If someone told me a year ago that Erick Fedde would be a desirable starter on the free agent market in 2023, I probably would’ve laughed them out of the room. Then, I’d probably call them back and ask them what the next Powerball numbers were. I always have to cover my bases, just in case I happened to be speaking with a time traveler.
It’s been a truly remarkable renaissance for Fedde, who’s emerged as a star with the NC Dinos in South Korea. A year ago, he faced an uncertain future after the Nationals designated him for assignment. Washington was the only organization he had known since 2014 when the club selected him 18th overall out of UNLV.
It hadn’t always been smooth sailing for Fedde during his tenure in D.C. In the 102 games that Erick Fedde pitched for the Nationals, he had done little to prove himself as anything more than a fringe fifth starter at best.
In his six years in the majors, the former first-round pick amassed a paltry -0.3 wins above replacement. He also carried a career 5.41 ERA in that span, a mark that sits well above the league average. The results simply weren’t there for him, and neither was the repertoire.
With the Nationals, Fedde featured a four-pitch mix: a sinker, cutter, curveball, and changeup. His pitch shape, or the behavior of his pitches upon release, was below average for every single pitch in his repertoire. In simpler terms, this meant that it was much easier for hitters to anticipate the movement on his pitches, making it difficult for Fedde to miss bats and get chases consistently. It just wasn’t a major league arsenal.
When he threw strikes, he gave up hard contact, allowing a hard-hit rate in the 12th percentile in 2022. But when he missed the zone, he had a tendency to hand out way too many free passes to first. In his time in the majors, Fedde was walking over half as many batters as he was striking out. More often than not, when a player is struggling to limit walks, it’s usually due to a lack of chases rather than an issue of command, and that’s applicable to Fedde here.
When he was designated for assignment, Fedde was a pitcher with a weak repertoire and a complete inability to induce chases or whiffs. He was generating poor results because of it, giving up hard contact, and lots of it.
But in a single year in the KBO, Fedde was able to mitigate all of those issues. In 2023, he struck out over 200 batters, had a microscopic 2.00 ERA, and took home the Choi Dong-won Award, the KBO’s equivalent to the Cy Young.
By all accounts, Fedde was a mightily flawed pitcher with the Nationals, an assertion he likely wouldn’t disagree with. So, how was he able to become the best pitcher in the KBO in the span of a year? It was a simple fix, really. He just had to completely reinvent who he was with the Nationals.
There is something fundamentally flawed with how the Nationals develop players, and Erick Fedde is a perfect example of this. In an article for the Washington Post, Jesse Dougherty described Fedde’s journey following his release from the Nationals. He discusses how getting waived gave Fedde the opportunity to work with Push Performance in Scottsdale, Arizona, a training facility that helped him rehab his shoulder and revamp his arsenal. After observing Fedde, they were able to get him on a structured throwing program. Through this program, they were able to make changes to his mechanics to improve the shape on all of his pitches, giving him the tools he needed to become the star he is today.
It’s a truly inspiring story, but one that brings to mind several questions about the Nationals’ player development. Firstly, why weren’t these mechanical tweaks done sooner? If an outside facility was able to diagnose the issues with Fedde’s mechanics, shouldn’t the coaching staff of a professional baseball team be able to do the same? And what does this mean for the futures of the young pitchers who are currently on the Nationals roster?
Jim Hickey has been the Nationals pitching coach since 2021, hired primarily due to his connections with Davey Martinez. The pair worked alongside each other in Tampa from 2008 to 2014. In his tenure as the Nationals’ pitching coach, the team has finished 24th, 29th, and 27th in team ERA. I will concede that using ERA as the end all be all is a bit reductive. However, it’s still a good indicator of the progression, or lack thereof, being shown from Washington’s staff.
One could argue that the failures of the Nationals staff have more to do with the personnel than the coaching, and it would be difficult to discard that assertion entirely. But the fact is, the coaching staff is primarily responsible for putting the personnel in a position to succeed, and the Nationals are simply not doing so effectively.
In an interview on MLB Now in August, MacKenzie Gore was complimentary to Jim Hickey’s style of coaching, saying “he does a good job of keeping it simple for the young guys” by focusing on fundamentals on mound visits, rather than mechanics or pitch shape. Former Nationals reliever Steve Cishek echoed similar sentiments on his podcast with Brandon Kintzler, Call To The Pen, stating that Hickey was “about as old-school as it gets” in an episode with Sean Doolittle.
Hickey’s coaching style may be more player-friendly since it doesn’t require too much complexity. However, it’s emblematic of a greater struggle within the Nationals organization to embrace modernity. Since the sabermetric revolution, analytics have been much maligned for making the game more complex. But that’s only because baseball is a complex game, and making improvements at the highest level requires a great deal of understanding. Eschewing focus on mechanics and pitch shape is the exact reason why Fedde’s flaws were able to slip through the cracks when he was with the Nationals, unresolved until he went to an unaffiliated third-party facility.
Pitchers such as Josiah Gray and Gore shouldn’t need to outsource guidance on their mechanics from third-party facilities. In a modern organization, they wouldn’t need to. Everyone on the coaching staff would have the knowledge necessary to help them improve their pitch shapes. The Nationals’ hopes of returning to contention are riding on their young stable of pitchers. If this approach doesn’t change, there’s a very real possibility that they stagnate under this regime, and the team’s path to contention will start to look much murkier if that’s the case.
I have zero idea if Fedde’s going to be a successful major league starter in 2024. Perhaps Fedde will flop in his return to the States, like Josh Lindblom did in 2021. But if Fedde does continue to succeed with a new organization, then these questions will have to be raised again. And the answers might involve much more turnover than the Lerners are comfortable with.