MLB Players Bound to Improve: Pitchers Edition
These pitchers are better than their ERAs would have you believe, and it should only be a matter of time before they turn things around.
Last week, I wrote about hitters with significantly better expected metrics than traditional stats who should see their production rise soon. We’ve already seen some of those players have the best weeks of their year, as Christian Yelich went deep three times in two games, and Josh Naylor had a clutch eighth-inning home run in every game of the Guardians’ weekend series.
I’m not taking a full victory lap after one week, but the five players I discussed in that piece are way too talented not to improve, and they’re doing things the right way.
So, let’s flip the script and look at the other side of the ball. Pitching is harder to gauge this early in the season, as starters have only thrown a handful of games and relief pitching metrics can be heavily skewed by one bad appearance.
However, in many cases, players are much more talented than what they’ve shown to this point, and that can become clear when looking at expected numbers. While it can still be hard to judge fully, it’s fun to look ahead and get excited about players that should improve as the year goes on. Let’s get into it.
Stats: 46 IP, 3.91 ERA, 54 strikeouts, 29.5% strikeout rate, 4.9% walk rate
The Mariners’ pitching staff is on track to be one of the best in the league for many years to come. George Kirby broke out in a big way last season, and Bryce Miller has been unbelievable in his first three starts this season, but Logan Gilbert was the first of this new wave to debut and impress.
He showed promise in 2021 as a rookie but took a step forward last season. And while his current ERA of 3.91 is worse than his 3.20 mark during his sophomore campaign last year, he’s been a noticeably better pitcher.
Everything has improved for Gilbert, as his strikeout rate is up nearly 7%, his walk rate is down 1.5%, and he’s decreased the hard-hit rate against him by almost 6% this year. Last season, his expected metrics suggested he probably overperformed to some degree, but this year it’s been the exact opposite so far. His xERA is currently 2.94, nearly a point better than his actual, and he’s decreased all the hitting metrics against him. He’s been one of the better pitchers in the American League, despite what may seem like average stats at first glance.
Gilbert has made some adjustments to his pitch usage this season, as he’s increased the use of his curveball, which has generated ample whiffs, while decreasing how much he throws his four-seam fastball. He’s also gotten rid of his changeup in favor of a split-finger; of his 29 plate appearances that have ended with a splitter, 11 have been strikeouts.
He’s one of the more talented and unique young arms in the game, and he has developed in a positive way this season despite statistics that may not seem that way at the surface level.
Stats: 14.2 IP, 3.07 ERA, 19 strikeouts, 29.2% strikeout rate, 4.6% walk rate
The Marlins made a small move this winter when they flipped JJ Bleday for talented but oft-injured arm A.J. Puk. I have a feeling this trade is going to work out well for the Marlins if Puk is able to stay even remotely healthy.
Speaking of health, Puk recently hit the IL as I was in the process of writing this with a nerve issue in his throwing arm. This is scary given his lengthy history of arm issues, but it’s still worth discussing how impressive he’s been with the hope he’ll be back on the mound sooner than later.
Puk had a career year out of the bullpen for Oakland the season prior to the trade and was pitching substantively better to start this season than he did last year. While his ERA is at 3.07, his expected ERA is one of the best in the entire league at 2.09 through 15 games. His strikeout rate has risen marginally, while his walk rate has decreased by 3.5% so far. The fastball and slider combination has remained deadly, limiting the ability of hitters to pick up his pitches given his funky mechanics.
An additional factor that has led to Puk’s success is his improvement in limiting hard contact. He has only allowed one barrel this season, and he is sporting an expected batting average, expected slugging percentage, and expected wOBA in the 92nd percentile or better.
The issue for Puk continues to be his health, but he has the ability to be a legitimately elite closer with the stuff he’s shown so far this year.
Stats: 24.1 IP, 9.62 ERA, 21 strikeouts, 17.1% strikeout rate, 12.2% walk rate
Ok, I’m cheating a little bit and straying away from pitchers with promising expected stats. And this name may catch people off guard, as he’s not a popular arm in the league to many and has been downright terrible this season.
There is no metric I can provide that helps my case here, but I can say that I simply do not believe Suarez is one of the worst pitchers in the league. He’s been a consistently solid arm the past two seasons and is far from a guy with an ERA nearing double digits.
Nothing has gone right this year. Suarez’s location has been awful, as demonstrated by his huge walk rate, and he’s allowing much harder than he ever used to. In the past two seasons, he logged over 200 innings combined, with an ERA of 3.75 in 2021 and 3.96 in 2022. Things could not be more different this season.
He gave up five home runs in one game, walked six batters in another, and has allowed seven runs in half of his starts to this point. It’s been ugly. He has to get the command back on track for anything to begin working, as he’s walking far too many hitters and has nearly allowed as many home runs this season as he did in the entire 2021 campaign. His offspeed has been getting demolished as his slider has been one of the worst in baseball, with a run value of +6 through just six games.
While everything has been bad, it’s only six games, and one of his most recent starts against the Brewers resulted in five innings of no-run ball. He’s not an elite arm by any means, but Suarez is someone that has the ability to remain in the Angels rotation, and his improvement could become vital for the Angels’ hopes of finally competing with Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout.
Stats: 18 IP, 5.00 ERA, 34 strikeouts, 40% strikeout rate, 9.4% walk rate
We already mentioned one Mariners pitcher, but why not talk about another? The Mariners’ bullpen is filled with talent, but one of the nastiest options out there is 25-year-old Matt Brash. The former starter adjusted to a primarily relief role last season and has taken another step forward this year.
Yes, you’re reading the above numbers correctly. Brash’s ERA may make some question how good he is, but this is a perfect example of a sample size skewing a pitcher’s stats. He’s had a few rough outings that have spiked his ERA up, but his strikeout numbers and ability to miss bats are up there with the best pitchers in the league. Brash is toward the top of the entire league in whiff rate and strikeout rate, as his filthy slider is one of the best pitches in baseball.
The slider has registered a whiff rate of over 50% this season, and while Brash has some adjustments that need to be made in terms of his command that can get away from him at times, he could easily become one of the best back-end arms in the league over the next few years. The biggest issue for Brash has been the spotting of his fastball, as it’s been hit well this season. However, nothing is getting crushed, as he’s allowed just one barrel and his hard-hit rate allowed his dropped from last year.
Brash’s baseline numbers will get better, but it truly doesn’t even matter right now as his slider will allow him to continue striking out an unreal amount of batters. Brash will get better as the season goes on because any pitcher working with a strikeout rate even close to 40% and a walk rate under 10% is going to be an effective reliever. Oh, and Brash is in just his second season in the league!