Relief pitching is a volatile trade, but Burke Badenhop was about as reliable as they get. His 2012 and ’13 seasons, in particular, are essentially mirror images. Armed with a sinking two-seam fastball, the big league veteran logged eight years in the majors with the Marlins, Rays, Brewers, Red Sox and Reds. Badenhop’s 54.4% ground ball rate ranked 16th out of 197 MLB pitchers who threw at least 500 innings during the span of his career, from 2008 to 2015, according to FanGraphs.
A 19th round pick by the Tigers out of Bowling Green, Badenhop received just a $1,000 signing bonus — $635 after taxes, he recalled — and was one of five minor leaguers included in the 2007 trade to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. That was the first of four trades in Badenhop’s career, which culminated with 512 1/3 innings, four saves, 45 holds, a 3.74 ERA and, crucially, 3.59 FIP (fielding-independent pitching, an advanced measure of pitching performance).
Badenhop, now 39, joined the front office of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017 as a pitching-focused baseball operations analyst and has since been promoted to special assistant to the general manager. A business major at Bowling Green, Badenhop is also the co-author of a book, “Financial Planning For Your First Job.”
On when he began using advanced data . . .
There’s two parts to it. There’s the advanced metrics, and then there’s also Pitch F/X pitch data. Early on in my career, when I was at the Marlins, I rarely paid attention to those things. By the time I got to Tampa Bay, those things started popping up on my radar a little bit, looking through FanGraphs a little bit more. That’s probably when I first discovered Brooks Baseball and all the metrics they use there.
I never really paid too much attention to my strikeouts because obviously I wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher. But by the time I got to the Marlins, I knew that I needed to get ground balls. So I paid into my ground ball percentage, and, by the time I got to Tampa, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, you guys don’t care as much about my 4.10 ERA that I had the year before as my 2.95 FIP. That makes more sense.’
That’s when it opened my eyes. Throughout my career, I was actually a pretty steady pitcher. I kind of gave you the same output, which I strove to do, because when the manager picks up the phone to call the bullpen, all he wants to know is what he’s going to get out there.
By the time I got into Milwaukee, then I’m starting to look at batting average on balls in play, which is pretty important for a contact-oriented pitcher. I usually struggled early in the season, but I’d be like, ‘OK, but I’ve got a .385 batting average balls in play. I just need to stay the course because I know that that’s going to come down. We know results will come, yada yada yada.’ So it’s very surface-level stuff. But at the same point, it was way deeper than what anyone else playing was doing.
On how he found that data . . .
All self-guided, which kind of stinks because, in retrospect, No. 1, I would have loved for them to throw me more stuff. And I played on the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays, who were plenty ingenious with stuff. Maybe I was just too early for it, but they didn’t have the guys in the dugout or people come in to tell me stuff
No. 2, I probably should have reached out more and asked, ‘Hey, where’s my game really lacking?’ Because I always one to [say], ‘I’m going to master what I do well.’ In reality, rather than being 95% [effective] executing my sinker and 65% executing my other pitches, well, maybe I’d be better off 85% of my sinker and bumping the other up to 70 and get more total output.
I had plenty of pitching coaches that were super smart, but I didn’t really ask as much. Or we just don’t have the right person to relay it. I mean, after every time I pitched, I’d go up in the video room in Boston and pull up [MLB.com] GameDay. I could click back to the inning I pitched and look at my Pitch F/X [data]. I was just sitting there doing that myself.
I’d look for movement, velocity, and then location with Pitch F/X. It was part of the puzzle, but it was very reactive. It was very much like, ‘OK, I’m not on my game, or like, ‘That’s the best arm-side run I’ve had all year.’ Or like, ‘I’m a little bit flat.’ But it wasn’t like I knew what to do with it, right? I didn’t know how to tweak it or improve it or whatever. It was just like, ‘OK, I’ve got to be better’ or ‘stay the course, we’re doing fine.’
On learning his two-seamer . . .
