Are these struggling pitchers simply slumping or in something worse?
The bottom 10 of baseball’s Wins Above Replacement leaderboard for pitchers is littered with former aces, well-traveled journeymen and promising youngsters alike. But which starters are simply in an early slump, and which ones are in deeper trouble? With the help of some graphics from sports research engine PointAfter, let’s take a look at the five worst qualified starters by WAR in the majors—minimum 35 innings pitched—and see whether their problems are merely temporary or a sign of something more worrisome.
Note: All stats are as of games completed through May 12.
Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (-0.8 WAR)
Despite posting a 4.48 ERA last season, Hutchison showed several promising signs in 2014 that he could take the next step and become a solid presence in Toronto’s rotation this year. He struck out a batter per inning during his first full season in the majors and had a manageable walk rate of 2.9 per nine, leading to a respectable Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 3.85. However, Hutchison currently has a miserable 6.69 ERA in 36 1/3 innings and has the fourth-worst WAR among all pitchers in baseball this season.
Nothing appears to be wrong with Hutchison's stuff, as his average fastball velocity hasn't dipped below last year's 92 miles per hour. But he’s struggled with locating his slider, and what was once his most effective pitch down the stretch last year has become the least valuable slider in baseball this season, according to PITCHf/x. If you hover over the below graphic, you can see it’s crossed the plate in the middle and upper parts of the strike zone quite a bit.
That’s confirmed by Hutchison's reverse splits this year—he’s actually contained lefties quite well (.253/.311/.400), but righthanders have teed off on him for a triple slash of .375/.444/.571. So while his fastball-changeup combo has worked quite well in keeping southpaws off balance, he needs to regain a feel for the only other off-speed pitch in his arsenal.
While Hutchison definitely doesn’t deserve the 3–0 record he’s attained to this point, he also hasn’t pitched as badly as his ERA indicates. The 24-year-old made some progress in his last outing against the Red Sox, giving up one run in five innings, and could be poised to pump up his strikeout numbers in his next start against the free-swinging Astros on Thursday.
Kyle Lohse, Brewers (-0.7 WAR)
Lohse seems like a natural candidate to age well into his late 30s. He’s a crafty pitcher who hasn’t relied on velocity in years and instead feeds hitters a diverse array of sinkers and off-speed offerings.
But despite all that veteran guile, Lohse’s numbers have been incredibly ugly thus far. His 7.03 ERA is the second-worst figure among all full-time starters, as are his 10 homers allowed. He’s only given Milwaukee one quality start in seven tries. However, there’s a litany of reasons to believe Lohse will bounce back sooner rather than later. The 15-year veteran’s strikeout rate (17.4%) is actually a career best, and his walk rate is steady (2.0/9 last year, 2.0/9 this year). His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio (0.54) is the lowest it’s ever been, and 13.9% of fly balls hit against him are flying out of the park, but both of those two ratios should see correction soon. Lohse has done a fine job of keeping balls in the lower half of the zone despite his statistical struggles, and the results should start to reflect that soon enough.
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (-0.6 WAR)
Fresh off a top-10 Cy Young finish last year, Strasburg looked set to enter his prime in his age-26 season in 2015. That wishful thinking hasn’t come to fruition thus far—he’s only turned in one quality start on the season and has failed to get out of the fourth inning in each of his last two times on the mound. The slump appears to stem, at least partially, from a lack of command. Strasburg is walking a career-worst 2.8 batters per nine innings, and he owns a whopping 1.71 WHIP, compared to his previous career high of 1.16.
What’s far more concerning, however, is that hitters are swinging and missing about half the time they usually do against Strasburg—as clear of a harbinger for poor execution as there is. During his first full season with the Nats, hitters swung and missed 19.2% of the time against Strasburg, and just last year, that figure was 18.7%. Now, it’s down to a measly 10.6%. On the other hand, the former No. 1 pick has been overwhelmingly unlucky on balls that have managed to stay in play: His opponents’ .395 batting average on balls in play is the highest in the majors among qualified starters. Strasburg’s velocity hasn’t changed, so it appears hitters are just being more patient with him. Either that, or he’s tipping his pitches. The only thing crystal clear about his situation is that the Nationals could really use Strasburg’s peak form as they try to catch up with the Mets in the NL East.
Kyle Kendrick, Rockies (-0.6 WAR)
Kendrick’s 2015 campaign has comprised perhaps the worst five-start stretch of any pitcher this season. After kicking off the year with seven innings of scoreless ball against Milwaukee, he allowed six or more earned runs in four of his next five starts. He rebounded Tuesday night with a seven-inning, two-run outing against the Angels, but he’s still dead last in the majors among all qualified starters with an unsightly 7.65 ERA. This isn’t even a case of Coors Field inflation: The former Phillie has a 7.07 ERA in five road starts, and those include his two decent showings thus far.
Lefthanded hitters have especially crushed Kendrick, holding a collective .343/.450/.657 line against him this season. All 11 of his walks have been issued to lefties, as 52.6% of his pitches to southpaws have been balls, compared to just 39.5% of his offerings to right-handers.
The bigger cause for concern is the fact that Kendrick is serving up home runs to 5.5% of the batters he’s faced, more than double the league average. While his home-runs-per-fly-ball rate is astronomically high at 14.3% (league average is around 7.5), it’s also worth noting that his line drive rate is 35%. Opposing hitters are making very good contact against Kendrick, a fly-ball pitcher who’s never had overpowering stuff. So while his rates and numbers should improve a bit, it's unlikely that he's going to be league average or better this season.
Chris Tillman, Orioles (-0.5 WAR)
A former All-Star, Tillman was supposed to be a consistent presence in the Orioles' rotation this year. But he’s been derailed by an utter lack of control, ranking second in the AL in walks (19) and handing out free passes to 11.1% of the batters he’s faced—a totally unsustainable rate for a major leaguer. His knuckle-curve and changeup have both been the least valuable pitches of their kind this season, according to PITCHf/x. Considering that those are his two favorite off-speed choices, that is not a good thing.
There is some good news, though. Tillman's slow start may be a case of his matching up extremely poorly against the Blue Jays, who he’s already faced three times in 2015 and given up 19 earned runs in 14.2 innings (12.04 ERA) as a result. Meanwhile, he’s logged a 2.98 ERA in 24 2/3 innings during his other four starts, which Baltimore would gladly accept from Tillman going forward.
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