Britton
  3. Clayton Kershaw
  4. Rich Hill

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