Usually, this Friday column begins with the presentation of a statistic, a query, a table, and then discussion of the players within. But sometimes we can all be forgiven for just wondering what’s going on with that stud pitcher on our teams. So the question here is simple: Which top starting pitchers going into the season are struggling mightily, and how likely are they to rebound?
So, uh, here’s the query! Here are all the starting pitchers in the top 100 (as judged by Yahoo’s pre-season ranks) who have been outside the top 250 so far this season (again judged by Yahoo, for simplicity).
|Player||Pre-Season Yahoo||2023 Yahoo|
As with most queries, this produces a list that is too cumbersome to use as a complete roadmap. Not all of these are really struggling at the same level, anyway. Yes, Shane Bieber’s strikeout rate is far below even the lower projections we had here using Stuff+, but he’s probably not inspiring the same dread as some of the other pitchers on this list. Yu Darvish seems fine! Give Logan Gilbert a win or two more and he’s not on this list at all.
But there are some massively struggling pitchers on this list who deserve more extensive analysis. Turns out, top 500 could be a better benchmark for the true strugglers.
Sandy Alcántara, Marlins
Just below the surface, it’s hard to spot anything wrong with the Marlins’ ace. he’s throwing harder, getting more whiffs, and strikeout and walk rates are better than his career numbers. Even poking down further doesn’t offer many clues, as his fastball and changeup Stuff+ numbers are right in line with what they’ve been in the past.The slider is a little down in terms of Stuff+, but it’s added more drop recently and the model likes it.
It doesn’t seem to be a function of movement or mechanics. Instead, this is an old-school tale. He’s stranding many fewer runners than he did before (60.3 percent now, 73.6 percent for career) and allowing more hits on balls in play (.301 this year, .268 for his career before). The first should regress in a good way … the latter? He’s never struck out many batters, and last year he generated more balls into the shift than all but one pitcher in the big leagues. He allowed a .207 batting average on those balls into the shift, and he doesn’t get the benefit of that anymore.
The good news is that he’s physically fine. The bad news is that he probably won’t be as good as he was last year again without the shift. Expect more like a 3.5+ ERA once he starts stranding runners again rather than the lower threes ERAs you see with lower BABIP projections.
Dylan Cease, White Sox
Here, the stuff is a little bit down, as Cease has lost a tick on the fastball, lost some ride on the four-seam, and some drop on the slider, and it’s manifested in fewer whiffs and strikeouts. That, coupled with ongoing command issues, and some poor luck (his strand rate is also lower than league average) has led to a couple of disasterpieces surrounded by much better work. Trying to avoid the pitfalls by careful schedule work might have reduced some of the pain (four innings, six earned at home against the surging Rays) but not all (five innings, seven earned at the Royals).
One thing that does stick out in the numbers is that Cease’s curveball has lost two inches of movement in both directions over the last few years, making it a less effective pitch every season by Stuff+ and also results — it’s giving up a .458 slugging-against this year, worst in his career. Unfortunately, the curve’s horizontal movement tracks along with the slider’s horizontal movement, so their mechanics must be aligned in a way that would make it hard to ask him to improve the curve that way.
If he just uses the curve less, he’ll become more of a two-pitch pitcher, and that puts a lot of pressure on his two pitches to perform. But he can command the slider well enough, so it’s a possible way forward. He still has top-15 Stuff+ among starters, but if you look at other underperformers in that group, they’re largely two-pitch pitchers in tough parks, and that describes Cease more these days than we might want to admit.
He should strand more runners, and maybe get better luck on balls in play, but what if the walk rate doesn’t come down much? I’d expect an ERA just on the good side of four, which along with the strikeouts probably just makes him a sometimes-uncomfortable hold.
Nestor Cortes, Yankees
After spending around 250 innings over the last two seasons lightly overperforming his ERA estimators, Cortes is now sitting a run higher than even his higher ERA estimators should be. It’s tempting to say he was just overperforming before, but the pendulum has probably swung too far. Let’s list the things that Cortes still has going for him, compared to other starting pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched.
