Going Deep: 2018’s Worst Fastballs
Our very own Ben Palmer has written a series of great articles highlighting the best of various pitch types ranked by pitch value. In a similar fashion, here we’ll simply survey some of the worst fastballs of 2018 according to pVAL.
A few quick caveats here: In order to get a decent sample size, the criteria here was a minimum of 100 innings thrown this past year. And in order to keep this relevant to the best of my ability, I’ve excluded those few who look to be on the outside looking in for a rotation spot as of this writing. So my condolences to fans of Sam Gaviglio, Francisco Liriano, and Homer Bailey. They would have featured prominently on this list, but alas, the capricious flights of fortune have them on the periphery as of this writing.
With regard to pitch values, they are largely used out of convenience here. As noted on RotoGraphs by Alex Chamberlain, pitch values have limited predictive value and are, of course, far from the be-all and end-all. Context is always crucial. In short, there are many other things that can and should be looked at when evaluating pitcher performance. Here, the goal is to observe the fastballs from this past year that had the worst results. Without further ado and in no particular order, here are some of 2018’s undeniably deplorable fastballs.
Ever since injuring his elbow back in 2014, Matt Moore has struggled mightily in recapturing his early-career magic. The results with the fastball this past year were just downright dreadful. The pitch allowed a .428 wOBA (.442 xwOBA and 92.5 mph average exit velocity) along with a .330 batting average and 11 home runs. All told, the fastball had an unsightly -15.1 pVAL. Just unbelievably dreadful. Moore’s fastball has been a proverbial punching bag for really the past three years. In 2017 across 174.1 innings, the fastball allowed 18 home runs and a .398 wOBA (.429 xwOBA).
Despite the 6.79 ERA and the disastrous results with the fastball, it wasn’t all bad with Moore. His changeup was surprisingly good. It was one of the more surprising Money Pitches of 2018. Still, Moore was batting practice personified this past year with bottom 5% marks in expected wOBA, hard hit rate, and expected batting average. He’ll have a chance to eat innings for a Tigers rotation facing a dearth of talent heading into 2019.
The once-heralded pitching prospect struggled mightily in his first full season, posting a pretty dreadful 4.5% K-BB% and 5.37 SIERA. You can certainly point to his fastball as a source of his struggles. It was particularly bad against LHB, who pasted it for a .406 wOBA (.434 xwOBA). In total, it allowed 14 home runs and featured a feeble 4.7% swinging-strike rate while tallying a pitch value of -13.5. The curious case with Lucas Giolito is that he was billed as having a big fastball, but it sat at a pretty pedestrian 92.4 mph in 2018.
His slider, however, showed some solid improvement with a 15.9% swinging-strike rate (10.9% in 2017), a 35.4% chase rate (24.1% in 2017) and a very good 40.3% zone rate. Regardless, the results as a whole were so bad this past year that Giolito is little more than a late-round flier in upcoming redrafts.
Like Elton John sang many, many decades ago, “The King Must Die.” OK, I don’t mean that literally, of course. But the King’s Court in Seattle is all but devoid of cheers these days. Felix Hernandez‘s once prodigious-skills have been circling the drain for the past couple years now.
In complete fairness, I don’t think anyone enjoys watching a former star fade into oblivion. But that looks to be the unfortunate truth.
Here he is coughing up a gopher ball to noodle bat extraordinaire Travis Jankowski. It doesn’t get much worse than that. Unless your name is James Shields and your adversary is the Ageless One. For the first time in his career, Hernandez’s sinker’s average velocity was lower than 90 mph at 89.2. Now the interesting thing here is that considering his sinker was also bad in 2017 (.415 wOBA allowed and 8.9% whiff rate), he actually opted to use it more in 2018 (32.4% in 2018 and 22.4% in 2017). The results this year were just bad, including a .410 wOBA allowed (.388 xWOBA), 90.9 mph average exit velocity and an ugly -12.8 pVAL. After 23 starts and a career-high 5.73 ERA, King Felix was unceremoniously jettisoned to the bullpen. Mariners GM Dipoto recently revealed that Hernandez, who is in the final year of his contract, will be a part of the rotation again in 2019.
It’s pretty clear that Hernandez needs to change how he pitches at this point in his career. Continued reliance on the sinker doesn’t appear to be the way to go. C.C. Sabathia was at a similar crossroads in his career when he adopted the use of a cutter, and it salvaged his value as a starter. It’s entirely speculative, but perhaps Hernandez will look to alter his arsenal and approach in a similar fashion as he enters his final year before free agency.
As a changeup specialist, Marco Estrada really relies on his fastball in order to be effective. Well, the fastball this past year was anything but effective as it allowed a .391 wOBA, 19 home runs and tallied a -10.8 pVAL. Worth noting here too that Estrada lost some velocity off his fastball from 89.8 mph in 2017 down to 88.5 last year. Estrada is no stranger to giving up home runs as his fastball also coughed up 15 home runs in 2017. But it was just far less effective overall in 2018; its .391 wOBA allowed was its highest mark since 2010 (he only threw 11 innings that year). Prior to 2018 and excluding 2008-2010, when he only threw a handful of innings, the highest wOBA the fastball had previously allowed was .360 in 2014, which was also the last time it was charged with a negative pVAL.
Being an extreme fly-ball pitcher, Estrada could possibly stand to benefit moving to Oakland, which has been a noticeably below average park for home runs. He’s about as unexciting as it gets, but there could be some appeal in very deep leagues as an innings eater now pitching in a stadium with an expansive foul ground.
