Yesterday, I took readers on a tour through small sample theater to examine the extreme and anomalous performances produced by hitters thus far, nearly all of which will come out in the wash as time goes on. Beyond strikeout, groundball, and fly ball rates, all of which stabilize at the 70 batters faced mark, pitching lines may contain all sorts of oddities.
As I did with the batters, here I’ll encourage you to gawk at some of the extremes — both the very, very good and the very, very bad — before they vanish into the ether. Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are through Wednesday. Let’s get weird again…
The Very, Very Bad
8.84 ERA, 8.42 FIP
Whether you’re going by actual runs allowed or focusing on defense-independent outcomes, 25-year-old White Sox righty Reynaldo Lopez entered Wednesday as the worst of the majors’ 83 qualified starters in both ERA and FIP; he was surpassed in the former category by the Angels’ Matt Harvey (9.64 ERA) as the count of qualifiers increased to 93 on Wednesday, but the No Longer Dark Knight’s just not as interesting as Lopez at the moment.
Looking at Lopez’s raw rate stats, it’s not hard to understand why his run prevention has been so shoddy: he’s combining a below-average strikeout rate (17.5%) with a hefty walk rate (14.4%) and an astronomical 3.26 home runs per nine. To throw some gasoline on the fire, there’s also his .345 BABIP, the result of a lot of hard-hit balls; his average exit velocity of 92.7 mph ranks in the seventh percentile, and his .394 xwOBA in the 13th percentile. Ranked 28th on our Top 100 Prospects List heading into 2017 on the strength of a plus-plus fastball and a plus curve, Lopez was pretty serviceable last year (3.91 ERA, 4.63 FIP, and 2.2 WAR in 188.2 innings), but right now, he’s not fooling many hitters; his 21.2% outside-the-zone swing rate is down seven points from last year, while his 89.9% zone contact rate is up four points.
322 wRC+ allowed on four-seam fastballs
Nothing has epitomized the early-season struggles of the defending world champion Red Sox more than Chris Sale’s slow start. Fresh off signing a five-year, $145 million extension, the 30-year-old southpaw has shown anything but the form that has made him a perennial Cy Young contender. Limited to a total of 32.1 regular season and postseason innings since the end of last July due to recurrent bouts of shoulder inflammation and then a slow buildup this spring, he’s been lacking in arm strength. According to Pitch Info, his average four-seam fastball velocity is down nearly three miles per hour relative to last year (from 95.7 to 92.8), which has not only made it much more hittable, but has allowed batters to focus on his breaking ball. Batters are 11-for-21 with a double, a triple, and three homers on plate appearances ending with his not-so-warm heater, for a .524 batting average, 1.095 slugging percentage, and 322 wRC+ against; by comparison, he yielded a .179 average, .321 slugging percentage and 60 wRC+ when throwing that pitch last year. What’s more, where batters whiffed at 14.8% of his four-seamers last year, they’ve done so against just 1.9% this year — that’s two fastballs out of the 104 he’s thrown. Mercy.
In an age where strikeout rates are at an all-time high, a pitcher has to be pretty far off his game in order to walk more batters than he strikes out. Somehow Andrew Cashner, who has spent the better part of the past three seasons getting knocked around to the tune of a 4.58 ERA and 4.92 FIP, has found his way onto this stretch of bad road. He’s struck out just nine of the 89 batters he’s faced (10.1%), the lowest mark among qualified starters; meanwhile, he’s walked 11 (12.4%). In a time of lower strikeout rates, this was hardly uncommon, but since the turn of the millennium, only four pitchers have qualified for an ERA title while walking more batters than they struck out. Even then, the, uh, “leader” in that category — Mike Hampton at -2.0% (8.8% strikeout rate, 10.9% walk rate, with some rounding in there for fun) — wasn’t quite as far off the mark as Cashner has been.
Corbin Burnes got his feet wet working out of the bullpen during the Brewers’ second half and postseason run least year, showing enough that the team decided to return the 24-year-old righty, a 2016 fourth-round pick, to rotation work this year. It hasn’t gone well. Through four starts totaling just 17.2 innings, Burnes is carrying a 10.70 ERA and 9.84 FIP; he’s 1.1 innings shy of qualifying for the ERA title (one inning per scheduled team game), hence my qualifier with regards to Lopez’s home run rate. What’s most remarkable about Burnes is that he’s served up 11 gopher balls — one more than MLB leader Khris Davis has hit while playing nearly every day — out of a total of 19 flyballs (57.9% HR/FB), making him the near-mirror image of Joey Gallo (66.7% HR/FB when I checked in on Wednesday, now down to 60.0%). For Burnes, Wednesday night’s 3.1-inning start against the Cardinals was his shortest of the year and the first in which he has allowed “only” two homers instead of three. Seven of the homers he’s allowed have come on four-seam fastballs; batters are slugging 1.000 with a 285 wRC+ against the pitch, for those looking to compare his woes in that department to Sale.
Also worth noting: Zack Greinke’s 3.09 HR/9, in enough innings (23.1) to be the NL’s official leader. On Opening Day, the Diamondbacks’ ace was pummeled for four home runs in 3.2 innings by his former team, the Dodgers. Since then, he’s leveled off to allow “only” four homers in 19.2 innings. To be fair, Greinke hit a pair of home runs himself against the Padres on April 2, so if we’re making up a “net homers per nine” stat, he’s down to 2.31, which is still pretty terrible.
