5 Starting Pitchers Due for Improvement in 2016
Every year, there are pitchers who just can’t seem to catch a break. Whether it is bad luck with batted balls in play against them or getting little run support from their team, there are several different factors that can go wrong and distort the public’s opinion on a pitcher.
By taking a look at the pitchers with the largest discrepancies between their 2015 ERA and their 2015 Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA), we can gain a better understanding of which pitchers were victims of bad luck last year, rather than a decline in skill.
Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox
Rick Porcello's horrendous 2015 season made Boston look foolish for signing him to a four year, $82.5 million deal, but there is nowhere to go but up for Porcello entering 2016. Last season saw Porcello post a 4.92 ERA, which was the lowest of his career and the fourth-worst among qualified MLB starting pitchers. He also lost a career-high 15 games, while failing to reach double-digit wins for the first time in his career. It seems obvious that he is due for a bounce-back year, a theory which is offered some validation from a deeper look at the advanced stats.
Among qualified pitchers, Porcello had the largest difference between his 2015 ERA and his 2015 SIERA (3.73). His xFIP of 3.72 was right in line with his SIERA, and both line up with his numbers from 2014 -- a year in which he posted a career-best 3.43 ERA, as well as his third consecutive year with a sub-4.00 xFIP.
A big reason for Porcello's spike in ERA last season was his bloated batted average against on balls in play (BABIP), a common indicator of bad luck. Porcello's .332 BABIP was the fourth-highest in the Majors and much higher than his .310 BABIP over his six previous seasons.
Porcello's peripherals actually point to 2015 being one of his best seasons from a skills standpoint. His 20.2 percent strikeout rate (K%) was the highest of his career, while his 8.5 percent swinging strike rate (SwStr%) was the second-highest of his career. He also posted a 5.2 percent walk rate (BB%), which was the second-lowest of his career. His fastball clocked in at 91.3 miles per hour, on average, last year, which is right in line with his career average of 91.2, so there are no concerns with velocity either.
Another reason for optimism is Porcello's improved numbers following his return from a triceps injury late last year, as he posted a 3.14 ERA in his final eight starts. He attributed his success down the stretch to his return to a sinker-heavy approach on the mound -- which is backed up by the fact that he threw the sinker nearly half of the time over his last eight starts, as opposed to 34 percent prior to the triceps injury.
This led to a lot more weak contact, and as a result, more ground balls. The table below clearly shows that Porcello's ground ball percentage and fly ball percentage are more in line with the career numbers that have helped him post a 76-63 record before 2015. You'll notice a direct correlation between the stats. The more ground balls Porcello is able to induce, the fewer fly balls he allows and, consequently, the fewer home runs he allows.
|First 21 starts of 2015||43.4%||35.2%||1.48|
|Final 8 starts of 2015||51.2%||26.8%||0.78|
|208 career starts||51.3%||28.3%||0.98|
Boston scored the fourth-most runs in the Majors last season and figure to have one of the most imposing lineups again this season. Our nERD rankings list them as the seventh-best team entering 2016. If Porcello is able to avoid the bad luck that plagued him last season and return to the form he displayed over his final eight starts, he could be in line for one of his best seasons yet.
Yordano Ventura, Kansas City Royals
Everyone who expected Yordano Ventura to emerge as an ace for Kansas City last season was sorely disappointed by his 2015 season. The young flamethrower posted an ERA above four for the first time in his career and was demoted to Triple-A during the season. He also saw his fastball velocity dip for the second consecutive year, as his average four-seamer clocked in at only 95.6 miles per hour.
While everyone on the Ventura bandwagon was disappointed, advanced metrics actually point to 2015 being Ventura's best season from a statistical standpoint. His xFIP of 3.6 and SIERA of 3.69 were both career bests and indicate that his 4.08 ERA was somewhat misleading. His 2015 strikeout and walk rates were both career-bests too, as he jumped from a K% of 20.3 to 22.5 and his BB% fell from 8.8 to 8.4.
Ventura also improved his ground ball rate, as his 52.2 percent GB% ranked 14th among qualified starting pitchers. Keeping the ball on the ground will be a key to success for Ventura as he pitches with an elite defense behind him.
Another reason for optimism for Ventura entering 2016 is how he closed the season. He compiled a sparkling 2.38 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 11 starts. Perhaps not so coincidentally, those 11 starts occurred right after his demotion.
In addition to his steadily improving skill-set, Ventura's surroundings offer plenty of reason for excitement. He will be pitching in one of the most spacious parks in the league, in front of one of the best defenses, with an elite bullpen. Ventura is primed to take a major step forward in 2016.
Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants
Jeff Samardzija's one season with the White Sox was a disaster, as he posted a career-worst 4.96 ERA and had 11 starts with at 5-plus earned runs -- the most of such starts in the league. Samardzija admitted to some mechanical issues that led to pitch-tipping last season, which undoubtedly contributed to his struggles.
Another reason for Samardzija's 2015 woes was the move to the American League, where he pitched half of his games in a hitters' park. He posted a 5.33 ERA and a whopping 1.5 home runs allowed per nine innings at U.S. Cellular Field. He now will return to the lighter hitting National League and pitch half of his games at AT&T Park, which had the fewest balls leave the yard last season.
In addition to an improved stadium, Samardzija will benefit from a huge improvement in defense. FanGraphs ranked the White Sox as the league's worst defense in 2015, while San Francisco ranked second.
A look at Samardzija's SIERA compared to his ERA would suggest that he was a victim of some bad luck in 2015 too. He posted a SIERA of 4.18 and a xFIP of 4.31, both of which were significantly lower than his ERA.
It's certainly possible that Samardzija has seen a decline in skill, but it's also quite possible that the new park, team, and division will help him return to his 2011 through 2013 form (3.61 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 8.83 K/9 in 608 innings), if not get him closer to his standout 2014 effort (2.99 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.28 K/9 in 220 innings).
Raisel Iglesias, Cincinnati Reds
Raisel Iglesias is on everyone's radar after fanning more than one batter per inning last year -- highlighted by a stretch in late August during which he posted double-digit strikeouts in three straight starts, while allowing only 10 total hits. I'm here to tell you that Iglesias is actually better than his rookie numbers would show.
Iglesias posted a very impressive K% of 26.3 percent in his 16 starts last season, which ranked 10th in the Majors. His swinging strike rate of 11.7 percent makes his K% appear sustainable, as he ranked 17th among starting pitchers.
Another one of his strengths is his ability to induce ground balls, which is evidenced by his ground ball rate of 47.2 percent. If he is going to continue to be successful pitching in Great American Ballpark, it is important that he is able to avoid fly balls.
The peripherals point towards a quality pitcher with overpowering stuff, yet Iglesias posted a 4.15 ERA in his rookie season. So, what gives? Command isn't the issue; the rookie posted a 7.1 percent BB% and had only one game with more than three walks last season. Iglesias' xFIP and SIERA check out as well, sitting at 3.28 and 3.26 respectively. It's possible that his ERA was simply a product of bad luck and a small sample size.
Entering 2016, Iglesias has 95 innings of Big League experience under his belt and clearly possesses the skills to be a dominant strike out artist. If his ERA falls to the low three range as his advanced metrics predict it should, Iglesias could certainly establish himself as Cincinnati's ace.
Ian Kennedy, Kansas City Royals
Kansas City surprised many by shelling out big money to bring in Ian Kennedy this offseason, but digging a little deeper than Kennedy's base stats makes it easy to see why the Royals expect a bounce-back campaign from the former Cy Young candidate.
Kennedy's primary issue in 2015 was his susceptibility to the long ball. His 1.66 HR/9 was the worst of his career and ranked last among qualified starters. Kennedy has always struggled to keep the ball in the park, but he was certainly a victim of some bad luck last season.
His fly ball rate was actually lower in 2015 than his career average, while his ground ball rate was higher. So, what led to the massive home run total? Kennedy posted a home run to fly ball ratio of 17.2 percent, which is significantly higher than his career mark of 10.7 percent.
Some better luck on fly balls -- along with a move to Kauffman Stadium, the park with the fewest 2015 home runs in the American League, should lead to far fewer home runs allowed in 2016.
In addition to an improved stadium, Kennedy will benefit from a major improvement in defense. FanGraphs ranked the Padres as the league's second-worst defense in 2015, while Kansas City ranked first.
Kennedy also will enjoy more run support than he was offered in 2015, when he received just 3.27 runs support per nine innings, the third-worst mark in the league. Kansas City ranked seventh in the league in runs scored last year and appears poised to be one of the better offenses in baseball again in 2016.
Kennedy's struggles weren't due to a decline in talent, as he posted a strikeout rate of over 24 percent for the second consecutive season. His 24.4 percent K% ranked 19th among qualified starters last season. Kennedy's 10.3 percent swinging strike rate was the highest mark he's posted since 2009 with the Yankees. He clearly still possesses the filthy stuff that has resulted in six straight seasons of over 160 strikeouts.
Kennedy's SIERA and xFIP both suggest that he pitched better than his 4.28 ERA shows. His 2015 xFIP was 3.7, while his SIERA was 3.61.
Kennedy isn't likely ever to return to his 2011 form -- in which he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 198 strikeouts. He is almost certain to improve on his 2015 numbers, though, and could become the next name on a quickly growing list of players who have revived their careers in Kansas City.