Evaluating Emilio Pagan

Evaluating Emilio Pagan

A primary focus this offseason for the front office was strengthening a bullpen that finished 29th in the league with a 4.87 xFIP, 27th in strikeout percentage, and 27th in walk rate. Emilio Pagan was the second of three signings, along with Nick Martinez and Brent Suter, in an attempt to bolster these numbers. Unfortunately, injuries have pushed Martinez into a starting role to begin the year. Steve looked at the Reds Opening Day bullpen, but let’s take a deeper look at one of the primary off-season signings, Emilio Pagan, and what we can expect from him out of the pen this year.

Player History & Signing

The Cincinnati Reds will be Pagan’s sixth team in eight years. Seattle drafted Pagan in 2013, where he rose through their farm system before making his major league debut in 2017. For the next three years, offseason trades sent Pagan to Oakland, Tampa Bay, and finally, San Diego. Pagan made San Diego home for two seasons before again being traded, this time to Minnesota, where he had the third highest and most innings pitched out of the bullpen in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

At the end of November, the Reds signed the 32-year-old to a two-year, 16 million-dollar deal, with a player option after year one. The contract from the Reds is Pagan’s first multi-year deal. Recovery from a sports hernia delayed Pagan’s spring training debut until March 9th, when he threw an inning in relief with two strikeouts.

Pitch Arsenal

Pagan throws a four-seam and cut fastball along with a splitter and curveball. His four-seam and cutter accounted for over 85% of his pitches in 2023 (55% four-seam, 30.1% cutter). The four-seamer runs in the mid-nineties and tops out at 98 mph. The cut fastball, which he primarily will throw to lefties, sits in the upper eighties with a little over four inches of break – good for over an inch more movement than the average. Pagan introduced a split-finger two years ago and will mix it in about 12% of the time, almost exclusively to lefties. Pagan will occasionally spin a curveball (2.5% of the time) to give batters something to have in the back of their head.

Performance History

Over his seven seasons, Emilio Pagan appeared in 369 games with an ERA of 3.71. Primarily, Pagan operated as a setup man, but was the primary closer for the Rays in 2019. Throughout his career, Pagan has seen ups and downs, and has had seasons where his expected statistics and fundamentals have not coincided with his ERA.

The best example of this phenomenon might be this past year. Pagan posted only slightly above average strikeout rate of 23.8% (53rd percentile) and walk rate of 7.7% (61st percentile). His average exit velocity ranked in the bottom 11th percentile along with a hard hit rate in the 8th percentile. Even with these statistics, Pagan had the second best ERA of his career at 2.99. This was likely fueled by a BABIP of .221 and HR/FB of 5.3%.

In 2022 Pagan posted his second highest strikeout rate of his career at 30.7% (90th percentile) along with a slightly lower average exit velocity, and near identical hard-hit rate. His walk rate of 9.5% dropped him into the 27th percentile that year. All of this culminated in an ERA of 4.43. We might look again at his BABIP of .318 and HR/FB of 18.5% as key indicators of the final difference.

Concerns

Most of the hope around Emilio Pagan is that he will be able to recapture what he did in 2023. However, as mentioned above, the actual statistics might not hold up with a repeat performance. A BABIP of .221 is significantly lower than the average of around .300 and the HR/FB rate of 5.3% is almost half of the league average of around 10%. This further explains the gap in xFIP of 4.57 to his FIP of 3.27, since xFIP uses the league average of HR/FB.

Pagan’s career HR/FB percentage sits at 12.8%, closer, but still above that league average, so we can expect a regression to the mean. Compounding that regression is the fact that Pagan is a heavy fly ball pitcher with a career rate at 35% (the league average being 23.5%). We also know the Reds’ ballpark is not always friendly to fly ball pitchers, and looking back at 2021, those 16 home runs given up project to be 21 in Great American Ballpark. His 12 home runs given up in 2022 would turn into 15. Pagan is an extreme fly ball pitcher, moving into a relatively unfriendly ballpark to fly ball pitchers, and should expect to have a HR/FB rate regress somewhat aggressively back to the mean from the prior year.

Potential

Over his career Pagan’s walk and strikeout rates have gone back and forth but, overall, have been on the right sides of the league average. Pagan has the ability to create swings and misses, and with it plenty of strikeouts. It was just 2022 he registered in the 83rd and 84th percentiles in Chase % and Whiff %, posting a 30.7% strikeout rate. If Pagan can combine those numbers with a more manageable walk rate like he had in 2023, he could see success and would not need to rely as much on fly balls staying in the park.

He has also had two years with fly ball rates under 30% (2019 and 2022) that coincided with his lowest two years of xFIP. While still quite above the league average, this would be below his career numbers and would help in the potential uptick in rate of fly balls being home runs we would expect from last year to this year. Pagan’s utilization of his split-finger between 2022-2023 is the critical driver in this fly ball rate difference. 

In 2022 Pagan threw a splitter almost a quarter of the time, producing a flyball rate of 21.6%. Compare this to the four seam fastball he threw over half the time that resulted in a 39.7% fly ball rate. The splitter also accounted for the highest percentages of swing and misses, both in and out of zone for the last two years. However, in 2023 Pagan’s use of the split finger was nearly cut in half down to only 12.3%. Moving back to that pitch more might allow for Pagan to increase strikeouts and decrease flyballs.

What’s Expected

David Bell envisions utilizing Pagan in late-game situations but leaves the door open for other situations. “He probably will pitch the eighth and the ninth, but he’s willing and able to do whatever to help us win games.” Pagan seems confident and comfortable without the ninth inning stating, “I know I can be one of the best relievers in the game. I know I can handle the ninth inning for a majority of the clubs. But I just want to win.”

Most projections seem to envision a season where the concerns highlighted above will come to fruition. ZiPS and Steamer both project Pagan’s HR/9 closer to career levels of around 1.6, a full home run higher than his 2023 numbers. His ZiPs has his ERA at 4.64, again closer to his 2021 and 2022 ERAs posted.

Pagan’s prior innings pitched and the contract signed with the Reds already indicated a relatively high workload. With the inuries to Reds’ starters moving Martinez into a starter’s role, and the lingering injuries to Ian Gibaut, Sam Moll, and Alex Young, the bullpen is already thin again even after offseason additions. Pagan will be integral to success of the season as the primary setup for Alexis Diaz.

Featured Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

Chris Duzyk

Chris began his Reds fandom with family trips from central Kentucky to Riverfront Stadium. At a young age, he had to learn to swing a wiffle ball bat left handed to properly imitate Ken Griffey Jr. and Sean Casey in backyard games against his brother. A graduate from Centre College, he was able to combine his love of baseball statistics and analytics often into his statistics and econometrics courses. He currently is living in Northern Kentucky where all it takes is a simple walk across the bridge to enjoy the games. Find him on Twitter @cduzyk.

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