I was at the ACC Tournament a few weeks ago, and one of the Yankee scouts, who covers the Midwest, comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Hey, Burke, just wanted to introduce myself. Congratulations on an awesome career, blah, blah.’ And he asks me, ‘I remember talking to your college coach a couple years ago and just asking, what really clicked for you?’ As a scout, [he wanted to know], what did I miss? You know, here’s a big leaguer for basically free.
The real big thing is I just accidentally started throwing this two-seamer. I had always thrown four seams in college. And I grip the ball pretty firm. In college, the seams are just so high, I’d tear my fingers apart, and it just wasn’t comfortable. By the time I got to my first offseason, I had some minor league baseballs that I would play catch with or throw my bullpens with. I started messing around—I’d throw two seams to my arm side and four seams to my glove side—and I was like, ‘OK, this is pretty comfortable.’ I don’t really see a huge difference here, but this is what they want you to do.
Badenhop pitched for five teams during his MLB career; the Reds, Brewers, Red Sox, Marlins and Rays.
I get to my first spring training. I started throwing this two seamer. In camp, I’m throwing like 85, 87, which back then was not like an immediate ‘you’re cut.’ Now we’d be like, ‘Can you do an MRI? What’s wrong with his arm?’ But anyway, guys are just taking terrible hacks and swinging and missing at the ball. And I’m like, What is going on here?
On his career-changing two-seamer . . .
I incorporated it more in my early season in West Michigan and got some ground balls. And then I’ll never forget: I was in Fort Wayne, Ind. I was facing a guy named Seth Johnson. I had two strikes. And I always would try to paint a corner down and away to righties—I was forever a fan of the Braves growing up, you know? ‘Let’s see how far off the plate we can go here.’
The catcher puts down a fastball away to this right hander, and I grip a two seamer instead of a four seamer and this thing just went ‘boom’ and back to the outside corner just like a really good comeback sinker. The guy thought it was a ball, and the umpire is punching him out. His reaction was, ‘You gotta be kidding me, right?’ And so then I was like, ‘Maybe I’ve got something here.’ Then I started using the two-seamer to both sides of the plate, and then eventually, I never threw any four seams ever.
On why he threw a two-seamer at that moment . . .
I don’t know. I specifically remember I just had a two-seam grip, and I threw it. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going try to bring this back off the corner.’ I knew I could get a lot of called strikes by running that fastball away to righties back on [to the plate]. like, that’s all I tried to do. But looking back on it now, had I had the data then? I was one of the league leaders in called strike percentage throughout the major leagues with my fastball, which makes up for the lack of swings and misses.
On how he’d use an Edgertronic camera or pitch tracking device . . .
I threw a really loopy-doopy curveball in college and, by a couple starts into Oneonta, I was just messing with a different type of grip in the outfield. I took it into the game that day and got to a couple spots where I could use it—and I struck out three guys with this new slider.
Now, that’s what we’re trying to do with the data and Edgertronic: to give kids the confidence to throw that pitch rather than to go into their fifth pro start against the New Jersey Cardinals and just be like, ‘Hey, man, you’re going throw this slider that you’ve never thrown before, that you learned a few days ago in the outfield playing catch with one of your buddies.’ So we try to bridge that gap a little bit with [technology].
On pitch usage data . . .
That probably would have been pretty huge, but at the same point, I’m definitely like a tinkerer. So probably not having some of that stuff was beneficial. But the pitch data could have really helped because I threw far too many sinkers, and I should have thrown a lot more sliders and a lot more changeups.
Looking back at it now, for biggest whip sliders for right-handed relievers at the time I was playing, it was me and Sergio Romo. And not to directly compare myself to Sergio Romo—because there’s a lot of internal components that he has that I do not have that and that’s why he’s still playing—but I probably should have thrown that slider a couple more times. As it relates to my career, I should have been a little bit more Sergio Romo, a little less Burke Badenhop at times.
There was a couple years where I just lost my changeup and couldn’t throw it. I just had no feel. I was spiking it, didn’t know what was going on. When I first came up, I would remember it rolling off my middle finger the whole way through, and. I couldn’t get back to that.
