An article looking back at and projecting MLB’s very best pitchers doesn’t seem especially interesting. Everyone knows that Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, etc. are gods of pitching, and they’ll be gods of pitching again in 2020 (barring some kind of horrific injury). The more interesting projections can be found around the fringes of the world of MLB pitching- in the case of this article, the very worst performers in the league in 2019. How did MLB’s worst pitchers fare last season, and can they expect to bounce back in 2020?
Note: the pitchers in this article are ranked by fWAR from worst to best. To see Fangraphs’s full WAR leaderboard, click here.
Straily joined up with the Orioles before the 2019 season after getting cut from Miami’s camp late in spring training. The great Jeff Todd wrote favorably about the signing, saying that “[t]his move will help the O’s fill some innings and give Straily a sure rotation spot as he seeks to rebuild some value.” Straily had established a reputation as a dependable innings-eater who could provide plenty of cheap, inoffensive innings at the back of a rotation. The best ERA in Baltimore’s 2018 rotation was Kevin Gausman‘s 4.43 mark, and second-place David Hess (4.88) wasn’t exactly close. Straily turned in a 4.12 ERA in 2018 (albeit with an FIP of 5.11), which the O’s were happy to take. So how did the signing turn out?
Uh, not well. Not well at all. Straily’s ERA of 9.82 was only the tip of the sad, sad iceberg (sadberg?). In his 47 2/3 innings, he somehow gave up twenty-two dingers (good for a rate of 4.2 home runs per 9 innings). His walk rate was an identical 4.2 BB/9, and his strikeout rate was a sub-pedestrian 6.4 K/9. His WHIP was a pretty astonishing 1.99, and his FIP was an astronomical 9.34. Simply put, there were no redeeming factors to his season.
The Orioles sent Straily to Philadephia, where he put up a much more palatable 3.76 ERA for their AAA squad. The Phillies cut him after the season, and he latched on with the KBO’s Lotte Giants. He’ll look to get his career back on track overseas, and hopefully he’ll be able to make it back to MLB sooner rather than later.
José Quijada spent his 2019 debut season in the Marlins’ bullpen, where he coughed up an ERA of 5.76 over 29 2/3 innings. Quijada was kind of his own worst enemy in 2019 due to his astronomical 7.9 BB/9, which was a major contributor to his unsightly 1.787 WHIP. He also gave up a cool three dingers per nine innings, which is a less-than-ideal figure (although his HR/FB ratio was an absurd 34.2 percent, which should come down pretty drastically). To top off the mess that was José Quijada’s 2019 season, he put up a way-too-high hard contact rate of 47.1 percent. Thanks to the homers and the walks, Quijada’s 2019 FIP was an unsightly 7.66. In a way, he was lucky to escape 2019 with an ERA as low as 5.76
On the bright side, Quijada put up a Chris Sale-esque K-rate of 13.3/9 IP. His fastball ranks in the 79th percentile for spin rate, and “some evaluators” think that his slider is even better than his fastball. Quijada has the stuff to be a good reliever- he just needs to put that stuff in the strike zone.
Quijada was DFA’d off the Marlins’ roster in early February alongside Jarlin García. The Angels scooped him up a short time later, and he’s currently on their 40-man roster. Most projection systems figure that he’ll become a basically serviceable reliever by cutting his strikeout and walk rates in half. Steamer’s projected 4.29 ERA and 4.69 FIP seem over-optimistic, but he has a chance to match his projections if he can iron out his control issues.
Edwin Jackson, immortal über-journeyman, suited up for the Blue Jays (his fourteenth[!!] team) and Tigers in 2019. Unfortunately, his Toronto tenure went pretty horribly, to the tune of an 11.12 ERA in 28 1/3 innings. His peripheral stats didn’t see much to smile about in his performance either- a FIP of 8.97 only looks good alongside an ERA of 11.12. After his release in July, the Detroit “Tank-gers” scooped him up and gave him another 39 1/3 innings (why?) to get back on track. He didn’t.