This is a tough one for me. I really like Jon Gray’s stuff, but you simply can’t deny how bad the fastball and its ghastly -15 pVAL were last year. The batted-ball results were none too kind, including a .402 wOBA (.370 xwOBA) and .325 batting average allowed. Though keep in mind his fastball also allowed a .329 batting average and .385 wOBA (.362 xwOBA) in 2017 so those marks at least weren’t incredibly different last year. However, the fastball’s average exit velocity did jump up from 88.3 mph in 2017 to 90.6 mph last year. Another interesting thing here is that despite a drop in average velocity from 96 mph in 2017 to 94.6 mph in 2018 Gray actually got more swings and misses with his fastball this year with a 6.4% swinging-strike rate and 17.5% whiff rate as opposed to 4.2% and 12.6%, respectively, in 2017. It’s also worth noting that Gray did throw his fastball a little less in 2018 at 49.6% as opposed to 56.2% in 2017.
Having decried his fastball, I’ll say he’s an interesting buy-back option in redrafts this year as the swing-and-miss stuff is there. Both his curve and slider had swinging-strike rates higher than 18% last year. But the start-to-start volatility will probably push most of his owners to the brink.
Poor Orioles. The Baltimore pitching staff became a veritable slot machine for DFS enthusiasts last year. Exhibit A was Andrew Cashner. For one glorious season, Cashner had a strikeout rate above 20%. But that was many moons ago in 2015. It’s been downhill ever since. His sinker, owner of a cringe-worthy 2.3% swinging-strike rate, was the absolute antithesis of a Money Pitch. It allowed a .401 wOBA and .329 batting average. Interestingly it was an effective pitch in 2017 when he threw it much more often at 54.7%. That year’s iteration allowed just a .318 wOBA and .269 batting average and was good for an impressive 12 pVAL. Favorable batted-ball variance may have played a role there. Regardless, there’s not much more to say about Cashner — he’s an innings eater with next to no strikeout ability. You’re excited to see your hitters lined up against him, but that’s about it.
For as awesome as Trevor Richard’s changeup was — and it was simply scintillating with a 52.3% chase rate, 36.5% zone rate and a 24.2% swinging-strike rate — the fastball was just as bad. Sitting at 90.7 mph and featuring a meager 3.5% swinging-strike rate, it was crushed to the tune of a .396 wOBA and .310 batting average. Overall a -14 pitch value. Ouch. It had the distinction of delivering Victor Robles’ first career home run as you can see above. So that’s something.
Yes, the fastball was bad, but considering the changeup, there could be some intrigue here. Curtailing 2018’s ugly 9.9% walk rate is key. But it’s worth noting he had just a 2.7% walk rate across 39.1 IP in AAA last year and a 5.7% walk rate across 75.1 IP in AA back in 2017, so last year’s walk rate seems a bit uncharacteristic. There’s probably not a ton of upside here because he has just one good pitch, but he’s got a rotation spot, has shown some strikeout ability, and he’s basically free right now with an NFBC ADP of 437.
Incoming understatement: It was a rough year for one Dylan Bundy. He allowed 41 home runs. Forty-one! May 8 was a day that will live in infamy for Bundy. On that date, he coughed up back-to-back-to-back home runs, including the one to Salvador Perez seen above. The final line? Seven earned runs, five hits, two walks and not a single out recorded. An unmitigated disaster. The results with the Bundy fastball were simply repugnant to the Nth degree. It allowed a .304 batting average, a wOBA of .402 along with a whopping 20 home runs, all the while accumulating a pVAL of -13.7. For reference, in 2017, his fastball allowed 10 home runs in just about the same number of innings. Luckily for Bundy, he has the slider, which was still an excellent whiff pitch (25.5% swinging-strike rate) for him this past year.
Bundy is an interesting target heading into 2019. In 2018 overall, he allowed a wOBA of .363 while his xwOBA was noticeably lower at .322. That’s a difference of .041, which was one of the highest wOBA-xwOBA differentials on the board last year, so perhaps there could be some positive regression headed his way in 2019. Camden Yards certainly won’t do him any favors, but it seems both cruel and unusual to expect him to repeat last year’s gaudy 17.8% HR/FB rate. At the very least, he’s a nice source of strikeouts at a depressed NFBC ADP of 288.
Something has to give here. From 2016-2018, here are the pitch values of Jordan Zimmermann’s four-seamer: -14.9, -23.3 (!!!), -12.7. Here are the batting averages it has allowed from 2016-2018: .342, .337, .313. And wOBA: .419, .415, .411. His fastball declined noticeably this past year in both average velocity (91.1 mph) and swinging-strike rate (3.7%). Not good. And yet Zimmermann is still throwing it more than 40% of the time. Sisyphus called, and he would very much like his boulder back. I don’t think this is what the Tigers had in mind when they inked Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million dollar contract following the 2015 season. Sorry, Tiger fans. Two more years.
Oh no. Not another Oriole. After giving up 22 runs across five June starts, David Hess was banished to AAA Norfolk in early July. A few short weeks later though, and the Hess truck was back. And to his credit better than ever, or at the very least better than June. He had a 3.54 ERA across five starts during the month of August. So the results on the surface were at least a little better. What was decidedly unimpressive though was the Hess Express. The fastball allowed a .291 batting average, .391 wOBA (.383 xwOBA), and 13 home runs and featured a meager 5.4% swinging-strike rate. All told, a pitch value of -11.
Bonus: Chris Archer
Finishing just outside the top 10 here was Chris Archer,whose fastball tallied a -9.4 pVAL last year. It’s been a net negative with regard to pitch value for the past three years now. It allowed its highest wOBA of the past three seasons at .387 last year (.385 in 2016). The interesting thing to note here with Archer though is that for the first time in his career, he actually threw his slider more than his fastball at 41.7%. It’ll be interesting to watch this potential trend with Archer now entering his first full year in Pittsburgh, where they’ve had a reputation for emphasizing slider usage.
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)