While there have been many dominant pitch performances so far this season, some of the biggest names in the position have been left out of the fun. Lucas Giolito, Luis Castillo, Kenta maeda and Kyle hendricks has been flattened out badly early, while even an elite arm like Shane Bieber have hit a bump in the road too late. When you look at other people’s jugs dominating, it’s easy to panic about your tired knobs and to get around for explanations.
One explanation I’ve seen thrown out there by some of our readers and listeners is that due to changes in the composition of baseball that were used this season, maybe some boxes are just struggling to get a feel for their best pitches. This is a reasonable assumption – we saw something similar back in 2019 with boys like Masahiro Tanaka and Edwin diaz struggling with its best paths – but I have seen some suggest that it may be specifically related to change. After all, Giolito, Castillo, Maeda and Hendricks all count a change among their signature offerings. Maybe the new ball just makes changes less effective in general, for some reason.
It does not seem to be that simple explanation at all. For the league as a whole, the use of change is slightly lower from 11.8% to 11.6%, which is still higher than any other season in the last decade (at least). The expected wOBA allowed on the course is .290, which is actually lower than both 2019 and 2020, while the actual wOBA on the course is down to .275 – the previous low in the last decade was .287, back in 2014.
The overall fluctuating strike price of gears is slightly down, from 16.1% in 2020 to 15.4% in 2021, and the whiff / swing rate is down from 31.9% to 30.6%. So by and large, updates may have been a little less effective as swing-and-miss courses than they were last season, but there is not necessarily evidence that it is a “start-up problem”, so to speak.
The high-profile pitchers who have struggled with their runs stand out, and it is quite possible that some changes in the ball have made them easily struggle to throw the pitch effectively. But it is not the case that replays are the only pitch-profiled pitchers that struggle.
For example, while Giolito has not been the guy we expected, it is not his signature change that has been the problem so far: it has been his slider. And although Castillo’s change has not been as dominant as we are used to seeing, it has still been a very good pitch; it is his fastball, and especially his slower, that has been completely shaken.
And they are not alone. I compared FanGraphs.com’s pitch value data from 2020 to 2021 to identify high-profile pitchers who have at least so far been let down by some of their go-to pitches. Here are some of the key names, the tones that have not been as effective as normal for them, and whether there is really cause for concern:
- We break down other struggling players included Lucas Giolito and what to do with them on the latest Fantasy Baseball Today podcast. You can subscribe to make sure you get the latest episodes when they fall on apple and Spotify.
Lucas Giolito – Slider
Giolito’s slider is certainly his No. 3 pitch, but it’s an important part of his arsenal to put away right-handed hitters – he has thrown the slider 28% of the time against right-handers in two strike counts, compared to 25% for his signature change. Giolito has been better against left-handed hitters ever since the outbreak, but he allowed a .224 / .293 / .387 line to right-handers with a strike percentage of 32.9% against them in 2019 and 2020 combined; right-hander hits .259 / .310 / .556 with an outcome rate of 27.6% against him this season. That explains a lot of his fight because his streak on the slider has dropped from 52.6% in 2020 to just 30.8% in 2021. He throws the court harder this season and is less let go while the fastball and the gearbox mostly look the same, which may help explain why it has not been as effective. This seems like a relatively small solution for Giolito, who has shown the ability to tamper with the season before, and I’m not at all worried about his chances of finding out.
Luis Castillo – Speed ball, exchange
Given how much the courts play each other, it’s not surprising that both Castillo’s fast balls and his upshift have been less effective, and since he throws them around 85% of the time, it’s a problem. Though, as I said earlier, Castillo’s upshift has actually still been a very good pitch for him – a .300 wOBA and .254 xwOBA are not pretty what we have expected – and the whiff rate of 26.2% is well south of expectations, which helps explain much of his strike problem – but it has still been a very effective pitch for him. The problem is first and foremost the sinker, which has been smashed for four homers and a .923 slugging percentage. His average speed is down to 1.4 km / h from 2020, which has been the cause of alarm, but it is only 0.4 down from 2019, when it was not so much of a problem.