Jackson’s advanced Statcast metrics paint a picture that is arguably bleaker than his traditional stats. Jackson’s expected batting average (xBA) and expected slugging percentage (xSLG) ranked in MLB’s first percentile. His xWOBA and xWOBACON ranked in the 0th percentile. Jackson’s 2019 results broke Statcast!
For reasons, the Arizona Diamondbacks (a team that is trying to compete in 2020) signed Jackson to a minors deal. Projections on Fangraphs think that he’ll be significantly better in 2020, if only because it’ll be tough for him to be much worse. Only time will tell if Jackson can get his career back on track, but it’s not looking good for him at the moment.
After a surprising bounceback 2018 season spent with the San Francisco Giants, Derek Holland really hit the skids in 2019. He put up an ERA of 5.90 in San Francisco and was promptly flipped to the Cubs at the deadline. The friendly confines of Wrigley Field were not especially friendly to Holland, as he belched up an ERA of 6.89 with peripherals to match during his time in Chicago. MLB’s juiced ball absolutely killed Holland last season, as evidenced by his 2.1 HR/9 IP (more than double his 2018 mark). Dinger problems plus a jump in walk rate (3.5 BB/9 in 2018, 4.8 BB/9 in 2019) were major players in Holland’s subpar 2019.
Holland is a sinker-slider pitcher, and neither pitch was much to shout about last season. The 2019 edition of the Derek Holland Sinkerball got smacked around for a .481 slugging percentage (for reference, Corey Seager slugged .483 in 2019). Batters slugged a more palatable .438 against his slider, but their xSLG against the pitch was an uninspiring .469. His changeup and curveball are essentially just show-me offerings, and both were absolutely crushed in 2019. To read all the gory details about Holland’s repertoire, click here.
Holland signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates, and he’ll be with the big club during spring training. It’ll be interesting to see if he can recapture his 2018 form in Pittsburgh next season. The projections listed on Fangraphs don’t think he’ll spend much time in the majors next season, and aren’t particularly excited about what he’ll do there. However, as far as minor-league depth signings go, Holland is a pretty safe play for upside. It wasn’t long ago at all that he was an All-Star candidate.
The author recommends doing a Google Image search for Derek Holland. He has the very best Photo Day pictures.
Yes, that Craig Kimbrel. After sitting on the free-agent market until June, the Cubs (hello again) signed Kimbrel to a three-year, $43 million deal. It turns out that missing spring training, as well as the first three months of the season, can lead to some catastrophic results, and Kimbrel had a catastrophic first season in Chicago. A 6.53 ERA is pretty bad, and a FIP of 8.00 is even worse.
So what went so wrong for Craig Kimbrel? Kimbrel is a two-pitch pitcher, with a high-90s fastball and a spiked-grip curveball (Statcast also claims that he has thrown precisely one changeup in his career). Kimbrel’s curveball was brilliant in 2019- batters managed a pathetic .156 BA/.406 SLG, with an xSLG of .305. Crazily-acronym’d stats like wOBA and xwOBA also loved the 2019 version of Kimbrel’s curve.
The results he got from his fastball are exactly the opposite. Opponents slugged an unfathomable .783 against the pitch, which would be the sixth-highest single-season mark of all time. xSLG and wOBA agree wholeheartedly with those results. Essentially, Craig Kimbrel’s fastball made hitters look like some mythical Barry Bonds/Babe Ruth hybrid. It was his worst pitch, and he threw it 80% of the time. The biggest problem with the fastball was his location. High velocity and decent spin won’t save a pitcher who puts all his fastballs right down the middle.
Kimbrel’s still a hard thrower with a killer curveball, and it’s not hard at all to see him coming back to form in 2020. Fangraphs doesn’t think he’ll make it back to pre-2018 form next season, but most of his projections see him as a solid-to-good reliever. Of course, the Cubs aren’t paying $43 million for a solid-to-good reliever, so they’re hoping a normal season with an actual spring training can bring him back to form.