Mike Minor's Move to the Bullpen Has Revitalized His Career

While he didn't have any experience as a full-time relief pitcher in the majors, Mike Minor's impressive 2017 has put him in a good position this winter.

Mike Minor's 2017 season was impressive for a couple of reasons.

Not only did he return to an MLB field for the first time since 2014 (surgery for a torn labrum in March of 2015 cost him two seasons), but the Kansas City Royals placed him in the bullpen on a full-time basis for the first time in his career.

The move was perfect for both parties -- the Royals got much-needed help in this area of their roster and Minor revitalized his value as a reliever, which is very important since the demand for high quality relief pitching is so high these days.

While he's not at the elite level some other relievers are on, he's unquestionably a top free agent target for teams in need of such pitching.

An Impressive Transformation

Prior to 2017, Minor's best season as a big leaguer came in 2013, when he posted a 13-9 record off the strength of a 3.21 ERA and 3.37 FIP, helping generate a 3.5 fWAR. It was an impressive performance, but it was also his only season as a starter in which he posted an fWAR better than 1.3. He was basically a back-of-the-rotation arm as a starter, but that's all changed now that he's a full-time reliever.

The southpaw threw 77.2 innings out of the pen this year (tied for ninth-most among relievers), and they were extremely effective frames. He posted career bests in ERA (2.55) and FIP (2.62), while his 2.1 fWAR was his second-highest mark in a single season. He never proved to be much of a strikeout pitcher, but he punched hitters out at a 28.7% clip (7.2% higher than his career average). His 7.2% walk rate wasn't out of the ordinary, but the rise in strikeouts yielded a 21.5% strikeout-to-walk ratio, a career-best mark.

As a starter, his fastball regularly sat at 91 miles per hour, but the average velocity of this offering jumped up to 94.9 mph out of the bullpen. His slider also saw a huge improvement -- after never posting a value greater than 0.9 (per FanGraphs) in a single year, that number increased all the way up to 11.7 in 2017.

Great Among His Peers

Not only was Minor one of MLB's most used relievers last year, but he also stacks up quite well against comparable arms -- his 2.1 fWAR was tied for ninth among all relievers, while his 2.62 FIP settled at 18th.

One of the biggest reasons why he was so successful was his ability to prevent the long ball -- especially in a season in which we saw more home runs than ever before. When looking at home-run-to-fly-ball ratio, the average for relievers in 2017 was 12.8%, making Minor's 6.3% mark even better.

Minor was one of the best relievers who logged big innings last season -- only 12 relievers threw at least 77 innings, while just 28 tossed 70-plus frames. The Royals' lefty was one of four relief pitchers to throw at least 77 innings and have a FIP below 3.00 (Yusmeiro Petit, Alex Claudio, and Anthony Swarzak were the others), with only he and Swarzak producing an fWAR above 2.0.

He stacks up pretty well with two other well-known rubber-armed relievers in Brad Hand and Chris Devenski. As the chart below shows, he out-pitched both of them this past year.

Name Innings Pitched FIP ERA- K-BB% fWAR
Chris Devenski 80.2 3.49 63 23.4% 1.4
Brad Hand 79.1 3.03 52 27.0% 1.7
Mike Minor 77.2 2.62 57 21.5% 2.1

Minor threw nearly the same number of innings as these two and was better than both by a legitimate margin. In addition to the rise in strikeouts, his batted-ball profile looked awfully good.

Along with limiting homers, he also did an excellent job of limiting line drives -- his 16.2% rate is nearly four percentage points below the league average for relievers. His ground-ball rate (42.4%) and fly-ball rate (41.4%) weren't quite up to the league average, but it was helpful that he limited opposing hitters to a 27.6% hard-hit rate.

This breakout season of sorts will give Minor plenty of options in the open market. He proved his health with a heavy workload and has solidified himself as a strong option for any club. While he does have a desire to give starting another shot next season, he's open to sticking in the bullpen. There will likely be teams willing to give him that opportunity, but just as many others will want him to help solidify their bullpen.

Either way, this transition into relieving has given Minor's career new life and will likely result in a nice new contract as he enters his age-30 season.