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Arizona Diamondbacks All-Time Top 50: #18, Brad Ziegler

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#ZieglerGonnaZiegle

Philadelphia Phillies v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images
  • Avg ranking (high/low/most common): 20.93 (4/46/15)
  • Seasons: 2011-2016
  • Stats: 348 games, 335.2 IP, 2.49 ERA, 161 ERA+, 7.3 bWAR
  • Best season: 2015 – 66 games, 30 saves, 68.0 IP, 1.85 ERA, 223 ERA+, 2.1 bWAR

“It doesn’t really matter how you pitch, you just got to get outs.”
Brad Ziegler

How good was Ziegler? Including his partial seasons with the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox, over the six seasons between 2011-2016, Brad had an ERA+ of 168. That was the best figure of ANY reliever in baseball with 400+ innings of work. Only two other bullpen arms with such a workload were able even to reach an ERA+ of 130 (Mark Melancon, 157, and Tyler Clippard, 145). You can cut the inning requirement in half, and Ziegler would still rank #7. Over those seasons, he was one of the very best relievers in baseball, with an ERA+ superior to many more touted names including Kenley Jansen, Jonathan Papelbon and Greg Holland. The Diamondbacks were fortunate to have him.

Given this high level of performance, it’s remarkable how little it took for Arizona to acquire Ziegler. This was a trade deadline deal in July 2011, when he came over from the A’s, in exchange for 1B Brandon Allen and relief pitcher Jordan Norberto. Allen gave Oakland 185 PAs at below replacement level, while Norberto was hampered by injuries, suspended due to his patronage of Biogenesis and hasn’t pitched in the majors since August 2012. Ziegler’s payroll cost was hardly extortionate either: his salary peaked at $5.5 million for his final season of 2016. That’s what Marc Rzepczynski and his career 108 ERA+ earned as a free-agent, while pitching for the Mariners last year.

All this was achieved despite a fastball which Yasmany Tomas would have snorted at, derisively, as he blew past it on the 101: it averaged about 85 mph in Z’s time here. His change-up fluttered towards the pitcher at around 77 mph, and his slider touched maybe 74 on a good day. But it was the movement on them which made his off-speed pitches (and I want to include his fastball there!) so effective. They almost knuckled their way across the plate, in particular sinking at the last minute. That made them almost impossible for hitters to square up, and the standard result was a weak chopper, resulting in a groundout to the infield.

This is why we were sublimely unconcerned if the tying run got on base, because Ziegler was always a pitch away from a twin-killing. [It’s also partly why Brad was able to flourish despite a very modest strikeout rate of 6.2 per nine innings] Batters just could not get the ball in the air. Over the same 2011-16 period, Ziegler had a fly-ball percentage of 13.6%. That was the lowest of the 280 qualifying pitchers, and it isn’t even close: nobody else was below twenty percent. His GB/FB ratio during that time was 5.09: the next highest in the majors was 3.21 (Zack Britton). We could likely have played a five-man infield when he was on the mound. Or even a seven-man one.

This downward movement was a result of his rare, submarine throwing action. As Mike Petriello noted, “While a submariner doesn’t actually release the ball out of the hand differently than a traditional pitcher, they’re bent so far over at the waist that the end result is that the spin angle is all but inverted, making the spin something more like a curveball (which has topspin driving the ball down) than a fastball (which has backspin).” See the outing above for a perfect example: Ziegler put the tying run on third-base with no outs in the ninth, before getting a K and a game-ending DP.

However, this is one of those cases where a picture is worth a thousand sabermetric statistics. So I humbly offer you instead this series of GIFs, which should help illustrate exactly what hitters had to deal with.

He was the consummate fireman, brought in to extinguish offensive rallies, regardless of the situation. For the first three and a half seasons here, Brad was our closer only for the second half of 2013, after first J.J. Putz and then Heath Bell had both been found wanting. From his first save on July 4, Ziegler had a 13-appearance streak before allowing his first earned run, putting up a 1.60 ERA over the rest of the season. Yet the following year, he went right back to his previous role, without any apparent complaint, as Addison Reed took over. Ziegler finally got his chance in 2015, and reached 30 saves (in 32 chances) on a sub-.500 team, with a 1.86 ERA.

While quiet in the clubhouse, Ziegler was a force to be reckoned with on social media (or eBay!), always Tweeting his mind. The forthrightness occasionally brought a quiet word from his employers, Derrick Hall telling USA Today: “There has been a time or two where I’d ask him, ‘Why would you say that?’ Or suggest that he might want to check with us first because that can offend someone.” But that was always part of Ziegler’s appeal: He’s now approaching his eighth anniversary on Twitter, without having ever deleted his account. He said, “I’m just a normal guy and want them to treat me like that. I don’t want [fans] to think I’m different because I play baseball for a living.“

Connected to the above, in 2014, Brad became a charter member of the Taylor Hooton Foundation’s MLB Advisory Board, which educates young athletes about the dangers of PEDs. Also off the field, he was the creator of, and still is heavily involved with, Pastime for Patriots, a charity providing educationally-based financial assistance to military children and activities for military members and their families. By the time of Ziegler’s departure from Arizona in July 2016, it had given away more than 17,000 baseball tickets. He said, “We wanted to do something unique. Anybody sitting at their house can do the care package thing, but not everybody can provide baseball tickets.”

When the end of his time in Arizona finally came, in early July 2016, it came quickly. And it was also a surprise to Ziegler, who said the team had just contacted him about the possibility of a contract extension. “They had reached out about a week before, just kinda talked about, ‘Would you consider signing an extension or whatever.’ I said, ‘I’m open to whatever. Just come back to me with something and let me know.’ The next time I heard from them I was traded.” Even though it was for half a season, the haul from the Boston Red Sox was unimpressive, with some believing GM Dave Stewart got the wrong Luis A. Basabe.

A free-agent at the end of 2016, Ziegler signed with the Marlins, and for whatever reason, the D-backs may have dodged a bullet by avoiding the contract extension. Because last year was easily the worst of Ziegler’s career, his 85 ERA+ twenty-three points below what he posted any other season. The two-year, $16 million deal signed with Miami certainly didn’t offer good value in its first year. But considering how much Ziegler did for the D-backs in his time here, I’m more than happy to see him finally getting paid for all of that.