Friday, May 15, 2015

Pitching Woes

The Nationals have been on a tear recently, closing the gap between themselves and the Mets to only 1.5 games. That hot streak has been driven by the offense, which has scored 5+ runs in 7 of the last 8 games. While the offense has been hot, the pitching has not. Given the talk of a “super rotation” during the offseason, this is pretty surprising.

As it stands, the Nationals’ pitching staff as a whole ranks 13th in the majors with a 3.90 ERA. The pitching staff also ranks 13th in K/9 at 7.88. With big, strikeout style pitchers like Scherzer and Strasburg, those are pretty disappointing results. On the positive side, the Nationals have the 6th lowest walk rate in the majors with only 2.62 BB/9. Obviously, it is still early in the season, and there are a lot of variables at play here. We know the Nationals defense has been terrible in the early going and that likely contributes to the pitching staff’s .333 BABIP allowed, 2nd to worst in the majors behind the Indians (another pre-season darling of a pitching staff done in, at least in part, by a terrible defense).

All of that is pretty depressing, I’ll admit, but I’m not here to bury the pitching staff. There are some silver linings stuck amidst the rubble. ERA as a stat serves a purpose, but it’s not the best measure of true talent level of a pitcher given how reliant it is on other variables like the defense playing behind a pitcher. FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) mostly strips out the batted ball component of pitching and relies more heavily on things a pitcher can control directly, namely strikeouts and walks. FIP is a better projection of future ERA performance than ERA itself, which is a good sign for Nats fans. The Nationals have the 3rd largest differential between ERA and FIP as their FIP is a much more reasonable 3.27, good for a difference of 0.63 from ERA. Basically, the Nationals pitchers, due to some things out of their control, have been allowing a run more per game than we would expect given their performance. I would be willing to bet that the biggest cause of this difference is the shaky defense. While I can’t guarantee that the defense will improve, the defense last year (with largely the same group of players) was better. Improvement on defense, along with some batted ball luck, should drive down the team ERA going forward.

While the pitching staff as a whole has generally disappointed, new National Max Scherzer certainly has not. He currently owns a 1.99 ERA (and 2.19 FIP), is averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings and only 1 walk per nine. Back in the offseason, we noted that Scherzer was pretty impressive across the board. However, the one area Scherzer had room to improve was his walk rate. During his tenure with the Tigers, including his Cy Young year, his walk rate fluctuated between 6.5-9%. Not terrible numbers, those, but not elite. With his strikeout rates sitting at nearly 30%, those walks ended up having a negligible impact. So far this year, though, Scherzer has cut that walk rate down to a miniscule 3% while his strikeout rate is still a healthy 28%. While it’s early and there is plenty of time for that walk rate to rise, Scherzer is getting hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone more often this year, with an O-Swing% (percent of pitches outside of the zone swung at by opposing batters) of 38% this year. Keep this up, and Scherzer will be in the Cy Young talk at the end of the year.

Of course, the talk of the town right now is Stephen Strasburg and his ugly 6.06 ERA. Now, his FIP is only 3.45 and his BABIP allowed is a sky high .398, so his results have been worse than his pitching. Having watched him actually pitch, though, his control has certainly been off, missing his spots and leaving pitches in the zone to get clobbered. While that BABIP is partially the result of some unlucky bounces, by throwing hittable pitches Strasburg has contributed to that high BABIP. His strikeout rate is down to 20% this year after being up around 30% for the rest of his career. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs took a deeper dive inStrasburg’s struggles that I highly recommend. His conclusion is that Strasburg is struggling with mechanics, something we noted earlier in his release points. To take a positive spin on that, it means that the issues with Strasburg are correctable and that, given time, it’s something that he should be able to fix.

Jordan Zimmermann has also been disappointing in his contract year, quieting the calls from parts of the Nationals fan base that had been clamoring for the team to resign him to a huge deal. His ERA of 4.20 isn’t fully supported by a 3.41 FIP and his BABIP is also a little elevated at .324, although not to the same extent as Strasburg. The most disturbing trend for Zimmermann is his decreased strikeout rate, 14% this year versus his career rate of about 20%, and a walk rate of 5.2% that would be his highest in 3 years. His velocity still hasn’t ticked back up, sitting around 92 MPH still this year. That might be the new norm for him. That decrease in velocity means hitters are making more contact against Zimmermann than at any other time in his career. If these velocity levels are the new norm, Zimmermann might have to change his approach as the current one isn’t working up to his normal standards.

Add Gio Gonzalez to the list of pitchers done in by the defense as his ERA of 4.25 hides a 2.74 FIP as a result of a .387 BABIP. The rest of Gio’s peripheral stats are line with what we expected, including his walk rate of 8.7%. As a pitcher who struggled with command in the past, we now have 3+ years of evidence that Gonzalez can keep his walk rate below 10% and his strikeout rate over 20%. His velocity has been unchanged as has his pitch mix. When Gio steps on the mound, you can pretty much chalk up a quality start and that should start to show up in his stats going forward.

Finally, Doug Fister and his 4.31 ERA. Bucking the trend we have been establishing, Fister’s ERA is actually lower than his 4.70 FIP. Shockingly, for a pitch to contact guy, he hasn’t been hurt as much by the defense as the rest of the rotation with a BABIP of .291. His walk rate is up to nearly 6%, though, and his strikeout rate down to 10%. His swinging strike rate is down to only 4.9%, his lowest mark in 5 seasons. While you could expect some improvement, don’t expect a repeat of 2014, as that was almost certainly a career season for Fister that won’t be repeated. He is the Nationals fifth best starter, but a lot of teams would kill to have a fifth starter on Fister’s talent level.

Add all that up, and you start to understand how the Nationals ended up in the middle of the pack pitching wise. The starters have turned in quality starts (a rough metric that is met by pitching 6+ innings and allowing 3 earned runs or fewer) in only 58% of starts. That is a generally low bar to meet, and the starters have done that in only about half of the Nationals games so far this season. You have one starter pitching like an ace (Scherzer), one struggling with command (Strasburg), one struggling with velocity (Zimmermann), one holding the line (Gonzalez), and one experiencing regression to the mean (Fister). But, the Nationals are only 1.5 games out of first. The offense is clicking. The NL East is still terrible. While the pitching has been bad, signs are pointing up. Batted balls won’t continue to fall in for hits as often as they have been. Scherzer should keep on Scherzer-ing. Strasburg should find his mechanics as some point. I have faith that Zimmermann can and will adjust his approach to be effective sitting at 92 MPH. The ERA should come back to earth as it approaches the FIP the team as put up. Now, let’s hopefully sit back and enjoy the ride.

1 comment:

  1. While we're on pitching, take a look at @MLBWhoSharted on Twitter. Kind of fun.