Earlier in the 2014 season, pitcher Brandon Maurer’s future with the Seattle Mariners was in serious doubt.
Much like the year before, Maurer was forced into the starting rotation due to injuries and struggled, posting a 7.52 ERA (5.37 FIP) in seven starts while walking nearly as many as he struck out.
Although he just turned 24 years old, Maurer didn’t look to have a place in a healthy Seattle rotation, either in the present or in the future. He was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma on May 29.
The Mariners surprised by calling up Maurer on June 25, a few days before Taijuan Walker returned from a shoulder injury and took over the No. 5 rotation spot.
Even more surprising, Maurer came out of the bullpen that night in the late innings of a close game rather than the long-relief role he was placed in near the end of 2013.
Maurer didn’t just look better on June 25, he looked dominant.
In seven scoreless innings out of the bullpen so far, Maurer has given up only three hits and two walks while striking out nine. Seven innings isn’t enough to judge anything statistically, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Maurer’s ideal fit was in the bullpen all along.
Maurer has always had the raw stuff to be successful. He used a lively mid-90s fastball and assortment of various off-speed pitches to dominate the low minors, racking up strikeout rates north of 30 percent along the way.
The strikeouts came back to earth a bit in Double-A as Maurer began to struggle with his command, but he still posted a 3.20 ERA and gave up just four home runs in 24 starts. Seattle needed a starter at the beginning of the 2013 season and decided to have Maurer skip Triple-A to join the rotation.
It didn’t work, as Maurer looked completely overmatched as a major league starter. We can’t know how much those initial struggles impacted his confidence or mentality, but he continued to be ineffective for the rest of the year and early on in 2014.
Then the breakthrough came on June 25 against the Boston Red Sox, as he struck out the side in his first relief inning.
We’ve seen Maurer’s fastball sit around 95 or 96 mph before, but it has hit 99 several times since his move to the bullpen. With as lively as his fastball is, the increased velocity is going to be a challenge for opposing hitters.
Maurer said pitching short outings out of the bullpen has improved his mentality, per Greg Johns of MLB.com.
"It's fun. Just attack, get back in the dugout and let our hitters put up some runs…I think that has to do with adrenaline, just knowing I can get out there and let it rip for an inning or two and let it go that way.”
Maurer has also been using his slider effectively as an out pitch since moving to the bullpen. Data from PITCHf/x on FanGraphs.com indicates Maurer has done a good job of getting hitters to chase his slider out of the strike zone, generating a swinging strike percentage of 17.4.
It’s when Maurer tries to mix and match his other three pitches that he runs into trouble. Only having two plus pitches won’t work for a starter, but it can make for an effective short-inning reliever.
It’s still too early to think about prepping Maurer for a closer role one day, but he has the makeup and stuff for it.
Maurer’s command issues as a starter made him prone to big innings, even on the few occasions he started well. He also tends to throw far too many pitches, lasting past the fifth just once this year.
Both are things Maurer won’t have to worry as much about coming out of the bullpen, which could further help his mentality on the mound.
The other scenario Maurer’s conversion opens up is using him as a potential trade chip. If he continues to look dominant as the deadline approaches, the Mariners could use the opportunity to sell high on him in an attempt to get the right-handed bat they desperately need.
Seattle’s bullpen has been outstanding all year, leading the majors in ERA while striking out over a batter per inning. It would be nice to have yet another power arm in the bullpen, but the Mariners can survive without Maurer should a trade open up.
Just months after he looked lost, Maurer’s future is brighter than ever.
All stats via FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.