This has been an incredibly worrying start for Castillo, to be sure, and the fact that he spent only 12.8% of his time growing up in his last start is particularly worrying – if he does not trust that path, Castillo is not coming to become an effective starter kit. However, his seats generally do not see so much different – the speed is not dramatically lower, and the motion and spin profiles look pretty much the same – which makes me think that this is more of a performance problem than a tone problem. Maybe he’s tipping the track. Maybe his mechanics are just off. In any case, without any obvious explanation, I will continue to assume that Castillo will be good in the long run. I still put buy-low offers out there.
Kenta maeda – Quick ball, slider, splitter
Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? In Maeda’s case, as with Castillo, the slider and splitter have not actually been bad, they have just been less effective than during the year. However, there is also a bit of bad luck involved here: Maeda has allowed a .387 wOBA to opposing hitters compared to a .353 xwOBA. That xwOBA will still be the worst of his career by a large margin, but that’s not exactly good news. Maeda is older than you think at 33, and it is not unreasonable to think that he might have just rejected at this point. But this is such a steep decline without much explanation – speed, spin speed and movement profiles of his orbits look pretty much as they should – that I am willing to continue to assume that he will turn things around.
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Kyle hendricks – Quick ball, curveball, rebound
Throughout his career, Hendricks’ calling cards have been his ability to limit contact damage, so he continually confused projection systems and skeptics despite his mediocre strike rate. That has not been the case this season, as he has a .423 expected wOBA at contact, compared to a .339 career mark – the average is .363 for the league. Even in his very good start on Sunday against the Tigers, Hendricks allowed 12 shots with an exit speed of over 95 km / h. Many of the balls were hit on the ground, which helped limit the damage, but he is still not quite right.
Four-stitch fastball has been his worst pitch – the opponent’s hits hitting 1,037 against the court – but growing up is the biggest concern because it has been his best pitch historically. That has not been the case this season, and even on Sunday he allowed an average starting speed of 92.9 mph on eight shots on the field. As with the others here, there is not really an obvious explanation for why Hendrick’s signature height has not worked for him. He gets a little less difference in speed between change and fastball – 6.9 mph compared to 7.6 last season – but it is not so dramatic that you expect such a difference in results.
My guess is that, as with Castillo and Maeda, Hendricks does not perform his courses as well as he usually does, but it is also worth considering that Hendricks’ profile may not give him much margin of error. Because he allows so many balls into play due to his low tee rate, he must be elite when it comes to limiting contact injuries to be the kind of must-start Fantasy jar he has been in the past. While some like Trevor Bauer can afford to lose some points with strike percentage or allow a little harder contact because he excels in both areas, Hendricks really only has one trick. This season, the trick has not been as effective, and it’s a little harder to believe that he will be well than everyone else here.
Shane Bieber – Quick ball, cutter, curveball, upgrade
Wait, how can Bieber have a 3.17 ERA while getting worse results most of his seats? 2020 was a pretty ridiculously deviant season for him, so regression across the board was to be expected. It’s actually not as bad as the list of courses makes it sound, but there have been some real changes here that are worth noting. In 2020, he threw his cutter 16.2% of the time and his slider 11.6% of the time, per StatCast, and they were clearly two different paths; this season, StatCast has that Bieber throws his slider 26.6% of the time and his cutter only 2.3% of the time. However, it seems that the two courses merge into one – his pushing speed is up 1.5 mph (his total fastball speed is down 1.2 mph) while he has lost a significant fall on the course.
The slider has been Bieber’s best pitch so far, so this is not one problem, especially since it’s not like his cutter was this dominant course in 2020. However, Bieber has an 8.7% walking frequency, the highest in his career, and I wonder if trading a cutter for sliders can play a role in that. The slider is a better turn and lacks pitch, but the extra movement probably makes it harder to command.
Bieber throws the basket ball and slider 58.2% of the time, up from 37.9% in 2020, but he does not actually give many more turns and misses, overall his allowable contact rate is a little up to 63.9%. And while he has generally been excellent, there have been some bumps in the road recently that have caused confusion among some of you in our Twitter reviews and in our mailboxes.
All in all, there is really nothing to worry about with Bieber, who continues to profile himself as one of the very best pitchers in baseball. But he has made some changes to the approach that, at least so far, have made him a worse pitcher than he was in 2020. He was never going to maintain 2020’s dominance, but there may be more gaps between Bieber and Gerrit Cole (and a healthy Jacob deGrom) at the top of the SP rankings if current trends continue.