Spring training storylines seem distant now that the regular season has begun, but it was just a month ago that Brett Cecil and Jeremy Jeffress were competing for the last spot in the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen.
Both relievers ultimately made the team, yet Jeffress lost his roster spot after one appearance. Cecil, on the other hand, has established himself in his new role.
With a 1.80 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 10 innings, the converted starter has arguably been the most productive left-handed reliever in manager John Gibbons’ bullpen.
His average fastball now checks in at 91 m.p.h., an increase compared to last year (89.3 m.p.h.) and his career mark (90.2 m.p.h.). Yet when asked about the relationship between his velocity increase and his early-season success, Cecil downplayed the connection.
“Maybe. I’ve gotten away with pitches here and there,” he said. “For example Vernon [Wells] the other day hit a homer and it was 93. That ball’s gone if it’s 85 or it’s 93.”
Cecil’s memory serves him well, as Wells did homer off of a 93 m.p.h. fastball in Friday night's series opener between the Blue Jays and New York Yankees. The pitch was over the plate, however, and Wells belted it into the first deck in left field.
It's the lone home run allowed this year by Cecil, who has struggled to limit the long ball in years past. While any pitcher would take a bit more zip on his fastball, location still trumps velocity in Cecil’s estimation.
“If you’re hitting your spots with 88 or 95 -- whatever it is -- you’re going to get outs,” he said. “If not then, you’re not.”
To that end, Cecil has been placing a higher percentage of pitches within the strike zone this year -- 52.3% compared to 47% in 2012.
His strikeout rate is way up early on, with more strikeouts than innings pitched. Throwing more strikes is definitely part of his game plan so far in 2013.
“Yeah, any pitcher wants to pump strikes, especially coming out of the bullpen,” Cecil said. “You don’t want to have a ‘pen guy come in and walk guys, walk guys. I want to come in and pump strikes, get quick outs and get in the dugout.”
Most of Cecil's big league experience comes in the starting rotation, so he’s still adapting to his new role in the bullpen. Entering the 2013 season, the 26-year-old had pitched out of the bullpen just 13 times in four MLB seasons. Most of that experience came last September, when he made 12 appearances out of the bullpen.
When it comes to recording outs in relief, Cecil is flexible. He reasons that ground balls, fly balls and strikeouts all count the same in the end.
“I just want to get outs whatever way I can,” he said. “I’ve been using my sinker a lot more and it’s definitely gotten a lot better with increased velocity. It’s got a lot more movement to it. So yeah if I’m in a tight situation and need a couple quick outs or a quick out or something it can work out and I can get a ground ball.”
So far, the outs have been piling up for Cecil. It’s an encouraging start to the season for a converted starter who was battling for a bullpen spot not long ago.
Pitch data via FanGraphs.