With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at righthanded reliever Josh Sborz.
Josh Sborz was one of the myriad of former Dodgers that have come through Arlington the last year or two. I think of him as a waiver claim, but he was not, in fact, a waiver claim — he was, rather, acquired from the Dodgers right before spring training 2021 started in exchange for teenage righthanded pitcher Jhan Zambrano.
Zambrano, in case you are wondering, spent the 2021 season as a 19 year old in the ACL. He threw 37.2 IP in 12 appearances for the ACL Dodgers, with 27 Ks against 12 walks, with a 2.15 ERA.
Sborz is your garden variety hard throwing righthanded reliever who relies on a four seamer/breaking ball combo and who will get lit up if his command isn’t on. You can’t shake a tree without a half-dozen of these falling out.
Sborz had been designated for assignment by the Dodgers to open up a 40 man roster spot for Trevor Bauer — ahem, that worked out well for them, didn’t it? — when the Rangers picked him up for Zambrano. Why Sborz as compared to any of a number of other similar pitchers who periodically hit the waiver wire, I don’t know, other than maybe Chris Woodward was familiar with him from his time with the Dodgers, and the Rangers may be particularly targeting the Dodgers’ 40 man roster casualties due to how deep and strong the Dodgers’ roster is (see also Dennis Santana and D.J. Peters).
Sborz had two options remaining when the Rangers snagged him, and so the expectation was that he would be one of those guys who would bounce up and down between Round Rock and Arlington over the course of the season, but as it turned out Sborz didn’t throw a single pitch in the minors in 2021. Sborz was optioned in April, 2021, when Joely Rodriguez was activated from the injured list, but went to the Alternate Training Site since there was no minor league action yet, and was recalled a week later when Kyle Cody went on the injured list. Sborz also was inactive for a few days in late July due to a trip to the paternity list — but otherwise, he was in Arlington and active all year.
A quick glance at Josh Sborz’s 2021 line would suggest it was a pretty ho-hum, generic season. 3.97 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 111 ERA+. His 63 appearances were the second highest on the team, behind only Brett Martin. Sborz struck out 69 and walked 32 with 7 home runs allowed in 59 innings, the type of line we’d expect from a hard throwing reliever with iffy command.
Looking at his splits, though, does reveal a few things of interest. First of all, Sborz had pretty extreme home/road splits in 2021 — he had a 5.34/2.51 ERA split between his home performance and his road performance in 2021, with a .280/.358/.492 slash line allowed at home and a .183/.292/.260 slash line allowed on the road.
This would have made more sense if it had happened in 2019, or the quarter century prior to that, when the Rangers’ home park was one of the most hitter-friendly in baseball. The new ballpark is not hitter-friendly, however — it appears to be more pitcher friendly to neutral at this point.
Weirdly, Sborz’s walk and K numbers on the home and on the road are almost identical — 16 walks and 34 Ks at home in 137 PAs, 16 walks and 35 Ks at home in 120 PAs. He allowed a .342 BABIP at home, though, compared to .254 on the road, and 5 home home runs against 2 road home runs.
Anyway, it is probably just random fluctuations, but I thought it was interesting.
More significant are Sborz’s monthly splits, as follows:
So...Sborz started the season well — better than his ERA reflected, per both FIP and xwOBA. He then struggled mightily in June and July, got a little better in August, and then was back to his old form by the final month of the season.
Is there an explanation for this? Perhaps...let’s do the same table, but with three more columns added:
|ERA||FIP||wOBA||xwOBA||K/9||BB/9||FB Spin Rate||SL Spin Rate||CB Spin Rate|
We see a drop in Sborz’s spin rate after the first couple of months, with the drop being particularly pronounced for his curveball, which he threw roughly half as often as his slider in 2021.
And of course, beginning on June 19, MLB started cracking down on pitchers’ use of the “sticky stuff,” which is used for a better grip and more spin, as well as better command.
Is there a connection? Well, let’s look at Sborz’s game logs from mid-May to mid-July:
|FB Spin Rate||SL Spin Rate||CB Spin Rate|
Obviously, relievers generally don’t throw a lot of pitches per outing, so there’s going to be more noise due to the inherent small sample sizes per outing. Nonetheless, there certainly does appear to be a difference once MLB started cracking down.
For what it is worth, Statcast has Sborz in the 92nd percentile in fastball velocity and 72nd percentile in fastball spin in 2021. His curveball spin, on the other hand, was only in the 5th percentile — he had, overall, one of the lowest spin curves in MLB last year.
If we just take a very high level overview, one could hypothesize that Sborz was using the sticky stuff until the ban came down, struggled once it was outlawed to pitch without it, but was able to make adjustments to be effective again towards the end of the season. Whether that’s actually what happened — and whether Sborz will be able to be effective going forward — remains to be seen.