Slow Starts From MLB Aces

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Conventional wisdom states that if you want to win, then you need to acquire an ace. But what happens when that ace turns out to be a dud? Shane Liss-Riordan examines five slow starts from MLB aces to figure out what’s behind them and if their teams and fans should be concerned.

We’re three weeks into the MLB season, and some accomplished starting pitchers are off to poor starts. For a few of these pitchers, this may be nothing to worry about, perhaps a string of starts against strong lineups or simply bad luck. For others, there is more cause for concern. Let’s take a look and try to decide who falls into which group.

Chris Archer

Archer came into the season being hyped as a possible Cy Young contender. He was fourth in the league in strikeouts last season with 252, and had a 2.90 FIP. He has looked terrible so far, going 0-4 through his first four starts with an ERA of 7.32. The right-hander has not once made it out of the sixth inning. What gives?

Archer’s bad stretch actually started late last year. From September onward he had a 5.81 ERA and a 4.88 FIP. His poor numbers corresponded most significantly with a drop in strikeouts. Over the last month, his K% dropped to 20.1% after recording at least 30% in every other month. It’s easy to conclude that this year has been more of the same for Archer, but a closer look reveals that it is not. Archer is again striking out a staggering 29.6% of batters faced, which last year would have ranked fourth in all of baseball, behind only Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer. His 11.5% swinging-strike rate, while slightly below his 2015 (12.8%), still would rank in the top-20 pitchers last season. What’s killing him is that his BABIP so far this year is .462! To put that into context, over the past ten years the highest BABIP by any qualified pitcher was .355, over 100 points lower than Archer’s.

The one thing that has significantly changed about Archer from last season is his first-pitch strike percentage. Archer has thrown a first-pitch strike to only 51.0% of hitters this year, as compared to 64.1% last year. Throughout his career, he has posted a first-pitch strike rate of 60.0%. This makes it harder for Archer to utilize his slider, a pitch he heavily relies upon. If Archer is to recapture his success, it is critically important for him to return to throwing first-pitch strikes. Since 2002, 27 pitchers have posted a first-pitch strike rate at or below 53%. These pitchers have had a median ERA of 4.06 with a median FIP of 4.38. Only five had an ERA below 3.50. In short, it is nearly impossible to pitch like an ace without consistently throwing first-pitch strikes.

David Price

Price was signed by the Red Sox this winter for $217 million, the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, with the expectation that he would be one of the best starters in the American League. Four starts into the contract and he has an ERA of 7.06. The Red Sox offense has been great, averaging over six runs in Price’s starts, giving him a record of 2-0, but this is not what the Red Sox were hoping for when they signed him.

However, Price’s strikeout and walk numbers reveal that he has little to worry about. His 33 .0% K-rate is far and away the highest of his career. He is missing bats at an incredible clip: his 16.0% swinging-strike rate would rank second best since 2002, trailing only Randy Johnson. When he throws the ball in the zone, he is nearly impossible to hit: hitters make contact on pitches inside the zone at only a 68.1% rate. For perspective, Clayton Kershaw led all of baseball last year with a zone-contact percentage of 78.2%, over ten points worse than Price currently. His walk-rate of 6.2% is slightly higher than last year, but it aligns easily with his career mark of 6.3%.

Price’s main problem has been bunching his hits together. When runners are in scoring position, he has allowed hitters to post an .885 OPS. Last year, this number was .620, and throughout his career it’s only .698, signifying that the trend will likely turn around. He has left only 55.6% of runners on base, compared to 74.7% throughout his career. This all adds up to show that with slightly better luck, Price should return to being the pitcher the Red Sox broke the bank for.

Matt Harvey

Even with Harvey’s decent outing on Friday, going five innings and allowing two runs, he has still been a disappointment so far this year. Through his first four games, he is 1-3 with an ERA of 5.24. His slow start has been overshadowed by Noah Syndergaard, but if the Mets are going to be able to repeat as NL champions, they’re going to need Harvey to be the ace he was last year, striking out nearly a batter an inning and posting an ERA of 2.71.

Throughout his career, the right-hander has relied on getting a lot of swinging strikes posting a career swinging-strike rate of 11.9%. This year, the number has dropped all the way down to 9.0%. This has resulted in his strikeout rate dropping from a career 25.9% to 14.3% this year, a number that would’ve ranked third worst among qualified starters in 2015. He’s also throwing the ball in the zone more than in the past; 51.4% this year as compared to 47.3% throughout his career. When he does go in the zone, he’s getting hit a lot more: his zone-contact percentage is 88.4% compared to a career rate of 83.5%. This is, to say the least, concerning.

