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Blaine Boyer was uniquely successful for the Milwakee Brewers in 2016

In one sense, Boyer’s performance as a Brewer was quite average. In another sense, it was truly remarkable.

New York Mets v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

You may have completely forgotten this, but Blaine Boyer was a Milwaukee Brewer for one season in 2016. Here’s video evidence that Blaine Boyer was, in fact, an actual baseball player.

You are forgiven if Boyer’s existence completely escaped your memory. The reality is that on the surface, his lone campaign in the Cream City was not especially noteworthy. He was signed to be a durable and perfectly average middle reliever for the rebuilding Brewers. Boyer met those expectations. The veteran right-hander ate up 66 innings out of the bullpen, posting a 94 ERA-. He did earn one save, and once in a while, he would be called on to protect a lead in the 7th or 8th inning.

Most writeups about Blaine Boyer the Brewer would end right there. Not this one. His 2016 season was not just a quietly decent one. In a way, it was legendary.

Boyer’s game plan always focused on inducing outs on balls in play. With the Brewers, he took it to the greatest extreme possible in the modern game. His 9.2% strikeout rate ranked dead last among all qualified MLB relievers in 2016. That’s a major reason why complex ERA estimators like SIERA (4.87) and DRA (6.91) were not fans of Boyer’s work on the mound. According to Baseball Savant, the sinkerballer’s whiff rate was in the bottom 1% of all pitchers. Per FanGraphs, his 6.2% swinging strike rate was the third-lowest for a reliever. Opponents made contact with a whopping 88.1% of his pitches.

All of this is to say that if you struck out against Blaine Boyer, it was fairly embarrassing.

Boyer’s inability to punch guys out during that particular summer was historic for a relief pitcher, particularly when you consider the environment in which he pitched. If you were to go back 50 years, you would find that low strikeout rates were far more common than they are today. Boyer, however, was pitching in a whiff-heavy environment, which is what makes his season truly remarkable.

The contact specialist’s 43 K%+ (which is strikeout rate scaled to 100 being ‘average’, similar to ERA+) is the lowest single-season mark by a reliever in franchise history. League-wide, it is the lowest by any bullpen arm in the 21st century. Since 1920, there have been over 7,200 qualified relief seasons. Boyer’s lone campaign in Milwaukee is the 35th worst by K%+.

It doesn’t end there. Consider that the red-headed hurler had a decent season despite the mind-boggling lack of strikeouts. Of the aforementioned pitchers with a lower K%+ than Boyer, only three were better than league-average by both ERA and FIP: Arnie Stone in 1924, Chad Bradford in 2008, and Pedro Borbon in 1975.

When your strikeout rate is 57% worse than the league average, your odds of being a useful reliever are not favorable. As one would expect, Boyer gave up plenty of hits. Opponents posted a .305 batting average against him, and he yielded nearly 11 hits per nine innings. Only Carlos Villanueva and Erasmo Ramirez allowed more hits out of the bullpen that year.

How then did Boyer manage to put up the serviceable numbers that he did? As hard as it was to not put the ball in play against him, it was just as difficult to square him up. Boyer’s 1.3% barrel rate was the lowest in all of baseball. His hard hit rate and average exit velocity were in the 95th and 93rd percentile, respectively.

The veteran was not necessarily a ground ball machine. His 48.9% grounder rate was fine, but only 8% better than the league average. When he did induce choppers, they came in timely situations. His 11 groundball double plays ranked fifth among relievers. He also demonstrated an ability to suppress slugging on all kinds of balls in play. On line drives, the middle reliever held opponents to the lowest expected slugging percentage in baseball. On fly balls, the 10th lowest.

As you probably guessed, Boyer’s method of attack was throwing his sinker down and in and throwing his slider down and out.

Baseball Savant

Per Statcast, the sinker had above-average movement both vertically and horizontally. The slider more closely resembled a cutter; at an average of 87 MPH, it was thrown harder than a typical slider and had more of a cutting action.

In fact, Boyer himself has referred to it as a cutter and described it as an important equalizer; Royals catcher Drew Butera characterized it as the veteran’s “big pitch.” It was certainly a useful part of his arsenal in 2016, when it held opponents to a .274 wOBA and an 81.5 MPH average exit velocity. FanGraphs valued the cutter at 4 runs above average, easily making it Boyer’s best offering.

As comically poor as Blaine was in the strikeout department, his command of the sinker/cutter combination led to a strong performance in other aspects of pitching. He limited free passes and home runs  —  his 6% walk rate and 0.55 HR/9 were both in the top 30 of all relievers  —  and prevented opponents from making solid contact on his pitches. As a result, his xERA of 3.59 was actually lower than his actual 3.95 ERA.

Baseball was — and still is — clearly trending away from an environment that favored a pitch-to-contact approach, especially out of the bullpen. Yes, many teams still have a groundball specialist, but just about every pitcher in the game will strike out at least 10% of opposing hitters that he faces. Flamethrowing strikeout artists had become the name of the game by 2016. Of the top 30 relievers in fWAR, 25 averaged more than one strikeout per inning. On the offensive side, J.D. Martinez, Josh Donaldson, and Daniel Murphy had ushered in a new philosophy: elevate the ball for better power numbers, and tolerate the uptick in strikeouts that came with it.

The changing direction of the game did not stop Blaine Boyer. As the rest of baseball was swimming one way, the bearded righty went charging in the opposite direction. He knew that you would hit him; he also knew that if he executed his pitches, those balls in play would not be doubles and dingers like you wanted them to be.

At the end of the day, this approach would limit Boyer’s ceiling to a useful-but-not-great middle reliever. That is why he typically had to settle for minor-league deals and fight for a roster spot every spring. Things quickly went downhill after his stint in Milwaukee. His sinker flattened out, and he would toss a combined 63 innings with a 7.00 ERA and 5.22 FIP over the following two seasons.

For that one season, however, Boyer rode his extreme profile to a moderately successful campaign out of the bullpen. Maybe he did not seem like anything special, but he was a rare throwback to a style of pitching from long ago. (The last MLB season to feature a league strikeout rate below 10% was 1951.) In hindsight, he deserves more credit for sticking to his unpopular approach and making it work.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus