Cubs fans haven’t had much to get excited about this winter. With Nicholas Castellanos signing with a division rival, the top and middle tier free agent market is officially dried up. All that’s left are bargain bin options that might be secretly valuable or entirely worthless. On Tuesday, the Cubs scooped up Jeremy Jeffress on a one-year deal worth just $850,000. After his stellar 2018 season, it would have been shocking to see him sign for this low. Coming off his 2019, however, it feels about right.
Before falling apart in the 2018 postseason, Jeffress turned in a career year. While his NL leading 1.29 ERA was mostly the product of a 92.9 percent left on base rate, he managed high-water marks in strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, FIP, DRA, and SIERA. He benefited from good fortune, but adjustments he made manufactured that good fortune. Before 2018, Jeffress predominately threw a sinker, and stop me if you’ve heard this one, but when he stopped throwing his sinker, his numbers got much, much better.
He continued throwing the splitter he developed in 2017 while relying more on his four seamer. Every pitch made the other play up. The adjustments couldn’t stave off collapse last season though. In 2019, Jeffress turned back into a pumpkin. His swinging strike percentage fell from 13.5 to 9.5, the fifth largest drop in baseball. His DRA nearly doubled.
Some of this was beyond his control. Jeffress’s left on base rate over-corrected and fell all the way to 63.8 and his BABIP against was .322. However, if Jeffress was lucky and better in 2018, Jeffress was unlucky and worse in 2019.
Jeffress’s fastballs typically sat between 95 and 97 mph, but in 2019, his average four seamer was just 94 mph.
A dip in velocity is the most obvious cause in a drop in strikeouts, and the hope for the Cubs is that the drop in heat was a blip caused by a shoulder injury at the end of Spring Training.
It wasn’t just that Jeffress allowed more contact in 2019, he also allowed better contact. His groundball percentage dropped from 56.4 to 48.4. Hitters had an easier time getting the ball airborne against Jeffress even if they didn’t succeed at taking him deep more often. Still, fewer strike outs led to more balls in play and more of those balls in play turned into line drives.
Jeffress might not have been able to do anything about his velocity, but he didn’t help himself with pitch selection. In general, Jeffress used his pitches about as frequently as he had the previous season, but when he used those pitches is equally important. In 2018, when Jeffress had the batter to two strikes, he used every pitch including his splitter more or less equally. In 2019, he inexplicably stuck to his fastballs when he had a chance to put the hitter away.
Jeremy Jeffress Pitch Usage with Two Strikes
Perhaps Jeffress didn’t feel as confident in his splitter or his curve, but it seems like a weird decision to stick to the fastballs when he can’t throw them as hard.
There’s no guarantee that Jeffress will be as good as he was in 2018—there’s a reason he was available for less than $1 million. However, it’s not impossible or even improbable that Jeffress can deal quality innings next year. Since the Ricketts have kept the Cubs from adding more consistent talent, low-risk, high-reward additions like this and Steven Souza Jr. are the next best option.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.