Last year, Harvey generated a large number of swings-and-misses on his fastball, changeup, and slider. His swinging-strike rate on all three of those pitches has plummeted this year: his fastball whiff rate dropped from 21.9% in 2015 to 16.5% so far, his changeup from 30.9% to 17.9%, and his slider from 38.5% to 20.0%. This is likely because the velocity on each of those three pitches has dropped significantly: his fastball from 96.5-mph in 2015 to 95.0-mph so far, his changeup from 88.8-mph to 87.3-mph, and his slider from 90.2-mph to 88.5-mph. Many pitchers have a lower velocity in April than in other months, but Harvey’s fastball last April averaged 96.6-mph, a tick higher than his season average.

It is important to remember that 2015 was Harvey’s first year returning from Tommy John surgery. Even with his dispute with the Mets over his workload, Harvey threw 216 IP last season, including the playoffs. It’s still too early to say that he hasn’t fully recovered, but this situation is worrisome for Harvey and the Mets.

Jose Fernandez

Fernandez has been one of the brightest young stars in the game these past few years. Over his first three seasons in the league, he posted an ERA of 2.40, while averaging 10.46 K/9. Though he did undergo Tommy John surgery in 2014, he came back strong last year, going 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA through 64 2/3 IP. His ERA is up to 4.37 through four starts this season, not a terrible mark, but it is eye-opening – especially when considering that after Fernandez returned from a right bicep-strain last year, his ERA was 4.15 through his last four starts.

Fernandez has been striking out an incredible number of hitters this year: his K% of 34.0% would rank first among all qualified starters over the last ten years. The big change is his walks. Last year, Fernandez walked 5.3% of hitters, while this year the number has ballooned to 11.7%. However, Fernandez is throwing the ball in the zone more than he ever has before: 51.7% of the time, as compared to a career zone-rate of 48.4%. This makes his increase in walks confusing, until you look at his chase-rate. Last year, when Fernandez threw the ball outside the zone, hitters swung 35.7% of the time. This year, that number has dropped to 27.9%. In addition, his groundball rate has plummeted from 40.1% last year to 30.6% so far this year.

Fernandez, as well as throwing a fastball around 96-mph, relies heavily on his curveball, a famous pitch: it even has a nickname, “The Defector.” This year, hitters are still whiffing at the curveball when they do swing, but they’re not swinging at it nearly as often: in 2015 hitters swung at his curveball 53.7% of the time, whereas this year they’re only swinging 40.6% of the time. When they put it in play, they’re not hitting nearly as many ground balls as normal: 42.3% as opposed to 50.0% last year.

Let’s look at the movement on his curveball. Prior to this year, Fernandez has averaged 8.8 inches of horizontal movement and 2.6 inches of vertical movement. This season, he’s thrown 313 curveballs, and he’s averaging only 7.8 inches of horizontal movement and 1.1 inches of vertical movement. What could be causing this? It’s possible that it stems from his history of arm problems: after he returned in September of last year, his movement had dropped, but not as far down as this year. It’s also possible that it could be a mechanical issue, something that can be fixed. The next few starts should tell us a lot more.

Zack Greinke

Greinke had a year for the ages in 2015: his ERA of 1.66 ranked eighth best since 1920. Naturally, he was due for some regression, but the amount he has regressed is far more than anyone expected. After four starts, he is 1-2 with an ERA of 5.25. This is not the pitcher the Diamondbacks thought they were getting when they signed Greinke this offseason for $206.5 million, the highest AAV ever for a pitcher.

A lot of this stems from bad luck as Greinke’s BABIP has risen 100 points relative to last year. While last year’s mark of .229 was not sustainable, .329 is a little more than regression: his career BABIP is .298. Similarly, his left-on-base percentage last year of 86.5%, which ranked highest in the majors, has dropped to 67.1%, as compared to a career rate of 74.8%. If both these stats revert to his career rates, that will account for a large part of the difference.

It is worth noting though that Greinke’s contact-rate has gone up somewhat significantly: 78.5% this season versus 74.8% in 2015. He’s throwing the ball in the zone more (45.9%, 40.4% last year), and when he does go in the zone, it’s getting hit more often (89.9%, 85.1% last year). His swinging-strike rate is down on his fastball and he’s giving up a lot more fly balls on it. However, his velocity on the pitch is as good as ever, which gives little cause for concern.

If you take out his first start of the season, when he gave up seven runs in just four innings against the Rockies, he has an ERA of 3.15. Greinke will probably never repeat his magical 2015 for the Dodgers, but he has yet to lose his ace status.

Shane Liss-Riordan has made the case that a potential ace is not worth trading for and how David Price should pitch well in his 30s.

Follow Shane on Twitter @slissriordan.

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