trying to decide whether "obscure relief pitchers of disinterest" should be a whole separate category. (note: not implying that brayan is one, he's not.)
note that i wrote this up over the weekend, before he probably got some people's attention by striking out 5 red sox in 1.2 innings tonight. serendipity! supercalifragilispecexpialidocious. whoa, spellcheck.
if you go to fangraphs and do a sort by PITCHf/x fastball velocity, and zero out the innings minimum, the first four dudes are andrew cashner, henry rodriguez, kelvin herrera, and aroldis chapman. the only surprising thing there is probably that aroldis is only fourth. i guess maybe kelvin's not really a household name yet.
but then the fifth name is some guy from the tigers called brayan villarreal. so, who's that. (tigers fans, rolling their eyes, "come on, everybody knows brayan villarreal." shut up tigers fans.)
a glance at his fangraphs shows... i'm not sure exactly what it shows. he's 25. he was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2005, when he was already 21 years old... there must be a story there, i'm trying to google it but haven't tracked it down yet. feel free to share, if you know. [EDIT: this paragraph was/is completely messed up and wrong. he signed at 18. nothing unusual at all. it was memorial day weekend and apparently i had too much coffee. disregard. thanks go out to endlessprisoner for pointing this out without calling me stupid.]
in spite of the raw velocity i don't really remember him generating much chatter as a prospect, although i may have missed it. he spent 2008-2010 plugging along through the tigers system as a starter, striking out about a batter an inning, walking 2 or 3 per 9. nothing awful, nothing spectacular.
then last year in AAA for some reason his strikeout rate backed up all the way down into the derek lowe sinkerballer zone, five and a half per 9, while at the same time his walk rate spiked from average-ish to actively bad. maybe there was something wrong with him, maybe he didn't like toledo, maybe just a bad year. he got a 16-inning big-league trial out of the pen and didn't really do much with that either.
this year, though, his K rate has gone the other way. in his first minor-league work as a reliever, he's got 22 strikeouts in 14 AAA innings, with 8 more in 6.2 scoreless innings in the majors as of this morning.
recent press out of detroit features jim leyland talking about villarreal in a pretty positive way, saying there's a chance he might be this year's al alburquerque (who i still think is spelling his name wrong):
"Right now, today, he'd probably fit right in [like] last year's Alburquerque," Leyland said after Villarreal's 2 1/3 perfect innings Saturday. "Maybe [pitching] a little bit earlier, but that type of thing. That would be great for us. I mean, that's a great arm, obviously."
he's still walking a few too many guys, but if the K spike indicates that he's taking well to the relief conversion, which eyewitness accounts certainly seem to confirm, then he's definitely reached the "interesting arm" stage of the Relief Pitcher Emergence Curve. where he goes from here probably depends, as it so often does, on command. if it stays good enough for the fastball to play, he could reach shiny new toy status in relatively short order. if it proves unreliable, he'll probably hang around annoying us with his tantalizing potential for at least the next couple years. so it's a win-win.
second in a series. earlier: