It was close to a landslide, with Brad Ziegler picking up 63% of the 153 votes cast in this category, and cantering to victory. Hard to argue, considering Ziegler posted the lowest ERA in Diamondbacks history by any reliever with 40 innings in a season, and notching 30 saves for us, more than he had picked up in his previous six seasons combined. It's easy to forget that he was a question-mark coming into this year. He missed almost the entire last month of 2014, and pitching while injured lead to an ERA after the break of 6.27, before his season was ended with microfracture knee surgery on September 9.
At the time, it seemed Brad being ready for the start of the 2015 campaign might "be a stretch," but he was ready for Opening Day. And Ziegler was clearly back to his old self, going the entire month of April without allowing a run, allowing one hit and one walk to the 30 batters he faced. Meanwhile, closer Addison Reed was delivering what we called on May 14, "appearances that fall somewhere between a Six Flags roller-coaster ride and an extinction level meteor strike, in terms of entertainment." 24 hours later, Reed was gone, and Ziegler picked up his first save on May 21, throwing a perfect ninth with two strikeouts in just nine pitches against Miami.
Brad was virtually as impeccable the rest of the way, blowing his only save opportunity as closer on May 27 against the Cardinals. But two days later in Milwaukee, he picked up the first of an ongoing and unbroken streak of 28 consecutive save opportunities. That tied J.J. Putz's franchise record, the 28th coming on the final day of the season, when Ziegler picked up the first two-inning save opportunity by a Diamondbacks' closer since Matt Mantei in April 2003. He ended with 30 saves in our final 123 games, and would have been nearer 40 if he had been in the role from Opening Day.. Only one man, Mark Melancon, had more saves and a lower ERA over that time than Z.
The knee surgery perhaps turned out to be in our favor, as it may have prevented the team from dealing Ziegler last winter. The team was rebuilding, and $5 million for a set-up man seemed a lot for that situation. But the question of his health kept suitors away, and his effectiveness as a closer for Arizona changed the picture radically. Exercising the team option at $5.5 million for 2016 was an absolute no-brainer, and likely also prevented the team from feeling they had to go out and trade for a Proven Closer - I'm particularly grateful to him for that.
Ziegler is hardly your prototypical ninth-inning guy, blazing the ball past the hitter. Last season, Brad's average fastball was a mere 83.9 mph, which is below even Josh Collmenter (84.8 mph). But, as Jack Magruder wrote in August, "because Ziegler puts the ball where he wants it, varies speeds, and rarely gets above mid-thigh level, the craftsman approach has been every bit as effective." It also helps that Ziegler throws what Eno Sarris called (it's a fascinating article, well worth a full read for fans of pitching), "the rarest pitch in baseball." He was referring to Brad's change-up, of which Sarris says, "Nobody else throws the same pitch with the same mechanics."
What's perhaps most remarkable is that, despite his brilliant performance, Ziegler himself didn't even feel like he was fully recovered from the surgery. In September, he rated himself as being only at 75 percent, feeling that his left leg wasn't as strong as it should be. He said, "This offseason I’ll still be doing more stuff to try to get ready for next year. Ideally next year I’ll feel a whole lot better than I have at any point this year." If that does indeed turn out to be the case, and as it looks, Ziegler gets to spend the entire season in the closer's role, batters in the league are going to spend an awful lot of time futilely legging out weak grounders to the infield.
Ziegler's season in history
It's not much of a stretch to call Brad's 2015 performance a historic one for the Diamondbacks bullpen. Here are the top ten seasons by ERA from Arizona relievers with 40 or more innings of work.
|Rk||Player||ERA||IP||Yr ||A||G||W||L||SV||H||R||ER||BB||K ||FIP||ERA+||BA||OBP||SLG||OPS||OPS+|
It was the first time a qualified Arizona bullpen arm had a sub-two ERA, though where you rank it, depends on your chosen metric. If you adjust for history, Kim's 2.04 ERA, in an offensively-dominant period, was fractionally better. And you have to tip the hat to Papa Grande's 2003, holding batters to a minute .137 average and striking out 12.7 per nine IP. But what Ziegler gives up in K's, is more than made up for by those ground-play double-balls which have become his trademark, courtesy of that devastating sinker. Last year, Brad got better than four ground-outs for every air-out; league average was 1.21, and only two NL pitchers with 30+ innings were even at three.
It's also worth seeing where Ziegler's time with Arizona ranks overall. Here are the top 10 relievers for the Diamondbacks, with 100 or more career innings.
Now, regardless of whether you look at ERA or ERA+, Ziegler is the best reliever the team has ever had, and it's not even close. Indeed, over the past five seasons, you can make a case Brad has been among the very best relievers in baseball, with an ERA+ that's superior to much more touted names like Jonathan Papelbon, Huston Street and Kenley Jansen. Certainly, if there was ever a reliever on this team better suited to win this honor than Ziegler, they aren't coming to my mind. This was a thoroughly well-deserved honor, and I'm looking forward to another great season from Z in 2016. It'll be strange, yet undeniably nice, to feel comfortable with a ninth inning lead!