I found that changeup and was like, ‘Huh, I should throw this more right on right.’ But I didn’t really realize that until the second half of my season in Cincinnati. I couldn’t strike anybody out. And I was like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to throw this changeup right on right.’ And I punch out five guys in two innings.
On the data that prompted the Rays to target him . . .
In spring training when I was in Tampa, they had pitching meetings with everybody. They sat me down and it’s Jim Hickey, the pitching coach, and [bullpen coach] Stan Boroski was there. Maybe Erik Neander was there—[he was director of baseball ops at the time.]—and Andrew Friedman. Literally, they just told me, ‘Last year, when guys were on base, you got a ground ball 68% of the time, and the Florida Marlins turned double plays, on average, 21% of the time. We turn those double plays 37%.’ I’m making up these numbers, but they said, ‘That’s all you need to do. You just continue to do the same thing you’re doing, and we can almost double the production because of who we have until behind you.’
That was probably a main data point that they used to trade for me. And I’ll remember my last year in Miami [in 2011], I played with Randy Choate, the sidearm-tossing reliever, a super ground ball guy himself who played for a long time and actually played for Tampa. That year [in Miami], I had a 2.90 FIP and a 4.10 ERA. He was like, ‘I’ve never seen somebody have so many balls hit through the infield as you have this year.’ That stuck out in my mind of like, this guy’s played for a long time with a lot of people. And he said that I’m the one that’s getting bled to death for the most part. And guess what? Tampa Bay felt the same exact thing.
That’s what we’re trying to do with the data and Edgertronic: to give kids the confidence to throw that pitch rather than to go into their fifth pro start against the New Jersey Cardinals and just be like, ‘Hey, man, you’re going throw this slider that you’ve never thrown before, that you learned a few days ago in the outfield playing catch with one of your buddies.’ So we try to bridge that gap a little bit with [technology].
On smartphone delivery analysis . . .
I was in the wedge of the old school guys versus this New Wave really started to hit. The new stuff when I was playing was guys doing CrossFit in the offseason. There was definitely no Motus sleeve. So I appreciate you thinking that, but there was none of that stuff. There was no motion capture. Now, if you live within an hour of any big city, you could probably go [to a lab] and get your delivery in motion capture.
You don’t even need Edgertronic or some crazy setup. I can use slow-mo on my iPhone, standing behind a kid and get a pretty good idea of how [his delivery] works. That wasn’t on any phones back then. I had a Blackberry halfway through playing in the big leagues.
On the understanding of younger pitchers today . . .
[Young pros] know what they’re doing. I doubt there are many organizations throughout the league that aren’t getting pitch data on the majority of their guys’ bullpens, whether it’s TrackMan data or Rapsodo data or pitch design stuff. They definitely know this a little bit more.
It can be tough because it’s not really their job to know, if that makes sense, right? I don’t want them worrying about, ‘Did that guy hit this pitch because I didn’t have an inch and a half of sink like I normally have?’ That’s not the time for doing those things. When we get on the field, we just compete. But building the trust between the person who is giving them the report and the person on the field is pretty important.
On the rapid growth of analytics . . .
We had some of the stuff [when I played], but it was so nascent. There just also wasn’t the manpower. There was a guy or two that was crushing all this data, and they’re trying to use it the best they could and everything, but they didn’t really know what was going on. There was one Tom Tango in the world and one Mike Fast in the world at the time, and everyone else was trying to catch up.
I started my job six years ago, and I was the only guy that was dedicated to pitch data in our organization. We had the pitch data, we had an R&D department, but they did all kinds of other stuff, too. Once I came on board, that was my thing, and now we’ve built out [a group with] so many guys that know that stuff. We have conversations with half a dozen people that are on the same page. Just the wealth of knowledge that we have is really interesting to me. What are we going to do next? Because there’s no team out there that doesn’t have the data—it’s just mostly about applying it.