Tyler The Creator (Of Bad Ratios)
It is not exactly a Red hot-take to say that Tyler Mahle’s 2022 performance has disappointed Cincinnati fans and fantasy managers thus far. In fact, after posting earned run averages of 3.59 and 3.75 over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the Red’s 6’3″ starting pitching is also very likely disappointed in his 2022 season.
His current ERA of 5.43 is the seventh-worst mark in the league among pitchers who’ve had at least 150 balls put in play so far. The six pitchers with worse marks are Elieser Hernandez, Patrick Corbin, German Marquez, Austin Gober, Joan Adon, and Charlie Morton. Except for Ground Chuck, these are not generally starting pitchers with whom you want to be grouped. So what’s going on? What exactly has Mahle been doing this year that’s made him so much less effective than he was over the two previous seasons?
So that’s not what one would expect to see. Even though Mahle sports a 2022 ERA nearly two runs higher than his 2020 ERA, and more than a run and half higher than his 2021 ERA, his batting average against, and his slugging percentage against are both nearly identical when comparing this year to last. Even more surprising, his expected average and slugging percentages against both align very closely to his actual numbers, and once also to his rates in those metrics from just last season. Yes, both 2021 and 2022 look a little worse than 2020 on that chart, but nowhere near the degree that would suggest an ERA of 5.43.
So the statistics on the table above are generally about the results of the contact a pitcher allows, and have failed to provide anything that looks like an explanation for Mahle’s struggles. Let’s take a closer look at his batted ball data, strikeout, and walk rates. Here we can see a couple of areas of legitimate concern, a eureka moment, and finally some comforting information.
First off, the areas of legitimate concern. Mahle’s walk rate has regressed well beyond his 2021 rate where it ranked right around league average and currently sits in the bottom fourth of qualified MLB pitchers. Also of concern is his shrinking strikeout rate, and increase in average exit velocity allowed. Granted the increase in average exit velocity is minor, but it fits a trend after the minor increase seen between 2020 and 2021.
His strikeout rate looks like a major concern since it’s dropped two consecutive seasons after peaking at almost 30% in 2020. His CSW% has also dipped and now sits at its lowest point since Mahle’s 2018 season when he posted an ERA of 4.98 over 112 innings. These are real performance issues, but none of those rates except BB% are much to worry about, nor are they all that dissimilar to his numbers during his previous seasons. Except one. His percentage of runners left on base.
It’s good that I do not bathe whilst writing because that LOB% is the kind of thing that would make even the most reserved mathematician jump out of the tub. The average strand rate in the major leagues is right around 73% So just about one of every four runners that reach base will come around to score. Over his 2020 and 2021 seasons, Mahle was just a little bit better than average at stranding runners, but in 2022 he’s been awful at it. Nearly 40% of the batters who have reached base against him have scored.
Some of that is Mahle’s fault to be sure. He is issuing more free passes, (almost one extra walk per game) and striking out fewer batters than he has in the past. He has also seen his groundball rate drop from 44% in 2021 to 36.7% this year, which is well below the MLB average of 45% and limits opportunities for double plays. That GB% when considered alongside the increase in average exit velocity and hard hit% makes his improvement in home run rate seem like an anomaly. But his HR/FB% currently sits at just 8.3%, less than half of his 17.4% career mark. He’s not getting BABIPed to death. He’s not allowing a lot of dingers, nor is he allowing an inordinate level of hard contact. He’s just not getting outs when he needs them.
A Beacon of Hope
By far the most optimistic data point on the board and the one to point to if you are a wide-eyed Reds fan, or currently roster Mahle on your fantasy team is his 3.86 xERA. It is also worth noting that Mahle’s season ERA has been adversely affected quite a bit by two horrendous performances @LAD and vs CHC in which he allowed a combined 15 earned runs over seven and two-third innings Despite his inflated walk rate and deflated strikeout rate, his expected ERA (as well as his FIP) are totally in line with his expected ERA and FIP from his two previous seasons. Even though his K% has dropped, it still places him in the top half of the league, as does his xBA, xSLG, whiff rate, barrel percentage, and hard-hit percentage! By almost any metric, Mahle still projects to be an above-average Major League starting pitcher.
It was more than a little surprising, but after wading through a lot of unhelpful data, a clearer image emerged. Mahle has not racked up strikeouts at his usual rate, and has issued more than his fair share of free passes, but has pitched better than his current 5.43 ERA and 1.39 whip would suggest. His strand rate should regress positively since he’s still good at striking out batters and limiting hard contact, and he’s carried an average to above-average strand rate up until this season. Also, he and the Reds as a team, have performed much better after a disastrous first month of the season. In fact, over his last six turns, Mahle has allowed three runs or fewer and stranded at least 75% of base runners in five of them.
Mahle also is due to hit free agency in 2024 and has a decent chance at being traded away from a rebuilding Cincinnati team which could be a huge boon since Great American Ball Park has increased offense to a greater degree than any other stadium in MLB over the last three seasons. I would strongly suggest trying to acquire Mahle soon, as his recently improved performance may mean the by-low window is starting to close.