April is always a weird month because the sample sizes are small. That being said, quite a few of the league’s best pitchers have been performing poorly so far, and to the degree that I can’t cover them all here. Neil Paine did a great job of writing about Chris Sale over at FiveThirtyEight, and I suspect Jacob deGrom’s latest struggles are due to injury, so I decided to bypass them both. Today we’ll look at Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, and Aaron Nola.
He has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since 2013, is likely to go into the Hall of Fame some day, and is coming off what was arguably the best season of his career. His 2.69 RA9, 34.6 K%, and 8.7 WAR were all career highs, and his 5.9 BB% was second only to his 2015 rate of 3.8 percent. He also did all that while leading the league with 220 2⁄3 IP. If it were not for Jacob deGrom’s superhuman performance last year, Scherzer would have won his third consecutive Cy Young award, and fourth overall.
This season, Scherzer appears to be struggling, or at least it looks that way on the surface. Over six starts, he has a 4.58 RA9, which would be fine for anyone of course, but not for Scherzer. His RA9 from 2013-2018 is 2.96! He has not had an RA9 over 4.00 since 2011, the year before he started to break out.
The thing is that it does not look like Scherzer is doing anything differently. His velocity and strikeout rates have not changed, nor has his home run rate, which is really saying something with the juiced balls out there. Moreover, his 3.1 percent walk rate is leading the league among qualified pitchers! If we look at his pitch usages at Brooks Baseball, there is not much there, either. He is using his slider a little more at the expense of his cutter, but that’s about it.
It is difficult to draw any other conclusion than he has been terribly unlucky so far this season, with a low strand rate and a .372 BABIP. Scherzer is also being plagued by what has so far been one of the worst defenses in baseball, ranking in the bottom five by both DRS and UZR.
It is still too early for Baseball Prospectus to come out with its DRA values for this year, but we still have FIP. Scherzer’s 2.24 FIP is the best in baseball among qualified pitchers. He is just barely in front of James Paxton, who, coincidentally, has also suffered from a high BABIP and poor defense.
I can see how Kluber’s struggles could surprise some, but it really is not that surprising. Granted he is coming off another excellent season where he had a 3.14 RA9 and 4.0 BB%, and he won a Cy Young award the year before that, but he recently turned 33 years old. There were rumors that the Indians were shopping him around this past offseason, so perhaps they saw signs that this could be coming.
Kluber has a horrific 6.68 RA9 this season. I never thought I would see Kluber as a sub-replacement level player, at least not this soon, but he is currently sitting at -0.4 WAR. His strikeout rate is under 24 percent, which is roughly league average, though despite his reputation as an ace, he was never a very high strikeout pitcher outside of 2017. What is really concerning is that Kluber’s formerly masterful command seems to have abandoned him. He has gone from having some of the best walk rates in baseball to walking over 10 percent of batters faced.
The good news is that Kluber’s velocity has not changed, but his pitch usage has not changed much either. He is relying on his fourseamer a little more, and his sinker a bit less, which is not a change that explains his poor performance to date. In fact, hitters have been teeing off on both pitches.
Similarly to Scherzer, Kluber has been plagued by a high BABIP (.363) and low strand rates. Unlike with Scherzer, however, Cleveland’s defense has been fine, and it is going to get better now that my fellow boricua Francisco Lindor is back.
I strongly believe that Kluber will see some positive regression this season, but it is hard not to be concerned. Even if this is just the result of an undisclosed injury, Kluber is likely in a decline phase anyway due to his age.
Nola was always seen as a high-floor/low-ceiling prospect when the Phillies drafted him seventh overall in 2014. He completely blew away those expectations by becoming one of the best pitchers in baseball last year. He had an outstanding 2.42 RA9 and led the majors with 10.5 WAR. Allowing so few runs despite the Phillies dumpster fire of a defense was especially impressive, though DRA indicated that the defense was not as bad when Nola pitched.
This year, Nola has an awful 5.97 RA9, and as you might have guessed, Nola is suffering from a high .345 BABIP, and the Phillies’ defense is still a wreck. One would think that kicking Rhys Hoskins out of the outfield would help that, and it has, but the Phillies defense has still been really bad.
Nola’s strikeout rates is down, and his walk rate is up. What has really shot up, however, is his home run rate. The juiced ball is just killing him, as he has given up seven home runs so far for a sky-high 25 percent HR/FB ratio. He has given up home runs on a whopping 5.0 percent of hitters faced. To put that in context, the league average among starters is 3.6 percent. Now to be fair, two of those home runs came against the Nationals at home in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, while another two came in Colorado, which is the quintessential hitter-friendly ballpark. There are no changes with Nola’s velocity, nor are there major changes in his pitch usages.
As evidenced by his 5.41 FIP, his peripherals have been quite poor, but that is mostly driven by his abysmal home run rate so far. I would never have pegged Nola to repeat his 2018 season, but perhaps he can repeat his 2017 season. I am cautiously optimistic that he will, but I am also a little concerned that this juiced ball might screw him over. One of the most difficult things about being a pitcher in the last few years is that no matter how hard you work, you can’t plan for the baseball changing.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.