Guessing the starting pitcher with most strikeouts per nine innings early on in the season should not be too difficult. Clayton Kershaw has struck out more than a batter per inning in his career, and in the early part of this season has shown more of the same, striking out 35 batters in just over 24 innings pitched for an excellent 12.95 K/9. There are a few other players we would expect to see in the top ten in the early going with Felix Hernandez, Matt Harvey, and Gerrit Cole fanning a bunch of players along with Trevor Bauer’s quest to never allow a player to make contact with a baseball (19 IP, 26 K, 11BB), and even Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross, Chris Archer, and Francisco Liriano are not a complete shock, but to see Jason Marquis in second place on this list behind only Clayton Kershaw is very surprising no matter how early we are in the season.
That Jason Marquis has pitched 15 innings thus far in 2015 is an unusual development given the way his career has taken shape. Here are his numbers over the past five years.
Those lines do not indicate that a pitcher is still able to get hitters out consistently. At 36 years old, coming off Tommy John surgery where he pitched about 50 innings in 2014 in the Phillies organization, but could not get the call-up, Jason Marquis’ presence on the Reds Opening Day roster was a surprise. In the rotation ahead of former prospect and still just 25 years old Tony Cingrani, Marquis earned his spot in Spring Training, pitching 31 innings with 17 strikeouts, 10 walks, and a 2.90 ERA. When he began the season, he started striking players out at a rate higher than any in his career.
Marquis struck out seven against the St. Louis Cardinals, six against the Chicago Cubs, and eight against the Milwaukee Brewers. In his entire career spanning 312 starts, he has had only one other stretch where he struck out at least six batters at least three games in a row, coming in June 2012 against the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, and Arizona Diamondbacks where he struck out 10, six, six, and seven, respectively. Those 22 strikeouts over the first three games in that series in 2012 contain the only other three game stretch in Marquis’ career when he struck out more than 20 over three starts.
In only five starts in Marquis’ entire career has he had more strikeouts than the eight that he recorded against the Brewers in his last start. He has more starts with zero or one strikeout (44) than games with at least six strikeouts (43). Even in a small sample size, Marquis’ opening stretch of starts has been unusual. One potential explanation for Marquis’ newfound success is the splitter. As Mike Podhorzer noted, Marquis appears to be using a splitter this year and it has been very effective, generating a swinging strike one-third of the time.
Here is the splitter versus the Brewers:
He got the swing and miss even though he bounced it at the plate. Here it is again actually getting across the plate, although still not a strike without the swing.
Marquis’s slider is still decently effective, but his sinking fastball, the pitch he throws a majority of the time has had its problems thus far. When he leaves his fastball up in the zone, hitters can hit the ball a long way.
Against prodigious slugger Anthony Rizzo:
Against the less prodigious Martin Maldonado:
Marquis never been a big swing and miss-type pitcher, with hitters making contact on 90% of pitches swung at in the strike zone and over 70% of pitches swing on outside the strike zone over the five previous seasons, a few percentage points higher than league average over that time. So far this season, hitters have been swinging less at pitches inside the zone and swinging more at pitches outside the zone. Here is a chart showing Marquis’ plate discipline numbers over the last five years, including his career totals.
In addition to swinging less inside the strike zone and more outside the strike zone, hitters are making less contact, an excellent combination for Marquis. When hitters make contact, however, they tend to do damage. Despite the strikeouts, hitters still have a .323 batting average against Marquis and a .233 isolated slugging percentage. This is the bizarre stat line Marquis has put up this season.
|Jason Marquis||15||12.6||3.0||1.8||0.439||61.4 %||39.5 %||18.8 %||7.20||4.07||2.92||0.1|
Unusual stat lines are par for the course after the first few months of the season, but Marquis’ seems particularly bizarre. Taking a look at Clayton Kershaw’s numbers after three starts and looking at the strikeouts and walks and ERA above four, it is easy to say that the strikeouts and walks are sustainable, but the ERA and home runs numbers are not because we know that the ERA is going to come down. When looking at Marquis’ line, nothing looks sustainable. Not the strikeouts, the BABIP, the ERA, the FIP–none of it looks the numbers we expect going forward. Marquis’s stats show hints of a mini-breakout whose ERA is underperforming, but they also show signs of the pitcher that most thought was completely done at the beginning of the season. His BABIP and home runs should go down, but if his sinker is as ineffective as it has been early on, the added splitter and decent slider will not be enough to remain a viable starter as hitters begin to lay off those pitches and sit on the fastball.
Marquis’ increased strikeouts are an interesting story early on, especially given his age, his missed 2014, and his history as a pitch to contact sinkerballer, but with unsustainable strikeout numbers and a HR/FB rate (18.8%) similar to his last few years in the majors, expecting his 7.20 ERA to eventually drop to his current 4.07 FIP is unrealistic. A regression to his early season FIP is not likely when the regression to his numbers over the past few years is much more obvious.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.