6 Starting Pitchers Who Need a Bounce-Back Season in 2015
Earlier this week, I outlined five position players who desperately needed to put a disastrous 2014 behind them. Nick Swisher, Jay Bruce, Pedro Alvarez, Shin-Soo Choo, and Chris Davis all suffered terrible years last season after have established themselves as decent Major League players.
But the dreaded "season from hell" does not rely solely in the domain of the hitter. No, the hurler can also find himself in the middle of a year in which he can do nothing right as well. He gets hurt. His control leaves him. He suffers from terrible luck. He gets no run support.
These are six pitchers who had pretty terrible seasons last year and are looking to bounce back in 2015.
C.J. Wilson may have had a 4.51 ERA last year for the Los Angeles Angels, but he still had one damn fine head of hair.
Wilson's ERA was not a mirage. He sported a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 4.31, which indicates his ERA was right about where it should have been. Wilson's strikeout-to-walk rate and home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) were the worst they had been since 2008, which led to his high ERA. However, he actually posted a respectable nERD of 1.63, which was 62nd among Major League pitchers.
That means if Wilson were to pitch a 27-out game, he would give up 1.63 runs a game fewer than a league average pitcher. That being said, his 4.51 ERA was the highest it had been since '08 as well, following seasons with ERAs of 2.81, 3.35, 2.94, 3.83, and 3.39.
The two-time All Star is entering his age-34 season this year. And even though last year was his worst season in the last six, his strikeout rate of 7.7 batters per nine innings is right in line with his career averages. It was his control that abandoned him last year, leading the league in walks issued with 85 -- to go along with 17 homers given up.
It's possible age has caught up with him. The 2015 season will likely tell the tale.
Ricky Nolasco has never been a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, so a bounce-back season for him would not have to be something overwhelming. It only has to be a reversal of the ridiculously underwhelming season he put together in 2014.
Last year, Nolasco was among the worst pitchers in baseball, which was kind of a bummer for the Minnesota Twins, who signed him to a four-year, $49 million free agent contract before last season. He earned that contract by putting together a respectable 2013 campaign in which he put up an ERA of 3.70 and a FIP of 3.34 and was worth 3.1 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs (fWAR) in 199.1 innings.
In 2014, Nolasco was barely better than a replacement-level pitcher, posting an ERA of 5.38, with a FIP of 4.30, an fWAR of 1.2, and a nERD of 1.42, which was 96th among all Major League pitchers. Hitters batted .311 against him last year, although he did suffer from some bad luck due to a .351 batting average on balls in play (BAbip), far higher than the league average (.295).
However, Nolasco has always given up a lot of hits, 9.7 hits per nine for his career. And the only times in his career that he's had an ERA lower than 4.00 were in 2013 and 2008. So when we talk about a bounce-back season for Nolasco, we're really only talking about the kinds of numbers that can make him a viable number-four starter.
Clay Buchholz is tough to figure out. He's shown flashes of brilliance during his eight-year career with the Red Sox, and some believe it's still there. But the injury-prone right-hander suffered a terrible season in 2014, one in which he went 8-11 with a 5.24 ERA and a FIP of 4.01.
The man who once threw a no-hitter in his second career start has been an All-Star twice and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting in 2010 was simply too easy to hit last year, giving up 9.6 hits per nine innings and allowing opposing batters to hit .270 against him. The season before, albeit in just 16 starts, batters hit just .198 against him.
He truly is all over the place and has been wildly unpredictable. While he did manage to make 28 starts last year, they were often not very good. He's in the final year of a five-year, $30.5 million contract, and he could be singing his swan song in Boston if he doesn't stay healthy and get some guys out in 2015.
Cliff Lee was having a decent season in 2013 until his 35-year-old elbow decided to give way. When he was put on the disabled list for the first time in May, his ERA was 3.18, and it was 2.29 if you threw out his first start of the season when he gave up eight runs to the Texas Rangers. He made three starts in an attempt to come back from his first disabled list stint but had to shut it down on July 31 for the rest of the season.
Lee's strikeout rate of 20.5% was the lowest it had been since 2009, and he allowed batters to hit .295 against him. Much of that was aided by a poor Philadelphia defense that undoubtedly helped inflate a ridiculous .358 BAbip against him.
The big question for Lee heading into 2015 is not whether he can be an effective pitcher if he's healthy. It is the health itself that is the question.
Lee has logged 2156.2 innings on that left arm and elbow, and no one is sure that he will be effective again. The Phillies sure hope he is, as they would love to spin him to a contender in the summer for a couple of prospects. Not only that, Lee will make $25 million in this, the final year of his contract.
Perhaps it's the Phils, more than Lee, that need him to bounce back next season.
Is there anyone in baseball who had a more unexpectedly bad year than Detroit's Justin Verlander?
Among all qualified Major League pitchers last year, Verlander's 4.54 ERA was seventh-worst in all of baseball. He gave up 104 earned runs, second-most in the Majors. And once known as one of the most formidable strikeout pitchers in the game, his strikeout percentage last year of 17.8% was the lowest it had been since 2006.
Verlander enters the 2015 season as a 32-year-old hurler with 1978 innings under his belt, many of them with his throwing in the upper 90s. For the third straight season, his velocity took a hit with his fastball averaging 92.3 miles per hour. That was down from 93.3 miles per hour in 2013, 94.3 in 2012, and 95.0 in 2011.
Because of his declining velocity, he threw his fastball only 37.4% of the time last year, the lowest of his career. Compare that to 2009 when he threw it 67.2% of the time. He's tried to compensate by throwing his change-up, cutter, and slider more, but the results have been mixed.
The one positive about Verlander is that his FIP of 3.74 indicates he was a bit unlucky last season, and his fWAR of 3.3 was decent, if un-Verlander-like. His nERD of 1.90 was also better than his ERA would suggest, 23rd-best in MLB.
Verlander may never be a top-five Cy Young Award candidate again, and he almost certainly isn't going to be worth the $28 million he's owed each of the next five seasons. But if he can be a decent number-two or number-three starter for Detroit, they'd certainly be happy with that.
There weren't many players I was more wrong about in the off-season leading into 2014 than I was about Ubaldo Jimenez.
Before the season, Baltimore signed Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal, which I thought was a smart move. Uh, no.
Jimenez became an afterthought for an Orioles team that ran away with the American League East, despite his struggles. Their prized off-season acquisition made just 22 starts, pitched a mere 125.1 innings, and put up an ERA of 4.81, with a FIP of 4.67 and an fWAR of 0.5.
That was coming off a season in which Jimenez dominated for the Indians, with a 3.30 ERA, striking out 9.6 batters per nine and walking 3.9 per nine. Last year, his strikeout rate dropped to 8.3 batters per nine, and his walk rate exploded to 5.5 batters per nine. Opponents still hit only .239 against him, but he simply couldn't stop issuing bases on balls.
Time is still on his side, however. He'll be 31 next year and didn't pitch for most of the second half of the season for the O's, so his arm shouldn't be too taxed. It will be interesting to see if Jimenez is put into the rotation once again or if he'll be banished to the bullpen.
At $12.25 million next season, I'd certainly give him a chance to see if he can work out his control issues in the starting rotation.