After a strange 2020 season, the 2021 MLB season will be starting on time. Currently, teams are slated to play all 162 games which means pitchers’ workloads will return to normal. More innings and more batters on more teams mean pitchers will actually have time to ramp up, unlike in 2020. During spring training, teams will need to start getting a feel for what their rotations might be. Here is an early look at the Seattle Mariners projected 2021 pitching rotation.
Returning as the Mariners’ no. 1 is lefty Marco Gonzales. 2020 was his best season yet as he posted a 3.10 ERA, 3.32 FIP and 0.947 WHIP. Most incredible about last year was the fact that he gave up more home runs (eight) than walks (seven). With his pinpoint accuracy, he also set a career-high 8.3 K/9, and led the league with a 9.14 K/BB ratio. Since Gonzales doesn’t really throw that hard (88 mph sinker) or generate much spin rate (2160 rpm sinker), he’ll have to rely on his ability to generate weak contact and groundballs in order to continue this success.
2. James Paxton
A surprise addition this offseason, most people probably didn’t have the Mariners on their shortlist of teams to land free agent James Paxton. After a two-year stint with the Yankees, Paxton returns to his original team looking to get his career back on track. 2020 was his worst season yet, featuring a 6.64 ERA in just five starts. Paxton has always had issues with limiting hard contact, but in 2020 things got really exacerbated as he gave up career-worsts in average exit velocity (90.7 mph) and hard hit rate (44.6%). He also seemed to have a lot of trouble locating his pitches in the zone, hence his 10.2 H/9 and 3.1 BB/9.
The one thing he has going for him right now is his 4.24 xERA. This suggests that much of his struggles last year were just bad luck/bad support from his defense. While he’s yet to post a single healthy season in his eight-year career, the Mariners have $8.5 million of hope that he will buck this trend in 2021.
After tearing it up for nine years in Japan, many Mariners fans are understandably disappointed that Yusei Kikuchi has yet to post season with a sub-five ERA. Luckily, he actually showed a lot of promise last year and wasn’t as bad as his 5.17 ERA would suggest. While his walk rate did increase by a whole point to 3.8 BB/9, he made huge strides in lowering his hit rate (10.9 H/9 to 7.9 H/9) and home run rate (2.0 to 0.6), as well as increasing his strikeout rate (6.5 K/9 to 9.0 K/9). Likewise, he did a good job keeping the ball in play, as seen by his 52.8% groundball rate.
All credit to his new cutter which, in addition to ditching his curveball, enabled much of this success. The end result was an excellent 3.37 xERA. With proper defense, Kikuchi might finally breakout in 2021.
Another groundball pitcher, Justus Sheffield actually had a pretty good 2020 season. After struggling greatly in his first two seasons, Sheffield produced a solid 3.58 ERA and 3.17 FIP last year. Though he still walks too many guys (3.3 BB/9), he succeeded in limiting the long ball as he gave up just two home runs all year. He also had his third season with a groundball rate above 50%. That said, there is concern that a soft throwing pitcher who doesn’t have a lot of spin or movement on his pitches might be something of a ticking time bomb. If he can keep batters swinging on top of the ball, however, this will be a non-issue.
5. Chris Flexen
Following an unexpectedly good season in the KBO (3.01 ERA), Chris Flexen returns to America to prove that he can be an effective major league pitcher. The big leagues weren’t kind to Flexen as he owns a career 8.07 ERA over parts of three seasons. As for his performance in Korea, he was mostly the exact same pitcher over there, just facing lesser competition. Scouts noted that he was throwing his curveball more and with better command than in America, but that’s about it. Time will tell if this can be a difference maker, or if he’ll be just as ineffective as before.
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