Four of baseball’s top five relievers at generating strikeouts feature mid-to-upper 90’s fastballs and devastating breaking balls. The other is Zach Putnam.
The 27-year-old White Sox reliever is averaging 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings, the fourth-highest rate in baseball. He’s doing it with his sinker/cutter/splitter combination, baffling opposing hitters with pitches that range between 84 and 89 miles per hour.
Putnam doesn’t fit the profile of the hard-throwing, strikeout machine relief pitcher. But he’s nonetheless up there with Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman (15.7 K/9), New York’s Andrew Miller (14.7 K/9) and Dellin Betances (14.7 K/9) and Cleveland’s Cody Allen (13.7 K/9). Established power relievers like San Diego’s Craig Kimbrel and White Sox closer David Robertson haven’t generated strikeouts at a rate as high as Putnam.
“I don’t know if it’s surprising, but we know what he’s got and he uses his offspeed stuff very well,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He’ll sit there and he’ll throw out his fastball and be able to get a guy chasing after it, but you know his bread and butter is going to be his offspeed stuff. So he has to be able to throw it for strikes and get guys to chase it. When he’s doing that, he’s tough to pick up.”
After a rough start to 2015, Putnam’s found that balance and a way to build on his success last year. The right-hander allowed four runs in his first two games this season, but since has a 2.18 ERA while limiting opponents to a .181 batting average over 22 games.
That he’s having success while striking out so many batters (35 in 22 2/3 IP) is a little more surprising than Ventura is letting on.
Putnam had one game in 2014 in which he struck out three or more batters, and that came in a two-inning appearance. He finished the year with 46 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings, good for a strikeout rate of 7.6 per nine innings.
Despite that low K-rate, Putnam still had a 1.98 ERA. But he had some luck on his side — a .257 BABIP and 80 percent left-on-base rate.
He’s counter-acted those luck regressions (.319 BABIP, 73.6 percent LOB rate) by striking out tons of hitters so far this season. His splitter has been an effective out-pitch — he’s throwing it on three of every four pitches with two strikes, and opposing hitters are whiffing at it nearly 25 percent of the time.
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Putnam credited his catchers with setting up ideal pitch sequences to generate plenty of swings and misses so far.
“Honestly, I’d like to thank Geo (Soto) and (Tyler Flowers) for that more than anything,” Putnam said. “I’m doing everything the same. I trust those guys to put down the right fingers. They do a lot of research, they work real hard trying to figure out what’s going to be the best pitch in the right spot to certain guys and they’ve done an unbelievable job with me and the rest of the staff.”
After his rough beginning to the season, Putnam and pitching coach Don Cooper made a few minor tweaks to his mechanics that he said have helped. With his memories of his strong 2014 season still fresh, he was able to trust his ability to get major league hitters out, too.
Putnam has only recently been eased into some higher-leverage situations, and as recently as June 13 he coughed up two runs and was saddled with a loss in a 5-4 defeat to the Rays at Tropicana Field. But as long as he’s racking up strikeouts, Ventura plans on turning to him in those pressure-packed spots going forward.
“He’s worked his way into getting into some tough situations, as far as innings and those tougher, late innings, where there’s no room for error,” Ventura said. “He’d done a really good job of coming in there and bridging that gap to where we can get to (Zach) Duke or Robertson.”