Jeurys Familia was once one of the most dominant and feared closers in baseball, but—as our memories tend to do—we have remembered the more recent Jeurys Familia. Our most recent memories are of the Familia that posted a 5.70 ERA, 4.99 xFIP, and 6.30 BB/9 in 2019, and a 5.32 xFIP and 6.41 BB/9 in 2020. Simply put, over the past three years Jeurys has been trending in the wrong direction. This season, however, has begun with immense promise for Jeurys; there are some indications that he may be becoming a weapon for the Mets’ bullpen once again.
What is he doing?
Familia has only appeared in 7 games and 5.2 innings so far this year, but he has been extremely successful to the tune of a 1.59 ERA and 2.03 FIP. He has yet to allow a HR and has only allowed 2XBH to date.
Let us start with the walks. Control has never been the strong suit for Jeurys; in 2016 when he posted a 2.39 FIP and led the league with 51 saves, he walked 9.7% of batters he faced. In this 2010 Fangraphs article, Piper Slowinski contextualizes walk rate, and categorizes anything above 9.0% as “Awful.” So, even at his best Familia was walking hitters significantly more often than an average pitcher. More recently, in 2019 and 2020 Familia’s walk rate soared: in 2019 he walked 15.3% of hitters, and in 2020 he somehow managed to outdo himself posting a 15.8% walk rate—both in the bottom 4% of the league. And then there is this year. This year Jeurys has faced 25 batters, walked two and struck out six for an 8% walk rate and a 3.0 K/BB rate—both would be his best since 2015. He may not finish with an 8% walk rate but that is nearly half what it was less than a year ago. Obviously, this is a small sample size, but it is a promising sign that Jeurys may have rediscovered some of his control.
2021 has been all about the soft contact for Jeurys so far—he is in the 99th percentile for average exit velocity allowed—batted balls against him have left the bat at a measly 80.8 mph on average. In an era that revolves around lifting the ball, Jeurys has gotten hitters on top of the ball 52.9% of the time this year, and hitters have only gotten under the ball 11.8% of the time. (For his career these percentages are 43.8% and 17.4% respectively). So, what does this mean?
It means Jeurys is doing what a hard throwing sinkerballer wants to do: keep the ball on the ground. He has been giving up more line drives this year than in the past, but almost all at the expense of flyballs—his groundball to flyball ratio is an absurd 5:1 so far this year. His career best GB/FB ratio is 3.32 in 2016.
How is he doing it?
He is throwing his sinker. A lot. 65.1% of the time to be exact. On top of that it may be the nastiest sinker he has ever had. Familia has added velocity to the pitch, averaging 96.7 mph on the pitch this year, which would match 2016 as the best of his career. But that’s not all! Jeurys has managed to add another 1.2 inches of vertical drop on his sinker as well bringing his total vertical drop on the pitch to an elite (and career-best) 25.6 inches. That’s over two feet(!) of vertical drop on a pitch coming in at 97mph. Good luck.
Familia’s 65.1% usage rate for the sinker would be the highest in his career by a significant margin. The pitch has been a bit of an enigma for him this year, though. Hitters have slugged .571 and registered a 38.5% Hard Hit Rate against the pitch, yet Familia has been able to get off to a great start. The peripheral stats on his sinker illustrate that it has been better than the results (.339 xSLG) and he is mixing his slider, splitter, and 4-seamer in just enough to keep hitters guessing.
Generating soft contact has always been the name of the game for pitchers—but that hasn’t consistently been Jeurys’ problem—it has always been the walks. The most promising indication that Familia may be successful out of the bullpen this year is his Called Strike/Swinging Strike % (CSW%). CSW% is a measurement of the percentage of pitches that are either called strikes or swinging strikes; this year Familia has a 32.6 CSW% which would be a career best. Of the 25 batters Jeurys has faced this year, he has only gone to a three-ball count on five hitters (3Ks, 2BBs). He is quite simply throwing strikes more often, and with better pitches. That should be a recipe for continued success.
What does it mean?
Well, it is still early on in the 2021 season, especially for the Mets. All of these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, but Familia has looked really good. He has been successful despite some bad luck (.412 BAbip) and his go-to pitch is nastier than ever. The days of dominant Jeurys are behind us, but the days of struggling Jeurys may be behind us as well. His xFIP of 2.64 is extremely impressive for a sinkerballer and it indicates that this start should be sustainable to a certain degree if he can maintain his control. He won’t eclipse Edwin Díaz, Miguel Castro, or Trevor May in the pecking order, but if he keeps throwing strikes, he may slot in 4th behind those three (until Seth Lugo returns).
Familia has always been somewhat of a wildcard on the mound for the Mets, but at his best he was a, “here is my sinker, try to hit it” pitcher; his early 2021 numbers show him trending back towards that 2015-16 dominance instead of continuing his decline. As Baseball Prospectus so beautifully put it in their 2016 edition, “Familia’s pitching philosophy seems to be throw whatever he wants, knowing no one can hit it, and thereby try to throw three strikes before ball four.” Not much has changed.
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