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Early Ace Epidemic

The term ‘ace’ is not one thrown around loosely. This is not a term given to a team’s de facto number 1, but one that’s reserved for the best of the best: Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Ricky Nolasco with the Angels, all aces. A team can very easily have no aces on their team. While most teams may have a “team ace”, a guy like Tyler Skaggs isn’t a real ace, but a guy like Jacob deGrom is. However, there’s been a disturbing trend in MLB this year: some aces have been getting absolutely rocked.

If you look at the top 20 leaderboard for ERA, you’ll see some familiar names in Aaron Nola, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, and Kyle Freeland. The only problem is, to see those names on the top 20 of ERA, you would have to reverse the leaderboards to make it a bottom 20 instead. Aaron Nola rounds up the pack of all qualified pitchers with a resounding 7.45 ERA through four games started. Corey Kluber, ace of a staff full of aces, has his own impressive number of 6.15, and Zack Greinke, Noah Syndergaard, Kyle Freeland, and Stephen Strasburg all have an ERA north of 5.40. Not included on this list because of his failure to qualify based on innings is Carlos Carrasco and his 12.60 mark as well as Chris Sale with a 9.00.

So, what gives? Do they just all suck now? Not likely, but something is clearly wrong. For one thing, Carrasco is giving up hits at a ghastly rate of 19.8 H/9, complete with a 2.7 HR/9 ratio. I shouldn’t have to explain to you that these rates are significantly above the career averages of a pitcher considered an ace for the past couple years. In fact, they’re both over double. Those numbers are fueled largely by an abhorrent .613 BABIP, a number that, if it keeps up, should be enough to make Carrasco retire by June. There’s almost no reason to think that Carrasco’s numbers won’t regress back to normal come July.

What about Aaron Nola? After allowing one earned run in six innings of work in his 2019 debut, Nola has been getting humbled in his last 3 starts. In those 3 starts, Nola has only pitched 13.1 innings while allowing 15 earned runs on 19 hits. BABIP isn’t entirely to blame, as the .333 BABIP against him isn’t a ridiculously high mark. Can this just be chalked up to bad luck or is this a real problem? His xwOBA of .365 suggests that the balls put in play against him are resulting in about what they should, which is a disturbing trend early on for the young righty. However, his average velocity, spin rate, and break are all on par from a year ago, so there’s still hope of Nola returning to form soon.

Swing and miss percentages for Aaron Nola’s pitches | graph courtesy of Baseball Savant

One noticeable change is the drastic decrease in swing and miss percentage from Nola’s curveball. The pitch has actually seen a slight uptick in spin rate while maintaining velocity, so it’s really odd to see that the average exit velocity on the curveball has risen by 7 mph.

Corey Kluber is struggling, and truthfully it’s hard to pinpoint one single aspect as his peripherals all seem incredibly similar to 2018. His velocity is steadily declining yes, but, the drop off from this year to last year is less than 1 mph for all of his pitches besides his curveball. Honestly, it seems like location might be the biggest issue for Kluber this year, as his pitch charts show that his sinker is being left up in the zone far more than what should be acceptable for a major league pitcher, particularly of his caliber.

Kluber’s sinker is in the middle of the zone far more than it should be | chart courtesy of Baseball Savant

Carrasco was also one of the most worrisome pitchers in the early going, with his aforementioned 12.60 ERA being a nightmare for the Indians and my fantasy team alike. However, it seems like he may have finally turned a corner after his start last night. At the time I started this article, there was almost nothing to be positive about regarding Carrasco’s 2019. After last night, Wednesday, April 17, there is one thing to be positive about, and it comes in the form of 7 shutout innings with 12 strikeouts against the Mariners. Like Kluber, Carrasco has been seeing incredibly nominal decreases in velocity across all of his pitches all under 1 mph. But also like Kluber, it appears that Carrasco has just been filling up the zone far more than he should be.

Carrasco’s slider has been seeing a lot of the upper part of the zone | graph courtesy of Baseball Savant

Chris Sale is by far the more well documented case of an ace struggling. As most know, Sale is known for his cross body slinging motion, with his fastball routinely in the 97-99 mph range. Early on this season, his fastball has lived at a concerning 90-92 range. Part of what makes Sale so good is his ability to offset his fastball with his slider, but that slider loses effectiveness when you no longer have to gear up to hit 97. Being able to sit on 90 gives more time to react to the slider, and it’s showed in his swing and miss and strikeout numbers. After having a K% of over 35% each of the past two seasons, Chris Sale currently sits with a K% of only 16.7%, a rate which would be the lowest of his career by 9%. His swinging strike percentage is also down from 24.9% to 17.9%, which is again not encouraging by any means. Although his fastball did show some life against the Yankees in his last start, touching 97 mph, he still got touched up for 4 ER in only 5 innings pitched.

Velocity changes for Chris Sale from 2018 to 2019 | graphs courtesy of Baseball Savant

If you had to describe Sale’s 2019 with a gif to a guy named Bob, it would look something like this:

Image result for not great bob gif

However, his last start against the Yankees gave hope that his stuff isn’t completely off his shoulder injury. If/when Sale gets his velocity back, there’s truthfully no reason for him to not return to his, well, every year besides this one form.

For Kluber and Carrasco, it seems like both of them should be able to recoup without much stress. Sale is a bit more concerning, as his stuff is noticeably diminished from last season and it remains to be seen if his shoulder injury is more serious than we all thought, but the uptick in velocity gave reason to be hopeful. As for guys like Buehler, Strasburg, and Syndergaard, they should be able to iron their stuff out without much fret. Buehler’s stuff is almost identical to what is was last year, from spin rate to horizontal break to velocity, and his numbers should normalize quickly. Strasburg and Syndergaard have both been in the league long enough to learn how to pitch, but they’re also both still young enough to still be afforded the full arsenal of stuff they’re used to without much decline. Strasburg’s struggles can be partially attributed to a deep decrease in swing and miss% on his changeup, and Syndergaard has actually seen an uptick in spin rate and break, so I’m not really sure how he could possibly be getting hit harder.

These aces that I mentioned are exactly that for a reason. They have consistently been among the top pitchers in all of baseball (with the exception of Buehler and his young career), and they know what it takes to achieve the excellence they have sustained for years. Is it possible that the “juiced baseballs” theory actually has some merit to it? Maybe (also, the ball was scientifically proven to behave differently in the air, so home runs happen at a much greater rate). I truly don’t believe that there’s anything to worry about for most of these guys, although, nothing they’ve done this year has helped my claim. Age is coming for some of these older aces, but it isn’t here yet.

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Brian Schlosser

Rockies, Angels, and general baseball fan. I love talking about baseball more than I love writing about it, and I'm always open for discussion on Twitter @brian_slosh.

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