18.1% walk rate
The combination of a triceps strain and stress reaction in his elbow limited Yu Darvish to just 40 innings last year, his first with the Cubs under a six-year, $126 million contract. It’s understandable that he might be rusty to start this season, though his walking 15 out of 83 batters faced has been disconcerting, to say the least; his 18.1% rate is double his previous career mark. Of the 20 times that he’s gotten to ball three, he’s retired just five hitters, two by strikeout; by comparison, in 2017, his last healthy season, he walked 35.8% of batters when he got to ball three, six points below the MLB average, and “held” batters to a .500 OBP, where .562 was average.
While I haven’t seen Darvish pitch yet this year, the inference I’m drawing from his stats is that he doesn’t fully trust his stuff. His four-seam fastball velocity is down 1.5 mph relative to 2017, according to Pitch Info, but he’s throwing both it and his slider more often. Once he gets to ball three, he’s avoided challenging hitters with strikes; note the lack of red in the zone in this heat map compared to this one. The good news is that his 30.1% O-Swing% is in line with his career average, and his 11.5% swinging strike rate isn’t that far off (12.1%), so it’s not like he’s been completely unable to fool hitters. He needs to tighten things up, but in a rotation that has combined for a 4.55 ERA and 4.74 FIP, he’s hardly the only one.
The Very, Very Good
93.0 mph average slider velocity
Thanks to Statcast, and before it PITCHf/x, we know that average four-seam fastball velocities have consistently been on the rise, increasing from 91.8 mph to 93.7 mph from 2008 to 2018 according to Pitch Info’s data. Slider velocities have risen from 83.9 to 85.4 mph in that same time, in slightly less uniform fashion, and on an individual level, ERA-qualifying pitchers have averaged 90.0 mph with their sliders over the course of a season 10 times — seven of them Mets throwing the famous Warthen slider (Harvey in 2013 and ’15, Zack Wheeler in ’14 and ’18, Jacob deGrom in ’15 and ’18, Noah Syndergaard in ’16). DeGrom and Syndergaard are in a virtual tie for the full-season record (91.6 mph), but this year, the former has taken things up another notch, averaging 93.0 mph with his slider — faster than the average four-seamer of 45 out of 93 qualifiers!
Velocity isn’t everything, however. While deGrom generated a 17.6% whiff rate with the slider last year while holding hitters to one home run and a 36 wRC+ on plate appearances ending with the pitch, this year that whiff rate has dropped to 14.7%, and batters have slugged .778 against it with two homers and a 197 wRC+.
German Marquez’s age-23 season turned into a breakout campaign on the strength of a 17-start run from June 30 onward (2.47 ERA, 2.42 FIP, 33.3% K rate), no small feat even given that “only” seven of those starts took place at Coors Field. He finished with a 3.77 ERA and 3.40 FIP, numbers that adjust to an 81 ERA- and 78 FIP- given his surroundings. His .311 BABIP was unremarkable, but that’s not the case this year; it’s basically half of what it was, with a 2.00 ERA masking a 3.62 FIP. While Marquez’s average exit velocity has risen from 88.9 mph to 90.0 mph, an improved groundball rate (from 47.3% to 53.8%) has led to a lower xwOBA (.274, from .281), though his .211 wOBA is still well ahead of that, suggesting a correction is in store.
40.5% strikeout rate
Before he went on the injured list earlier this week because he dropped part of an 80-pound granite stand on the fourth toe of his right foot — and here let’s pause to wince — reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell was off to a stellar start, at least when it came to controlling the strike zone. Through four starts totaling 25 innings, he had struck out 36 of the 89 batters he had faced (40.5%). While that mark has been met or exceeded by 29 relievers, the highest mark for a starter thus far belongs to Pedro Martinez, who struck out 37.5% of hitters in his ultra-dominant 1999 campaign.
In his first full season in the majors, the Brewers’ Josh Hader was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, striking out 46.7% of the hitters he faced while delivering a 2.23 FIP and 2.7 WAR in 81.1 innings. The 25-year-old southpaw is at it again, and so far, he’s been even more stifling, boosting his strikeout rate to 50% while cutting his walk rate from 9.8% to 5.6%. The resulting differential between his strikeout and walk rates is 0.2 percentage points higher than Craig Kimbrel’s full season record for relievers, set in 2012, and 2.9 points ahead of Andrew Milller’s record for lefty relievers, set in 2016.
To be fair, the Mets’ Edwin Diaz is in a virtual tie with Hader, with a 48.2% strikeout rate and 3.7 % walk rate, albeit in just 6.2 innings to Hader’s 10 (the minimum threshold I had initially set for citing relievers here). The Pirates’ Nick Burdi entered Wednesday with exactly the same numbers as Diaz in that department, then struck out two of the three batters he faced to move ahead to 46.7% (50% strikeout rate, 3.3% walk rate) — but again, in just 7.2 innings. Still, I’ve got a separate spot for Burdi here…
If you’ve never heard of Burdi, he’s a 26-year-old righty who was drafted twice by the Twins, including as a second-rounder out of the University of Louisville in 2014, then picked by the Phillies and flipped to the Pirates in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, while he was still recovering from Tommy John surgery. He debuted on September 11 last year, and totaled 1.1 innings in two major league outings. So far this year, he’s posted the aforementioned strikeout and walk rates while avoiding any home runs. While his 3.52 ERA doesn’t stick out, he’s basically broken the FIP formula. You just don’t see that very often, even this early in the season.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.