In 2015, there were fewer pitchers (74) qualifying for the AL and NL ERA titles than in any season going back to 1995 (70). In any given season, the number of first-time ERA qualifiers is about a quarter of that population. This last year was no exception, as 18 pitchers qualified for the ERA title for the first time.
What was unique about 2015 was the high quality of those first-time ERA qualifiers. AL first-timers included Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Taijuan Walker, Collin McHugh, Trevor Bauer and Marco Estrada. Their NL counterparts included Jake Arrieta, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha. There are some heavy hitters on those two lists; you might have to go back to the Class of 1984, which boasted Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser, Mark Langston, Mike Moore and Oil Can Boyd among its members, to find a comparable group at the top.
Beginning last week, I have reached reach into the large population of zero-time ERA qualifiers to identify the top breakthrough candidates for 2016 in both leagues. Last week, we took a look at the Orioles’ Kevin Gausman. This time around, we’ll switch over to the senior circuit and hone in on the Reds’ Raisel Iglesias.
The 2015 season and its aftermath went about as poorly for the Reds as for any major-league club. A middling beginning led to a second-half free fall, and when the dust settled, the Reds finished at 64-98, one game ahead of the Phillies for the distinction of the worst record in either league, and the first-overall draft pick that came along with it. Beyond simple wins and losses, however, one can easily make an argument for the Reds as the clear 30th-place club.
Their chief competitors for that honor, teams like the Phillies and Brewers, pivoted toward the future at last year’s trading deadline, fetching respective kings’ ransoms for Cole Hamels and Carlos Gomez, and reloading their minor-league systems, especially at the top, with impact talent on both the hitting and pitching sides. The Braves went out and did the same after the season, dealing Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks for a mother lode of talent.
While the Reds were active during both periods, they arguably gave up more talent while receiving less compared to the aforementioned clubs. Marlon Byrd, Aroldis Chapman, Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, and Mike Leake were all shown the door, and while their overall minor-league depth, especially on the pitching side, has been enhanced, the only potential impact players added were Royals’ pitchers Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed. Bottom line, despite Joey Votto’s excellence, it would not be a surprise to see the Reds lag even the Brewers in their eventual resurgence toward National League relevance.
All that said, a single 2015 development may turn to be the counterweight to all of that negativity. All of that pitching turnover opened a starting rotation berth for Raisel Iglesias, signed out of Cuba to a seven-year deal that guarantees him $27 million through the 2020 season. If early returns are to believed, this could be an incredible steal for the Reds.
Iglesias, who just turned 26, first pitched in the Cuban National Series, the top level of competition on the island, at age 20, in 2010. He competed there through 2012 and posted middling results, going 8-12, 3.47, with a 169/115 strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) in 223.1 innings. He only started five games over that stretch, being used primarily out of the bullpen.
There really wasn’t a track record of success that justified a $27 million investment; it all came down to scouting. The Reds obviously had experienced prior success in recruiting Cuban talent, in the person of Aroldis Chapman, but this was different. There was no 100 mph fastball here; Iglesias has averaged just over 92 mph stateside to date, and only occasionally pushes it as high as 95. The Reds did see potential in his offspeed pitches, and a frame that they believed lent itself to a future in the starting rotation.
He made his United States debut in the Arizona Fall League following the 2014 season, dominating in seven innings of relief in a cameo appearance, and only needed a total of 29 Triple-A innings of seasoning in 2015 before settling into the Reds’ rotation for good. On the surface, his 3-7, 4.15, record was pretty ordinary, but his gaudy 104/28 K/BB ratio in 95.1 innings would seem to suggest big things in the future. How good was Iglesias, really, and what might his future hold? Let’s see what granular batted-ball data tells us, by examining his plate appearance outcome frequencies and production allowed by ball-in-play (BIP) type data. First, the frequency info:
The one item that quickly jumps out if Iglesias’ exceptional K rate, which ranked in the 85th percentile in senior circuit last season. That’s a pretty substantial feat; consider that the average NL ERA qualifier struck out 8.06 batters per nine innings last season. Iglesias’ K rate was over a full standard deviation higher than the average NL starter last season; he’s pretty far out there on the good side of the bell curve.