- A four-seamer with the third-most ride
- A cutter with a top-25 drop
- A slider with the fourth-most sweep among lefties
- A changeup with well-above-average sweep and drop relative to his fastball
Sure, his velocity isn’t great, but even then, his last two starts showed the second-best fastball velocity of any two starts in his career, and he’s talked of how the Yankees have helped him uncover that velocity and how important it is, even if it’s not standout velo. He’s thrown three of the top 20 fastball velocities of his career this year so far.
His home park is tough, that’s why ppERA projections had him around a 4.00 ERA, but his team should score runs to support him and give him wins to go along with that high threes type ERA at least. He looks like someone you want to try and acquire if you can.
Alek Manoah, Blue Jays
The Stuff+ model didn’t love Manoah going into the season, projecting a high-threes ERA based on average-ish Stuff+ last season, but it wasn’t alone. Of the four projection systems listed on FanGraphs before the season, three had an ERA projection higher than 3.6, and that was before those systems realized the run environment would be much higher this season. In April, he got a 4.26 ppERA in our projections, but even that has been generous compared to his results.
Even if his movement and velocities didn’t stand out before, they’ve still fallen off this year. It’s multi-faceted. He’s:
- Lost a tick off the fastball
- Lost ride on the four-seam and sink on the sinker
- Lost drop and sweep on the slider
That’s been enough to ding the Stuff+ on all his pitches, but it’s really hurt his slider the most. What was once:
Pitch-to-pitch comparisons like this may exaggerate the difference, but even small changes in movement can make a pitch worse, and that’s seemingly happened to his slider, which used to be comfortably above-average by Stuff+ and is now a standard deviation below average. Now hitters are slugging .522 off the pitch, they slugged .271 on the pitch in 2021.
When something like this happens, the next question should usually be: how likely is he to recover that movement and improve the slider? You could look across baseball at all pitchers to see how often this happens, but one of the fundamental truths under the hood of Stuff+ is that movement changes are rarer than you’d expect. Let’s look instead at Manoah’s history himself to see if he’s righted the ship before.
He’s improved his sweep before, but that October 2022 number may be a red herring: it’s one start. Otherwise there’s a clear trend towards less sweep over his career, and a lack of a real example of this much trouble with the sweep before recovering. Of the five projection systems at FanGraphs, three have an ERA over 4.18, and ppERA has him with a 4.26 ERA, which is basically league average. It doesn’t look like he’s getting very unlucky with balls in play or strand rate, either, so in leagues where you need to do better than a league average ERA going forward, he’s a sell low.
Joe Musgrove, Padres
Our smallest-sample entry has one clear number jumping off the page that’s thrown a ton of noise into his ERA: he’s given up five homers in his first four starts, good for a 2.4 HR/9 rate that is twice his career number. Even if the ball is flying a little better this year, that’s mostly noise.
There is one worrisome facet of his line. Despite throwing harder than he did last year, Musgrove’s four-seamer is showing its worst Stuff+ in San Diego. He’s still got a good cutter, slider, curve combo, but a poor fastball — it’s lost less than a half inch of ride — may lead to more homers this year. He’s given up one on the four-seam and a .524 slugging on the pitch so far this year.
It’s hard to get too worked up over this bit of ride on the fastball, though. Musgrove’s been a spin guy ever since he took a leap forward in 2021, and he’s still spinning the ball well, still getting whiffs, and his Location+ numbers are better than his walk totals. Put it this way, he needs to find a half-inch of ride and locate the cutter a little better. Does that sound like a reason to disbelieve projections, which are for mid to high threes with a good WHIP (3.75 ppERA)? Doesn’t seem like it. Java Joe has bad stretches, but when you look up at the end of the season, he gets his numbers.
(Top photo of Alcántara: Jasen Vinlove / Miami Marlins / Getty Images)