- Rating: 2.81
- Age: 27 (since March 15)
- 2021 Stats (total): 24 G, 22.2 IP, 31 H, 18 R, 13 ER, 2 HR, 9 BB, 26 SO, 5.16 ERA
- 2021 Earnings: league minimum
- 2022 Status: pre-arbitration, on 40-man roster, no options left
Harvard University is not exactly renowned as a hot-bed of baseball talent. The sole graduate from there to make even 150 appearances in the majors over the last century, was first baseman Tony Lupien. His career ended in 1948. It may be one of the most renowned educational establishments in the world, open for almost four hundred years (laughs in British). However, it has never produced a baseball All-Star, and only four major-leaguers over the past thirty years. But there were three Harvardians this season, a number not surpassed since 1914. Tanner Anderson worked one game for the Pirates, and Brent Suter was a mainstay in the Brewers bullpen (but missed the playoffs with an oblique injury).
Then there was Sean “Professor” Poppen who graduated with honors from Harvard, double majoring in Chemistry/Physics, and Engineering Sciences. So, if there’s a smarter man on the Diamondbacks 40-man roster, I’d like to hear about them. Originally a 19th-round pick by the Twins, he was picked off waivers by the Pirates last October, then sold to the Rays in May, and was hoovered up by Arizona off waivers from Tampa on August 2nd. He spent the rest of the month bouncing between the D-backs and Reno, being optioned and recalled twice, but eventually sticking around for the whole month of September. He made 13 appearances that month (13), behind only Joe Mantiply and Noe Ramirez.
A 5.16 ERA doesn’t seem like anything special. But he may have been unlucky: his .414 BABIP ranked Poppen third highest among 567 pitchers with 20+ innings of work last year. Though against that, he gave up a lot of hard-hit balls. His line-drive rate of 29.2% ranked seventh in the same sample [line-drives have a very high chance of becoming hits, so a lot of them will naturally inflate a pitcher’s BABIP] He also seemed to struggle with consistency. Poppen’s longest streak of outings without allowing an earned run this year was just five games (though did include his first MLB win on Sep 23, above). Still, his FIP was more than a run and a half lower than his ERA, at 3.61, and a K-rate in double digits is always nice.
Perhaps the main thing working in Poppen’s favor is that he appears to have no minor-league options left. So, if he were to be sent down to the minors, he would first have to pass through waivers to get there. While not impossible, it’d certainly be a risk. On the other hand, if he’s being sent down, it’s presumably because Poppen isn’t pitching very well. Avoiding the hard contact is going to be key. Small sample size, but what stood out for me this year was his high percentage of strikes looking: 36.2%, compared to an MLB average of 25.9%. Especially in the zone, batters just swung less often at his offerings: (Z-Swing of 40.9%, where the MLB average was 47.2%).
On the other hand, when they swung, they tended not to miss. His Z-Contact rate was 90.1% (MLB avg: 84.6%), and as we saw above, this resulted in a lot of line drives. If that can be fixed, without hampering things elsewhere, he could become a useful piece out of the bullpen. Despite the lack of options, he has only just over one year of service time, so won’t even become arbitration eligible until the 2024 season, so has plenty of team control. Poppen will perhaps be an interesting test subject for new pitching coach Brent Strom, as a pitcher who seems to have potential - just talent that has not yet been unlocked in the major leagues.
But if anyone can figure things out, I suspect Prof. Poppen is the man to do so.