For a rookie power pitcher with a pretty checkered control history in Cuba, a BB rate percentile rank of 49 is actually pretty impressive. An elite K rate with an average BB rate is a pretty good way to get through life; it gives a pitcher plenty of room for error with regard to contact management.
Iglesias has not developed a distinctive BIP tendency at this stage in his career. His pop up, fly ball, liner and grounder rates were all within hailing distance of league average last season, in a narrow band between percentile ranks of 45 and 56. In many ways, Iglesias remains a lump of clay.
His strong K/BB foundation is his clear calling card, but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from posting a worse than league average ERA. Was this due to the authority level of the contact he allowed, or is there something else at work here? Let’s take a look at his production allowed by BIP type, which serves as an excellent proxy for BIP authority allowed:
|Metric||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD||ACT ERA||CALC ERA||FIP||TRU ERA|
|FLY + LD||0.500||0.969||132||97|
The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation. One quick note here: I have presented this type of analysis many times, but only recently have I begun to show fly ball and line drive line items both separately and combined.
Iglesias was exceedingly unlucky on both fly balls and liners last season; on those two BIP types combined, he allowed a .500 AVG and .969 SLG, good for a whopping 132 Unadjusted Contact Score, well worse than league average. When adjusted for context, however, that figure plummets to a 97 Adjusted Contact Score.
But wait, as unlucky as he was in the air, he had a four-leaf clover in his pocket on the ground. Despite allowing exactly league-average authority on the ground, Iglesias yielded a paltry .163 AVG-.188 SLG, for a 42 Unadjusted Contact Score. Put it all together and Iglesias was a very slightly worse than league-average contact manager, with Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores of 104 and 102, respectively.
Add back the Ks and BBs — a huge boon for Iglesias — and his “tru” ERA is a glittering 3.18 (and his “tru” ERA- = 80). This far outpaces his actual ERA of 4.15 and even his FIP of 3.55. Why is this?
First, notice the column marked “Calc ERA” in the above table. This is Iglesias’ Calculated Component ERA, or what his ERA would have been with average sequencing of all of the plate appearance events generated. That figure, 3.28, is also way better than his actual ERA and FIP. Iglesias allowed damage in bunches last season, something not all that uncommon for an inexperienced major-league pitcher.
How bad was his sequencing? Well, get this… fully two-thirds of the earned runs allowed by Iglesias (29, to be exact) were allowed in nine specific innings. He did not handle adversity well last season, and clearly should improve in this regard moving forward. Simply by improving sequencing to a league-average level, Iglesias’ ERA improves by nearly a full run.
Iglesias was a much better pitcher with the bases empty (.205-.280-.377) than with runners on base (.265-.324-.397) in 2015. That said, he was still a better than league-average hurler with men on base. Expect both of those figures to regress a little moving forward, with the end result remaining a pitcher with excellent K/BB skills, near-average contact-management ability, a package that makes him an 80 ERA- true-talent pitcher with average sequencing.
Can he get even better than that? You bet. His two best pitches are his slider and changeup, and the latter pitch should be expected to become a true weapon against the opposite hand as he progresses along the pitchability learning curve. He was death to righties (.176-.256-.267, 73/14 K/BB in 210 PA) in 2015, and should continue to be, with perhaps a little regression. He was much less dominant against lefties (.286-.348-.405, 31/14 K/BB in 185 PA), but should get much better as his usage of that changeup is optimized.
All of nine 2015 NL ERA qualifiers posted a better “tru” ERA- figure than Iglesias’ 80. Their names were Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Madison Bumgarner, Tyson Ross and Jon Lester. He’s in the immediate next tier, in a virtual dead hear with Gerrit Cole, Kyle Hendricks, Carlos Martinez and Shelby Miller. Pretty good company. Plus, a bunch of those guys owe their 2015 rankings to BIP authority allowed, which fluctuates more than Ks and BBs, more so than Iglesias. He’s a young, developing hurler, and plenty could go wrong as his workload is extended over a full 162+ inning season, but Raisel Iglesias’ upside is substantial, enough so to potentially pay off his contract many times over.