When the Detroit Tigers signed Tom Gorzelanny late in the 2015 offseason, they did not realize that they were getting two different pitchers. Unfortunately, neither of them were any good. Gorzelanny the former allowed a 6.38 ERA and .926 OPS in 24 innings from the start of the season to July 2. He was designated for assignment on July 3, and spent just over a month in Triple-A Toledo.
When Gorzelanny returned to Detroit, he featured a new, lower arm angle with hopes of adding deception to an arsenal that didn't fool anyone through the first three months of the season. It made him a more effective pitcher, but not by much. In 15 1/3 innings after being recalled, Gorzelanny allowed a 5.28 ERA and .792 OPS.
The final result? A 2-2 record, 5.95 ERA, and 1.73 WHIP in 39 1/3 innings. He walked over five batters per nine innings and was worth -0.1 WAR. The only silver lining to take from the Gorzelanny experiment was that he only cost the Tigers $1 million for the season.
Or was it? Gorzelanny's numbers didn't show much improvement after he was designated for assignment, but there were some distinct changes in his arsenal that suggest he could actually be the pitcher the Tigers were hoping for this season.
As a full-time starter for several years before transitioning to the bullpen, Gorzelanny has relied on a standard four-pitch arsenal for most of his career. This continued for the most part in 2015, but Gorzelanny relied primarily on four and two-seam fastballs, and a curveball through the first three months of the season. He also mixed in a changeup, a slider with similar velocity and shape to the curveball, and a few cutters in the 87-88 mile-per-hour range.
|Four-seam fastball||Two-seam fastball||Changeup||Slider||Curveball|
|1st half||28.2% (91.7 mph)||35.0% (91.0 mph)||10.4% (85.1 mph)||4.6% (80.6 mph)||20.2% (79.0 mph)|
|2nd half||2.3% (92.4 mph)||47.9% (92.0 mph)||9.0% (85.8 mph)||35.8% (79.8 mph)||5.06% (79.3 mph)|
After being designated for assignment, Gorzelanny came back a new pitcher. He all but scrapped his old arsenal, relying almost exclusively on his two-seam fastball and slider against left-handed hitters. He continued to throw the changeup to righthanders, but also upped his two-seamer usage. Gorzelanny's fastball velocity also picked up slightly, averaging nearly 92 miles per hour with the two-seamer down the stretch.
The arm angle
Much was made of Gorzelanny's delivery throughout the season. After he was designated for assignment, the Tigers had him focus on dropping his delivery to a near-sidearm angle. The results didn't look pretty at first; in nine innings with Triple-A Toledo, Gorzelanny walked nine hitters while allowing four runs. Live reports from Toledo weren't encouraging either, but the Tigers recalled Gorzelanny anyway.
The change in arm angle seemed to have a positive effect on the movement of his pitches. Both his fastball and changeup developed more arm-side run while his slider picked up a bit more bite. The differences were slight, but nearly all of Gorzelanny's pitches developed more movement as his arm angle dropped.
As identified above, Gorzelanny wasn't very good after being recalled by the Tigers in early August. However, he did improve, and closed out his season with a 2.89 ERA in his final nine appearances, the most arbitrary of end points. His 17:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 1/3 second half innings wasn't anything to write home about, though, and a 4.18 FIP isn't going to earn him free agency megabucks.
There may be something here, though. After relying heavily on fly ball outs for the first three months of the year, Gorzelanny's ground ball rate jumped from 36.7 percent to 44.7 percent after he dropped his arm angle. This was largely due to a sharp drop in line drive rate, while his fly ball rate stayed relatively level. This could still be statistical noise, but the increased movement on his fastball and relative shift of ground balls compared to fly balls could indicate a significant change in Gorzelanny's batted ball profile moving forward.
Gorzelanny's lower arm angle also made him tougher to hit. Opponents batted .327/.426/.500 off Gorzelanny before he was designated and just .232/.328/.464 after the All-Star break. Lefties suffered an even bigger drop-off, hitting just .133/.212/.233 after putting up a .786 OPS off Gorzelanny in the first half. These are very small samples -- Gorzelanny only faced 83 lefties all season -- but the significant changes to his arsenal and arm angle suggest that this is more than just a stretch of good BABIP luck.
The season started out well enough and through May went alright. But Gorzelanny's career was in danger of being over after a brutal outing on May 28 that snowballed through June, causing his ERA to jump from 2.93 to 6.38. It was that bad. The Tigers made a last resort move to salvage his career and sent him to Triple-A Toledo with a new arm slot to work on. After tinkering with that new slot for a little over a month, the Tigers recalled him. The return didn't go well for a month but the Tigers stuck with it. After a two-run, three-hit inning on Sept. 3, something clicked for Gorzelanny. From Sept. 6 through the remainder of the year he posted a 1.23 ERA across seven outings and walked only two batters my striking out eight.
Expectations for 2016
Gorzelanny is a free agent this offseason, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Tigers re-sign him to another cheap contract this offseason. His numbers this season were awful, but there is enough potential in the changes Gorzelanny made during the season to take another incentive-laden risk on a potentially useful reliever. Fans and executives alike should keep an eye on Gorzelanny's arm angle in spring training to see if he has his mechanics in sync for a bounce-back season in 2016.