‘That slider is death on hitters’: Why Blake Treinen might be too good to be a closer
It started on the back fields at Camelback Ranch.
That’s where, a year ago, Blake Treinen started experimenting with a new pitch, a different kind of slider that would soon change his game.
The veteran Dodgers reliever already threw a breaking ball. But after back-to-back underwhelming seasons, he was looking for a way to improve his arsenal.
So, he began toying with different ways to spin the ball. Assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness helped him find the right grip. Pitching coach Mark Prior and bullpen coach Josh Bard walked him through numbers, perfecting the new slider’s lateral sweeping shape and pinpointing the best situations to use it.
“It just kind of all came together,” Treinen said. “It was a culmination.”
Once fearful of a patchwork pitching plan, the Dodgers are confident their pitchers will be built up close to normal despite condensed spring training.
It culminated in a bounce-back 2021 season for Treinen too. Dominating opponents with his new weapon — the new slider had quadruple the horizontal break of his old one, forming a lethal combination with his repertoire of fastballs — Treinen posted a 1.99 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings to reaffirm himself as one of the majors’ best relief pitchers, and one of the Dodgers’ most impactful arms coming into the 2022 campaign.
“It was a game changer,” manager Dave Roberts said. “That slider is death on hitters. And I think a lot of the credit goes to him and our pitching guys. It’s kind of getting the right grip to match your throw. I think that’s kind of the secret sauce.”
With Kenley Jansen gone to Atlanta, there’s no doubt about who the Dodgers’ best relief pitcher is. But that doesn’t mean Treinen, 33, will necessarily be the closer.
Roberts has leaned toward a different plan, hinting that the Dodgers could use a rotating series of pitchers in the ninth inning.
The reasoning: Treinen has become too valuable in his setup/fireman role, in which he often is lined up to face the heart of an opponent’s order in any late inning.
“Blake knows how much we value him,” Roberts said. “He’s one of the best relievers in all of baseball. He’s shown that over the last couple years in pitching the highest of leverage. I know in talking to him, he’ll do whatever we ask. So right now where we’re at, we don’t have a designated closer.”
Treinen not only agrees with such a system, he almost prefers it.
“I kind of enjoy [my current role] more than closing, to be honest with you,” he said this week. “I enjoy both. When I was in the ninth, it’s a really fun feeling being the last one on the field when you get the last out. That’s a fun thing, knowing the game comes down to you. But you don’t always face the biggest situations in the ninth inning.”
Regardless of how Treinen is used, his new slider will be key.
Early in his career with the Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics, Treinen’s slider had more vertical break, biting down once it got near the plate.
That pitch needed to be set up by his cutter, sinker and four-seam fastball that reaches the upper-90s. And after a historic 2018 season in which he posted a 0.78 ERA and 38 saves with the A’s, earning All-Star honors for the first time in his career, that combination of pitches began to lose its effectiveness.
“Everything’s nasty. But [the slider] makes everything a little bit better. It’s a plus-plus pitch.”
— Will Smith, Dodgers catcher, on Blake Treinen’s arsenal of pitches
In 2019, his ERA skyrocketed to 4.91. Despite improving upon joining the Dodgers in 2020, he still had just a 3.86 mark in the pandemic-shortened season.
That’s why Treinen went into spring training last year looking for different ideas.
He took inspiration from former Tampa Bay Rays reliever Chaz Roe, who parlayed his so-called frisbee slider into a nine-year major league career. He workshopped variations with teammates, giving credit to Trevor Bauer in particular. Then he mastered the pitch with guidance from the club’s pitching coaches, throwing it slightly slower and flatter than his old slider but with more devastating late right-to-left break.
“It was an organic thing,” Prior said, recalling Treinen’s first time testing it out during a live batting practice. “He got some crazy action on the first one, and we were like, ‘Yeah, that’ll play.’ Then he just ran with it.”
Over the course of the season, the slider accounted for more than one-third of Treinen’s pitches. Opponents hit .074 against it, swinging and missing almost half the time.
“Everything’s nasty,” Dodgers catcher Will Smith said of Treinen’s arsenal. “But [the slider] makes everything a little bit better. It’s a plus-plus pitch.”
Cody Bellinger is struggling in spring training, striking out in 14 of 19 at-bats. The 2019 National League MVP knows he has to find his swing again.
This spring, it’s a pitch others in the organization have tried mimicking — to varying degrees of success.
“Everyone wants to have Blake Treinen’s slider,” Roberts said with a laugh.
Added Prior: “If you can do it, great. But so much just depends on guys’ bodies and their ability to have a feel to do it. Blake, just the way his arm comes through and delivers the baseball, it makes it really natural for him.”
It’s why the Dodgers believe a traditional closer role could be limiting for Treinen. With the new pitch, he’s effective against hitters on either side of the plate. He can get strikeouts or induce ground balls. And he can be a jack of all trades in the Dodgers’ new-look bullpen, confident of serving up his sweeping new weapon in any leverage moment.
“I just want to be best at whatever role I’m in,” he said. “If I’m a seventh [inning] guy, if I’m a fire guy, if I’m a guy that comes in and gets holds against the heart of the lineup, just be the best of whatever I am.”
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